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Rude Food: The Age of Variety

Our changing tastes in food and ambience are showing up in restaurants all over the country. Here’s what’s becoming an almost annual roundup of current food trends and of what to expect in the coming year.

brunch Updated: Dec 31, 2011 17:09 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Our changing tastes in food and ambience are showing up in restaurants all over the country.

Here’s what’s becoming an almost annual roundup of current food trends and of what to expect in the coming year. I understand that some of this may seem repetitive but remember that trends take several years to unfold and that they don’t begin and end with the calendar.

South Indian food
The obvious growth area. In the first wave, south Indian food conquered the country with idli-dosa places. The second wave was the rise of seafood places with vaguely if not entirely authentic (i.e. Trishna) coastal reference points.

My guess is that we will now go beyond the ethnic (Gajalee, Mahesh Lunch Home etc) kind of place and have mainstream restaurants that serve non-vegetarian south Indian food in a fun ambience.

It’s already happening in Delhi with the Zambar chain and as more Zambars open in Pune, Bombay and elsewhere, they will probably be joined by others.

Southern spice: Now mainstream restaurants will serve non-vegetarian south Indian food in a fun ambience. It’s already happening in Delhi with the Zambar chain

Modern Indian
Already established as a successful trend despite some false starts (the first menu at Veda etc), this is certain to gather steam. Vineet Bhatia’s Ziya at the Bombay Oberoi is slowly finding its feet, Hemant Oberoi’s Varq packs them out every night in Delhi and once Foodistan goes on the air in late January I suspect that such chefs as Manish Mehrotra will emerge as the most widely recognised superstars of Indian cuisine. (Till then, Manish’s Indian Accent flourishes in Delhi anyway).

But the single best modern Indian meal I had in 2011 was not at any of the better known places but at Amaranta at the Oberoi in Gurgaon. The food was brilliant and the flavours were authentic. This is the best Indian restaurant the Oberois have ever run.

Variety on a platter: Delhi’s restaurant phenomenon of the moment is still Setz (above) which serves food from multiple kitchens

Chefs are slowly coming to terms with the fact that the people with the money tend to be those who don’t eat meat. This is especially true of Bombay, Calcutta and the south. But while some restaurants such as Calcutta and Bombay’s Souk are specifically targeted at vegetarians, there is still a need for purely vegetarian restaurants because many vegetarians feel uncomfortable eating at places where meat is served.

The ITC chain is launching an all-vegetarian brand of restaurants called Royal Vega and I suspect the trend will catch on.

Authentic Chinese
The big restaurant trend of the last few years has been the growth of restaurants that serve real Chinese food. The Hyatt’s massively influential China Kitchen took authentic flavours to a new audience and there have been many other breakthroughs Royal China in Delhi and now the branches of Hakkasan and Yauatcha in Bombay.

I was sitting with Nelson Wang the other day and though he is the man who invented Chicken Manchurian, Nelson feels that audience tastes are changing and that stand-alone restaurateurs cannot ignore the new wave of authentic Chinese restaurants with expat chefs. (For the record, Nelson rates the Delhi Royal China over its Bombay siblings.)

What’s interesting is that with a few exceptions you can now get better Chinese food outside the hotels than you can inside them.

For years, we thought the category was dying but it has received a fillip recently with the success of such places as Le Cirque in Delhi. I was there last week and despite the absurdly overdone pricing, the restaurant was packed and people were waiting for tables. (I counted 106 covers.)

What was most interesting for me was that many of the guests had travelled a long way to get to south Delhi. If Le Cirque can successfully interest the west Delhi rich in authentic French/Italian food, then clearly there is a nouveau market that the other chains have missed.

Outside of Delhi, the Taj is about to launch an Italian Riviera cuisine place in Bombay and ITC will open a classy Italian in Madras. Meanwhile, Bangalore continues to enjoy quality European cuisine. So the trend spreads across the country.

Trendy cafes
The two most difficult reservations in Bombay and Delhi are both stand-alone café-type restaurants with a relaxed ambience but serious food. In Delhi, you have to beg for a table at lunch at Café Diva and in Bombay, The Table is the hottest restaurant in town.

Both offer the same kind of experience: sophistication without a five star hotel touch and an eclectic menu of food that is up to international standards.
This is probably the future, far away from five star coffee shops which are beginning to seem dated nowadays.

Okay, the verdict is in. For years restaurateurs have been astonished by the Indian fascination with Japanese food; something nobody had predicted.

But we now know that this is misleading. Indians don’t really like Japanese food. A tiny minority of rich people wants a Nobu-type experience (hence Wasabi or Megu) but for most diners, the interest is restricted to sushi which they love.

The parallel is with Italian food. Just because people love pizza it does not follow that they have any interest in real Italian cuisine. So it is with Japanese. Just as Italian food in India means pizza-pasta, Japanese food in India means sushi-sashimi.

The lesson from all this is that you don’t need to open a Japanese restaurant to satisfy this demand. You can just open a sushi counter at any casual restaurant.

Yes I know. We’ve been talking about the wine boom for decades but we don’t seem to be any nearer the experience of China which has now emerged as one of the world’s greatest wine markets.

One of the problems is that various state governments impose absurd laws and duties which are then exploited by corrupt excise officials. It is almost impossible to make money selling wine in India if you are an honest merchant.

Even so, you have to be blind not to notice that a wine revolution is in progress. Last week I wandered into my grocer’s in Defence Colony (Godrej Nature’s Basket) and was astonished to find that they were conducting a wine-tasting (with Riedel glasses, no less) to huge public interest. You can now buy reasonably priced wine at many non-traditional outlets, people take bottles of wine to parties and most people keep wine at home. None of this was true five years ago.

Part of the reason why the revolution has still not taken off to the extent many predicted is because most Indian wine is not very good. (Please note: I have not used the word crap.) But this may be changing. The other day, I tried white wine from the Fratelli vineyard (a collaboration between Italians and Indians in Maharashtra) and was astonished to find that it did not have that characteristic second-rate taste of most Indian wines. So it is possible to make good wine in Maharashtra despite some of the rubbish I have tasted.

If Fratelli can keep this up and if others can match up to those standards then the revolution may move into its second phase.

The slow death of Punjabi restaurant cuisine
We don’t necessarily recognise this but the entire restaurant sector in India was created by Punjabis (from Kwality to Gaylord to Pandara Road to Churchgate Street to Connaught Place to the Oberois) who were content to serve the kind of food they would never eat at home but put on their menu. Even the kebab-tandoori explosion was created by Punjabis (Moti Mahal) and survives because of Bukhara.

But I suspect that people are tiring of the old Punjabi restaurant formula. The stand-alone restaurants find it difficult to survive in these days of high rents and a new sector has opened up with mall dining. Nor are people that interested in the old style of Punjabi restaurant food.

Rahul Akerkar who runs the massively influential Indigo in Bombay has turned his formerly European Tote restaurant at the racecourse into an Indian place called Neel.

What’s significant is that Rahul’s reference point is Lucknow, not the Punjab. The restaurant is doing very well and the people of Bombay who have no real experience of Awadhi cuisine are loving it.

This suggests to me that north Indian restaurant food will slowly shift away from the Kwality-Copper Chimney kind of cuisine to genuine Lucknow and Awadhi food. So far, only ITC was doing this with its Dum Pukht chain but I think the trend will catch on.

In the old days, everything was multi-cuisine. Then all restaurants became specialty places serving say, Chinese or Indian or Western. The difference was that the food at the multi-cuisine restaurants was never very good while the specialty restaurants invested in good chefs and served authentic food.

That’s changing. Delhi’s restaurant phenomenon of the moment is still Setz which serves food from multiple kitchens (Thai, Chinese, Japanese, European, Lebanese, north Indian, coastal Indian etc). The reason it works is because each kitchen is run by a specialist. So Setz has the best Thai food in Delhi, the best brasserie-bistro style European food and the best desserts.

Spectra at the Gurgaon Leela tries the same thing as does 361 at the Gurgaon Oberoi. Neither restaurant manages food of the calibre of Setz but both flourish anyway. My prediction is that this is the wave of the future people want great food and great ambience without being restricted to a single cuisine.

We live in an age of variety and demand it every time we go out.

From HT Brunch, January 1

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First Published: Dec 30, 2011 14:02 IST