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Rude Food: The gourmet revolution

The food market in India has exploded. Today consumers can go to gourmet shops and buy pretty much anything that was once only available abroad. Vir Sanghvi writes about the trend...

brunch Updated: Apr 20, 2013 17:42 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Vir Sanghvi,gourmet,shops

I was at Indian Accent, trying out the newly-introduced Chef’s Table when Manish Mehrotra served some small but delicious white asparagus that he said were from Peru.

I said that it seemed a long way to transport asparagus: it must be thousands of miles from Peru to Delhi’s Friend’s Colony. Well, yes, conceded Manish, but the same asparagus was now available in shops in Delhi. The problem faced by many chefs, he said, was that hotels and fancy restaurants no longer had a monopoly on expensive or fancy ingredients. As the food market in India had exploded, ordinary consumers could just go to gourmet shops and buy pretty much anything that was once only available in shops abroad.

Know your audience

Espresso Grill is designed to appeal to people who watch foodie shows and want to try the dishes (like the seafood bisque above) that they have seen on screen

Manish is right, of course. But there is also the TV/Internet factor. Indian foodies are watching such shows as Top Chef, and the Australian Masterchef and following TV chefs like Donna Hay and Nigella Lawson. So middle-class Indians want to experiment with new flavours, dishes and presentation. I find that guests at hotel restaurants these days are often more knowledgeable than the chefs.

The new (well, newish) Espresso Grill on Baba Kharak Singh Marg is designed to appeal to people who have watched foodie shows and want to try the dishes they have seen on screen. The menu is not restricted to any one part of the world but combines inspirations from all over. All this is served in a pleasant, large room at prices that are only a third of the rates charged by coffee shops at five-star hotels.

Australian Master Chef

I had a version of the cauliflower veloute that Gordon Ramsay made famous during his days at Aubergine (the menu describes it as ‘Gordon Ramsay’ Cauliflower Soup) and while it was not so reliant on the rich dairy products the great man is so fond of, it was delicious, with a fresh cauliflower taste. A seafood bisque with a slice of roast cod was even better.

Among the mains was Bang Bang-style chicken salad with a crunchy peanut flavour. I also enjoyed the pork ribs, cooked American-style with the tang of barbecue sauce. There were some misses: the hamburger patty disintegrated before my eyes (usually it is the bun that collapses) and the cheesecake was too stodgy. But overall, the food was terrific; one more indication of how the Masterchef-watching classes are transforming the Indian restaurant scene while the hotels watch from the sidelines. I went after the lunch service so the restaurant was half empty. But I assume it packs them in at mealtimes: it certainly deserves to.

I’ve known Harmeet Bajaj, one of the partners in the Smoke House group of restaurants, for years but somehow the stars have never been right when it comes to Harmeet’s restaurants and me. Either the air-conditioning has not been working or the food has been indifferent. So I did not go to the newly-opened Smoke House Deli in Delhi’s Khan Market with very high expectations.

TV’S The Game Changer

After watching such shows as the Australian Masterchef and following TV chefs like Donna Hay and Nigella Lawson (above), Indian foodies want to experiment with new flavours, dishes and presentation

The Smoke House group poses a particular appeal to kitty-party ladies for reasons I have never understood. At the Vasant Kunj branch of the Deli, large groups of even larger Punjabi ladies had colonised three tables on one of my visits. Even at the Khan Market branch, the table next to mine was annexed by a kitty party of fun-loving ladies of early middle age, carrying canvas designer bags of the sort where the logos are particularly conspicuous. At one stage, a young man who looked like an office assistant entered the restaurant and handed one of the ladies an envelope full of cash, which she then opened and ostentatiously counted till she came to the final figure of `27,000. As the Smoke House Deli is not expensive, I assume she needed the money to go shopping after lunch.

But even if you exclude the cabaret (and kitty-party ladies can be horrifically fascinating to watch), the Smoke House Deli is fun. It is a small, first-floor restaurant with a crowded kitchen that serves sandwiches, light snacks and quite elaborate main courses.

I liked the room, which is cheerful and light-filled and service was smartly efficient. (Disclaimer – I went without booking, but was spotted pretty early into the meal so I can’t generalise about service standards). I liked some of the food, though some simplification is required. I ordered the hot dog and was annoyed that it came with fancy presentation involving many artistic squiggles of sauce on the sausage so that you could not really pick it up and eat it as you should be able to do with a hot dog. The taste, though, was fine. I also had the basic hamburger (it comes with cheese, normally) which suffered from the same problem, it had been over-chefed.

The point of a hamburger is the quality of the bun and the excellence of the meat patty. A fast food hamburger needs lots of sauce and seasoning because the patty is usually crap. But a deli burger should be about the meat. In this case, it was as though I had ordered a hamburger and salad and they had decided to put the salad into the bun along with the patty. Not only did this guarantee that the bun turned into a soggy mess within minutes of reaching the table, it also failed to compensate for the pheeka nature of the patty.

Have Your Cake And Eat It Too

Smoke House Deli has the best cheesecake in Delhi of its kind. So, if you are in Khan Market and want a coffee and dessert, then this is easily the best place for you

But all was forgiven when the warm cheesecake arrived. This was so light, airy and delicious that I think it might well be the best cheesecake in Delhi of its kind. So if you are in Khan Market and want a coffee and dessert, then this is easily the best place for you. And with a bit of luck, they’ll handcuff their chef and stop him from throwing sauce and salad into the sandwiches.

If you don’t want a hot dog or a hamburger, then what should you order? For those of us who have lived in Calcutta, the answer is clear: rolls.

Roll-Maal, a takeaway place in Defence Colony Market, does not do Nizam-style rolls (you have to go to Calcutta to get those) but the ones it does serve are very nice indeed. You order your rolls, they pack them in an insulated container and deliver them in 45 minutes or so. You also have a choice of roti for your rolls: paratha, roomali, etc. And the fillings are inventive: seekh kabab, tawa mutton, boti, Andhra-style meat, Chettinad, etc. (there are chicken and vegetarian options too, but as you can see, I only ordered the red meat!) I thought the food was very good though some people might find some of the fillings a little too liquidy with a certain sameness to the flavours. I enjoyed what they called the Bombay Frankie even though it did not taste much like the Tibbs version of my childhood and the seekh kabab roll was outstanding. A side of pindi channa was good too but the stand-out dish was not a roll: it was the excellent keema pav.

Best had minced

Roll-Maal serves very nice rolls but their stand-out dish was not a roll: it was the excellent keema pav (above)

I did not order home delivery but went in person to check out the place and was impressed by the systems and especially by the manager, who seemed totally on top of everything. The concept will succeed and my guess is that there will soon be clones in every Delhi colony.

Which brings us back to where we started: Manish’s white asparagus. I’ve been noticing a steady move upmarket at my local Godrej Nature’s Basket as the Masterchef-watching classes get more adventurous. Last week I was astonished to find that the Defence Colony branch was selling Dom Pérignon and Tignanello, both expensive wines. (Even though the wines had been subjected to India’s prohibitive customs duties, they were cheaper at Godrej than at most five-star hotels, which import them at zero customs duty. So hotel margins must be stratospheric.)

In pursuit of taste

With the impressive range of upmarket imported products on offer, the Foodhall (below) shows how India has become a market for gourmet food

I went to the Foodhall at Delhi’s Promenade mall, which Manish had mentioned. Though they had a display sign for white asparagus, they had clearly run out that day. Even so, the range of upmarket imported products on offer was impressive though they would gain by getting rid of some of the dodgy olive oil displays and there is no merit in selling (fresh) Portobello mushrooms which look as though they are older than the Qutub Minar.

Even so, the Foodhall demonstrates how India has become a market for gourmet food. A few suggestions: given how very expensive the shop is they should invest in smarter salespeople who understand the products. And it is no fun to be told at the checkout counter that you can either balance your purchases on your head or pay through the nose for a bag (`7 for a paper bag and `50 for a cloth bag). Nobody likes leaving a shop feeling that they’ve been ripped off.

From HT Brunch, April 21

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First Published: Apr 19, 2013 14:48 IST