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Rude Food: What’s Cooking, Bombay?

I have inclined to the view that the food in Delhi is better than in Bombay. But now, after visiting four new eating places in that city, Bombay seems to be catching up. Vir Sanghvi writes...

brunch Updated: Jan 28, 2012 19:07 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Over the last several years I have inclined to the view that the food in Delhi is better than the food in Bombay.

As a Bombay person, it breaks my heart to admit this but the truth is that somewhere along the way Delhi became the city with the sophisticated cuisine while Bombay became the place with the most happening bars and night spots.

This is fine if you are a barfly or a habitué of clubs but if, like me, it’s food you’re after, then you’re much better off in Delhi where nearly every cuisine with the exception of coastal Indian (but even that’s changing with places like Swagath and Zambar) is well represented.

AmadeusBut Bombay seems to be catching up. Last week I went to four new (well, newish, at any rate) restaurants in the city and was impressed by the standard of food.

The first of these was the new Yauatcha which has just opened in the Bandra-Kurla complex on the ground and first floor of a fancy building. Yauatcha was the brainchild of British-Chinese restaurateur Alan Yau.

Following the success of the first Hakkasan (in Hanway Place in London) Yau opened a dimsum teahouse in Soho (the restaurant’s name derives from the phrase Yau at tea) which combined green teas, high quality patisserie and great dimsum.

While Hakkasan was madly glamorous, Yauatcha was more relaxed. The dimsum were excellent and it soon became one of my favourite restaurants in London. Then, Yau sold out to an Abu Dhabi group which has taken his restaurant concepts international.

So far at least, the group has concentrated on cloning Hakkasan. The Bombay Yauatcha is only the world’s second Yauatcha though perhaps there will be more branches in the future.

First things first: the restaurant looks amazing. It is cool and sophisticated and much better designed than the original which squeezes too many covers into a basement below the main tea room.

ChorizoThe food is fine but I think it’s still a work in progress. The dimsum, which should have been the highlight of the menu, were good without being great. The stir fries (especially a pork belly dish) were brilliant but that’s not supposed to be the point of Yauatcha.

There were service issues. Waiters got my order wrong. Staff seemed confused and conducted hasty consultations within earshot of guests and the restaurant looked like it still had to find its rhythm.

WestinNot that it matters: Yauatcha is the hottest ticket in Bombay and has been packed out ever since it opened.

The next day, following my dinner at Yauatcha, I thought I would check out the Bombay Hakkasan which must now be nearly a year old. I went for the opening but was reluctant to judge it on the basis of that meal because the entire global Hakkasan team, from the corporate chefs to the company’s chief executive, were in town.

This time I sneaked in before Kishor Bajaj who is the India franchisee, could find out I was there and the food was astonishingly good.

The stir fries, in particular, were perfect and each dish had spent exactly the right amount of time in the wok.

I’ve heard mixed reports about Hakkasan perhaps because people are jealous of its success as a glamorous restaurant for the rich and famous but judging by that one meal I have to say that the kitchen is on top form. And I went for a late lunch when the restaurant had emptied and the main chef had probably gone home.

Both Hakkasan and Yauatcha are branches of global chains. Amadeus at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Nariman Point, on the other hand, is an entirely Indian enterprise with an Indian chef and no foreign pedigree.

The space used to be Rangoli, run by the Taj group for many years and then it became Sidewok, with food by the Taj and service by somebody else.

The food was fine but the service was blatantly imitative of the TGIF style. I stopped going after the waiters abandoned their stations, gathered at the centre of the restaurant and did a little Moulin Rouge-style dance. I was told that this was a cheer and part of the dining experience. Thanks, but I’ll take my experiences elsewhere.

Amadeus opened a few months ago and though the waiters do not perform cheers, it is not a particularly cheerful restaurant. I thought there were serious lighting issues which needed to be professionally addressed and the room was curiously soulless. Some tables for two, hidden behind pillars, were claustrophobia-inducing.

Service was amateurish. The two north eastern girls at reception had no clue how to greet guests or allocate tables (one helpfully wore a badge that said Trainee) and seemed to operate independently of the service staff.

Unfortunately I was recognised from the moment I walked in, so three waiters positioned themselves around my table, watching grimly in case I decided to make a run for it.

But the food made up for all this. The restaurant has a huge menu of Spanish-influenced dishes, most of which were very good. I liked the lamb meatballs (though the foie gras sauce was needlessly poncy), the patatas bravas were fine if a little under-salted, a dish of spinach and cheese encased in pastry was light and the ribs were juicy.

kakoriThe stand-out dishes were a coca (like a Spanish pizza) with chorizo and a pork paella.

I ate nearly the whole menu (in your interests, dear reader) so my bill of Rs 4,700 for two (without alcohol) should not be taken as representative.

My guess is that if you order a bottle of wine (and they have many reasonably priced options even if the waiters don’t know anything about the wines on the list) and nibble at a coca, you can eat relatively cheaply. And if you’re still hungry you can have one of the excellent paellas.

AjayThe best meal I had in Bombay however was not in south Bombay or even in some fancy, glamorous restaurant. It was in the faraway suburb of Goregaon at the new Westin hotel.

The nearest I’ve got to this area before is when I’ve shot at Film City (the hotel is ideally located for the studios in that complex) but that was before the Westin was built.

I liked the hotel. It makes no claims to be anything other than a business hotel but it is clearly designed to be part of a later generation than the other Starwood properties in India. It was well designed, sophisticated and seemed international in its conception.

Even the staff were outstanding. I was served at the coffee shop by the assistant manager Harish Kinnauri who was previously at the Grand Hyatt and both, the depth of his knowledge and the style of his service, left the staff of other Bombay restaurants far behind.

I did not eat from the regular menu so do not treat this as a review. But I did eat extremely well from one of the special menus that executive chef Ajay Chopra (he’s the bearded one from MasterChef India) offers guests who book in advance.

Fruit chaatAjay and his chef de cuisine Amit Suri have gone the modern Indian route with a few molecular touches. I started with a compressed fruit chaat which despite the scientific frippery, preserved the flavours of the original dish.

There followed a reasonable (if somewhat fat-free) kakori kabab with a mint sphere (they’re keen on spherification in that kitchen) and the most amazing frozen yoghurt foam. More was to follow: a dum ki machhli and a tender juicy raan presented within a mille fuille.

The stand-out dish was a Pithaud Cake which took the traditional Pithaud (in Bombay they would probably compare it to a khamand dhokla) and used it to suck up the flavours of delicious masala green peas.

Who would have thought it? A decade ago it would have been unthinkable to have a meal of this calibre in Goregaon. And a chef as famous as Ajay now is would never have ventured this far and would have stuck to some south Bombay hotel.

PithaudIt’s a sign of how much the city has changed and of how even the distant suburbs have now come of age. The Westin does well because there seems to be a lot of money in Goregaon. And unlike other hotels it has resisted the temptation to appeal to the lowest common denominator and has maintained the international standards of the chain.

There are still places that I need to go to in Bombay before I can come to any definitive conclusions on the Bombay versus Delhi gastronomic battle. But as of now, let’s just say that Bombay has surprised me. And made me proud.

From HT Brunch, January 29

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