The great Indian restaurant reinvention
As restaurants struggle through the lockdown, I sense that the food business is changing. New people are coming in with new ideas and veterans are reinventing their businesses. I have always responded to people who have reached out to me on Instagram and whenever possible I have tried their products. Many have been surprisingly good.
Cross-Border Kitchens started operations last year as a cloud kitchen service doing home delivery with many different brands. Ishita Yashvi who is one of the founders mailed me about their service a couple of months ago. Then the folks at Cross-Border Kitchens got busy trying to help daily wagers and migrant workers and we lost touch.
This Eid, Ishita mailed to ask if I would review their Eid feast. I said yes and wondered what the food would be like. It started badly. The order arrived an hour later than promised – a capital offence in this business – by which stage I had already eaten dinner. So I ate it over the next two days in bits and pieces. To my surprise, it was very good.
There was a terrific nihari (though it was slightly less intensely flavoured than others I have had) a great rogan josh, magnificent haleem, wonderful biryani and very good galauti kebabs. You would have to search far and wide among Delhi’s restaurants to get Awadhi food of this quality. Moreover, this was not overly greasy unlike the food from many of its restaurant rivals.
Cross-Border Kitchens operates three large kitchens in Delhi to service the city. Each kitchen handles innumerable brands owned by the company (one does momos, another does Punjabi food, another does burgers and so on) but the largest single share of the business goes to Biryani Central, the brand that did the meal they sent me.
Because they knew the food was meant for me, I cannot necessarily guarantee that everything that comes out of the kitchen will be of the same quality. But clearly Ahsan Ali Qureshi, one of the partners, has food in his blood: he is the great Imtiaz Qureshi’s younger son.
I would use them again and am now looking forward to trying their momo brand: BroMomo. If these new cloud kitchens can turn out food of this quality then restaurants are in deep trouble.
Another measure of the ingenuity of the food business is the growth of the cook-it-yourself sector. Ritu Dalmia was stuck in Goa for most of the lockdown but managed, over the phone, to mastermind a ‘nearly-ready meal’ service from her Delhi restaurant. The service offers food that is nearly ready along with the ingredients you need to finish it at home.
I tried the pizza first. She had sent a half-cooked base along with the toppings (cheese, tomato paste etc. but also fresh rocket leaves, shards of Parma ham, etc.) It was nearly as good as eating it at the Italian Cultural Centre Café, which Ritu runs, and which has the best pizzas in India.
My neighbour and former colleague, Rivanjali Mithal, tried Ritu’s pasta and thought it was restaurant quality – and Rivanjali knows her food. We tried the sausage risotto at home the next day and it was nearly as good as the one I make at home. (Just kidding!)
Ritu is one of India’s great chefs so her success in creating these meals is not so surprising. But I was impressed by a small operation called Madison & Pike, run by the husband and wife team of Nitin Chadha and Ranjana Deopa who got in touch with me on Instagram. They sent a Poke bowl, with sauces, and a very nice Peruvian-style chicken that you finished at home. Their three-cheese pasta had a delicious sauce, which made me admire the talent of the cooks because it’s not easy to turn out three dishes from three different cuisines with such a high degree of competence.
Do you know what a Poke bowl is? It took me a while to find out what the damn thing was when Poke became ubiquitous a few years ago. My guess is that this is true of many of us.
My ex-producer at NDTV, Monica Narula (she produced my shows One on One for 24X7 and Custom Made and Foodistan for Good Times) teamed up with another of my ex-producers, Gunjan Mehrish (he produced Face the Music on 24X7) and yet another NDTV producer Noopur Tiwari, to act on her belief that there were lots of people who shared my ignorance about trendy dishes. Nor did we know the stories behind even familiar dishes like butter chicken.
The three of them started a company called Dash with seed capital from Ratan Tata. Because they understood food, they were able to go to restaurants and create tablet menus for them. If you touched a dish on an iPad screen, you would get a short video telling you what the dish was and what the story behind it was.
The lockdown has given their app (also called Dash) a new relevance. People order food from home, looking at menus on the Internet without really understanding what they are getting. Monica’s app will tell you the story of each dish to help you decide what to order with a high-quality food video. They have now added a feature that lets you order from participating restaurants on the app itself.
It is a big success and Monica and her partners may end up being among the few people in the larger food business to do okay during the lockout.
Sahil Mehta contacted me on Instagram. The name seemed familiar and some digging around revealed that he had been involved with L’Opera, The Artful Baker and other such well-known bakery operations. He was now operating out of a small studio kitchen at home, he said, and baking to order. I am not keen on gluten but his passion impressed me so I agreed to try his stuff.
It was a wise decision. The quality of the baking was excellent. I had one of the best croissants I have had in Delhi, nicely buttery and flakey and the quiche he sent along was outstanding. In a country where so many bakeries use bogus chocolate and synthetic cream, I am always delighted when I find somebody who cares enough to bake the right way.
I called Sahil afterwards and it turned out that his parents had moved to Paris when he was 13. He had studied catering there (the French course is four years, a year longer than most other countries and pays special attention to baking and to chocolate) but had been reluctant to become a chef because he wanted to be a Bollywood film star. He spent a year and a half in Mumbai and when it became clear to him that he was not going to be the next Shah Rukh Khan, he finally gave baking a shot and discovered that this was where his heart lay.
The problem with getting your hands on Sahil’s products is that he runs a small artisanal operation out of his home. He had intended to open an outlet but the Covid crisis intervened. Nor does he have a website. So, the best way to get through to him is to go to his Instagram page and send him a direct message.
I have written (in The Taste, my other column on hindustantimes.com) that whenever I tweet in support of the restaurant business, the responses are uniformly hostile. Basically, there is little public sympathy for the restaurant sector or for restaurateurs. India’s restaurants are unloved because too many restaurateurs don’t seem to love their customers.
It is this lack of affection that will open the door to cloud kitchens, delivery services and a new generation of food entrepreneurs. This crisis will finish off some of the industry’s big daddies with their dated ideas; it will leave many of the old dinosaurs struggling and their investors bleeding.
But there are those in the business who will survive any shake-up because of the relationships they have built with their customers.
Among them is the team behind Tres, a neighbourhood restaurant run without hype or fuss in Lodi Colony Market in Delhi. Owned by Amit Burman and Rohit Agarwal’s Litebite Foods (one of the straightest companies in a business that’s not always straight), Tres is fronted by two exceptional chefs, Julia DeSa and Jatin Mallick. Every time I go there I see customers interacting with the chefs with warmth and an easy familiarity.
Julia and Jatin have now started a delivery version of Tres. The food is comforting but immensely complicated: 24 hours cooked Spanish Porchetta Pork Belly; Slow Braised Pulled Lamb Shoulder; Jalapeno and Dill Crusted Sea Bass and a burger that is first grilled in the Josper oven and then served in a brioche bun with melted Raclette cheese, onion marmalade and bacon.
You have to be a super-confident chef to pull off that kind of food for takeaway or delivery. Fortunately, Jatin and Julia are among the best European chefs in the city so they make it seem easy.
If the lockdown ever really gets you down, light a candle on the dining table, open a bottle of good wine and order in from Tres. It is one-fourth the price of a five-star hotel meal – and probably more enjoyable.
And for dessert, order the cheesecake from the Park Hotel. I did and regretted missing it in my cheesecake article. It’s a classic New York-style cheesecake made to the exacting standards of super foodie Priya Paul who runs the Park chain. Priya has been a pioneer in the food and beverage world and it’s good to see that she is still at the top of her game.
It’s the people like Priya who understand true hospitality who will come out of this crisis bloody but unbowed. This is a business that depends on quality and relationships. If you care about both, you will be fine. If not, well....
From HT Brunch, June 7, 2020
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