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Is Italian cuisine the new French?

If big restaurants like the Delhi Le Cirque succeed, then the future of European food in India – as in the West – is distinctly Italian. Vir Sanghvi writes.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2011 18:40 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

By some coincidence I went to a preview of Le Cirque at the Delhi Leela, hosted by Conde Nast Traveller, just as I had finished reading John Mariani’s new book How Italian Food Conquered The World.

Despite its title and despite Mariani’s eminence as a food writer, the book is not really about Italian food and the world but more about how Italian restaurants found a new respectability in America over the last decade and a half. Even so, it is a great read and I’d recommend it to anybody who cares about European or American food.

Mariani devotes a couple of pages to Le Cirque in New York and, in some ways, that restaurant’s transition is symptomatic of the global change. Le Cirque was started by Sirio Maccioni, an Italian (as distinct from Italian-American) captain at New York’s society haunt, The Colony, who wanted to create a clubby, expensive restaurant for the rich and famous. But because Italian food was considered too downmarket in the Seventies, Maccioni opened Le Cirque as a French restaurant, partnering with a French chef.

In his autobiography, he explains, "To me, the way Italian food works, in the kitchen, on the plate is the best. Salt, olive oil, pepper, that’s it… When we opened Le Cirque, there was no way to present that kind of food in a restaurant. I mean you could not do it. Who needs chefs? I could go back to the kitchen, put a little olive oil in a pan, sauté a fish, bring it out on a plate and lay it in front of Mrs Colgate. She would have had a heart attack. Right or wrong, the way of restaurants in America was French."

PastaLe Cirque quickly became the place for ladies who lunch (in the Eighties, it was to New York what Wasabi is to Bombay today or what Threesixty is in Delhi) but the food remained resolutely French and among Maccionis’s greatest triumphs was the mentoring of the French chef Daniel Boulud who later left Le Cirque to create his own restaurant empire around the globe.

The most famous dish invented by Le Cirque (my view; judging by his autobiography Maccioni thinks there were several others) was Pasta Primavera, a dish that is now served all over the world but which was unknown in Italy till it was imported from New York in the 1990s. Though the dish has always struck me as being slightly French in its richness (five and a half tablespoons of butter, a full cup of cream, half a cup of cheese etc.), Le Cirque’s French chef used to refuse to cook it and it was always finished at the table by Maccioni or a captain.

These days, Le Cirque’s New York menu is much more Italian than it used to be and though the Delhi menu is still being given its final shape (the official opening is the first of August but this being the Leela, I’m reluctant to believe any dates provided), my guess is that there may well be more Italian food than there is French.

The shift in focus by Le Cirque is part of a global trend but also one that we have repeatedly witnessed in India. The only proper French restaurant I can think of in Bombay is the Zodiac Grill and many people think that it is past its sell-by date anyway. I haven’t been to a single good French restaurant in Chennai and the one contender – Patio – has now been replaced by an Italian restaurant. I don’t know if Graze – which was French and good – still exists in Bangalore but all the other candidates are more modern European than French. There isn’t a single French restaurant in Calcutta that I can think of. And the only good French restaurant in Delhi, the Orient Express, is a special occasion sort of place.

On the other hand, Italian restaurants continue to thrive and flourish. The Hyatt’s La Piazza in Delhi, which changed the paradigm, still has a dedicated following. Bombay’s Trattoria, which set the trend for Italian food, continues to pack them in. Stella, at the Bombay Leela has – for my money – some of the best Italian food in Bombay. The two fancy Oberoi Italians – Vetro in Bombay and Travertino in Delhi – are huge successes. The Park chain’s signature restaurant brand is Italia. The Delhi Imperial has the excellent San Gimignano. And the Grand Hyatt in Bombay has always been known for Celini.

What accounts for the rise of Italian food all over the world? I have three theories. The first is borrowed from Mariani, but should be self-evident. We have all tired of the complexity of French cuisine. Maccioni says that in the French-dominated heyday of Le Cirque, 18 different sauces were readied for the mise-en-place in the kitchen each night. Unless the sauces were ready, the chefs could not make the dishes on the menu.

In this day and age, we long for the things that Maccioni says Americans were not ready to accept in the 1980s: a lightly grilled piece of meat with herbs, a carpaccio, a simple fried fish etc. We like to taste our ingredients and do not want lots of sauces or even too much fussing around with the food.

To that, I will add a second theory. Until about ten years ago, it was almost impossible to get good ingredients in India: in the 1970s, it was a struggle even to source the cheese for pizza. Though Indian chefs (and especially the purchase departments of large hotel companies) are still not sufficiently conscious of the need for good quality ingredients, the situation has improved to an extent that would once be unthinkable.

If you can get good fish, meat or vegetables (which you can these days in India), then you don’t need to do very much to them. So, simple Italian is easier than complicated French. The third theory is also India-specific – and it is one I’ve often propounded. Indian cuisine is carbohydrate and starch heavy. We like wheat and rice – and lots of both (Chinese people are always bewildered when Indians insist on ordering fried rice and noodles along with the main courses). To some extent, this is true of other Asian civilisations where vast quantities of rice are consumed.

French food, on the other hand, is a meat-and-potatoes kind of cuisine. Till recently, the French were not keen on starch – hence Le Cirque’s problems with Pasta Primavera – while the Italians have always enjoyed pasta and risotto. One reason why Italian food works well in India is because we love the carbohydrates. The vast majority of Italian restaurants that succeed in India (and this is especially true of the stand-alones) are those that concentrate on pizza and pasta.

Many stand-alone Indian chains specialising in Italian food have gone with an Italian-American model where you push the carbs and keep the red sauce coming. Two Sundays ago I went to Spaghetti Kitchen at Select Citywalk in Saket. Spaghetti Kitchen is part of a chain helmed by Bill Marchetti, formerly of West View at Delhi’s Maurya and the rate at which it is expanding (new outlets seem to open all over India each month) tells us something about the Indian love for carbs.

The day I went, I thought the food ranged from acceptable to heavy-handed (and this is despite the fact that Bill sat with me part of the time) while the décor and the staff seemed to all have been bodily lifted from a Kwality’s in Ludhiana in the 1960s. (Bill says that the restaurant is due for a makeover and that other branches are much better.) Nevertheless, the outlet was nearly full, which tells you something about the Indian appetite for Italian food. I’m not good at making predictions but I’ll make one anyway. My guess is that the future of European food in India is distinctly Italian.

What we will see in the months ahead is a mushrooming of pizza-pasta-red sauce places in the stand-alone sector. This will create problems for some of the hotel restaurants (the La Piazza kind of place) which are known for the quality of their pastas and pizzas because this kind of food will be available all over India at much lower prices. What remains to be seen is whether the upmarket Italians can rise beyond this formula and do good, Italian food using quality ingredients.

The two Oberoi places (Vetro and Travertino) have already made the jump but they are smallish restaurants with a dedicated base of hotel guests. If big restaurants like the Delhi Le Cirque succeed, then in India – as in the West – Italian will be the new French.

From HT Brunch, July 24

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First Published: Jul 22, 2011 15:15 IST