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Vir Sanghvi: Nothing like a Sunday Brunch!

Brunches in Asia are extravagant affairs, offering the best and most luxurious foods. India is no different, so yes, Sundays can be beautiful.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2011 12:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Why you like Sunday brunch (the meal, not this magazine, silly!) says a lot about who you are. If you are a hotelier or a restaurateur, you like Sunday brunch because it represents a great opportunity for profit. You construct the meal around low cost ingredients such as eggs and bakery products (muffins, waffles etc.) and then charge a huge amount, throwing in champagne or sparkling wine which you have procured at enormous discount from some wine importer.

If, on the other hand, you are not a restaurateur but just a lazy sort of fellow, you like the idea of brunch because it allows you to get up late, linger over the Sunday papers with steaming cups of coffee or tea and to then move directly to lunch without the intervening inconvenience of breakfast.

BrunchAnd if you are a high-energy sort of person who misses the excitement of weekdays, then brunch gets you out of the house, into a crowded restaurant and allows you to indulge in the warmth of human contact. In my experience, people who love brunch are much better off in Asia than they are in Europe or America. In France, they don’t believe in brunch. French people demand a full-fledged Sunday lunch. In Britain, restaurants couldn’t be bothered to turn out a good brunch.

In America, brunch is a popular option but it is usually a rip-off. The chef takes the weekend off so one of his minions is put in charge of the brunch service. The minion is told to work on a low food cost basis, so he looks for ways to make eggs seem more interesting (variations on Eggs Benedict, fancy omelettes etc.), offers a limited menu of four not-very-exciting options and then sits back while the bartenders whip up Bloody Marys or Mimosas (made with packaged orange juice and sparkling wine).

This kind of brunch is popular at some New York restaurants because:
a) it allows the restaurant to say that it is open on Sunday even though all the good chefs have taken a holiday;
b) it allows guests to say that they have visited fancy restaurants (Sunday brunch is usually cheaper and it is much easier to get a table for brunch than it would be for dinner any other day); and
c) it appeals to the lazy guys who like the idea of a peaceful, quiet Sunday.

Asian brunches, however, tend to be over-the-top, high-energy, extravagant affairs. They are nearly always buffets (which is not the case in America or Europe). They offer a range of cuisines. The top chefs are usually present in person at the buffet counters to make sure that everything is perfect. And hotels and restaurants vie with each other in providing the best and most luxurious foods.

Years and years ago, at the late, lamented Compass Rose on top of the Westin Stamford (as it was then; it is called something else now) in Singapore, I marvelled at the lavishness of the brunch: as much Sevruga caviar as you wanted, gallons of Veuve Clicquot champagne, live foie gras stations and nearly every cuisine you could think of. In Bangkok, all the top hotels do lavish brunches. My favourite (though I have not been for years) used to be at the Intercontinental on Ploenchit (the hotel used to be called the Royal Meridien when the Sunday brunch began) with its chocolate fountain and its acres and acres of buffet tables laden with food from India, China, France, Thailand, Germany, Japan etc.

LobstersEven in Delhi, the Sunday brunch is an excuse for restaurants to go over the top with their offerings. On most days, Machan at the Taj Man Singh is a perfectly nice coffee shop. But on Sundays, it suddenly ups its game with all-you-can-eat caviar, fresh oysters, whole lobsters and cases of champagne. Likewise, 361 at the Gurgaon Oberoi offers you a choice of champagne at its all-inclusive Sunday brunch.

My guess is that in India at least (I don’t know about the rest of Asia), the restaurant Sunday brunch is not a brunch at all even though we may call it that. It has its origins in the tradition of a very big Sunday buffet lunch, a special meal when you ate a lot because you knew you could sleep the afternoon off.

I remember being taken, as a child, to such clubs as the Delhi Gymkhana where an elaborate Sunday buffet would be laid out and the crème de la crème of Delhi’s military and bureaucratic elite would gather to swap stories. None of those people thought of their meal as a mere brunch. In many cases, it was their biggest meal of the week.

Perhaps this was a Raj tradition. In the days when Spencers’ ran the grand old Connemara Hotel in Madras, a large banqueting room would be given over to Sunday lunch and old Spencers’ cooks would produce an elaborate buffet of South Indian dishes combined with the food of the Raj. (When the Taj group took the Connemara over in the 1980s, it committed the criminal act of shutting down the buffet and operating a disgusting American-style coffee shop instead. The Connemara is still Madras’s best hotel but it ain’t what it used to be.)

At the Bombay Taj, the Sunday buffet in the Ballroom, overlooking the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea was such an institution in the Sixties that you would find the great and good of Bombay helping themselves to Salad Currimbhoy, Roast Lamb, Dhansak and Bread and Butter Pudding while Goody Seervai and his orchestra played.

Sadly, that buffet died a natural death and though I recall an attempt to revive it in the early Nineties with modern Hemant Oberoi touches (six kinds of olives in the salad section etc), it never quite caught on and, these days, the Taj makes more money from letting the Ballroom out for banquets than it ever did from the buffet.

If you see the so-called Sunday brunch as a revival of the Raj tradition of the big Sunday lunch – which is how I see it – then its most successful recent avatar was the buffet at the Raj Pavilion at the Windsor Manor in Bangalore which combined ITC’s traditional strengths in the Indian food area with astonishingly faithful recreations of the Anglo-Indian cuisine which Bangalore was once known for. I haven’t been back recently but no doubt, it has gone the way of all other Sunday buffets and become hipper and more modern.

Speaking personally, I have nothing against modern buffets but it is worth shopping around because, while all hotels charge the roughly the same amount, you can get considerably more for the same price from some hotels than you can from others. Apart from the basics (good food, service, ambience etc.), here are some things you should look for: high value items (good quality meat, seafood), champagne or premium spirits and last, but not least, good music. I used to regularly praise the Machan brunch because it had lots of expensive foods (I think the Taj actually lost money on some items but kept them on for reasons of prestige), good champagne (Laurent-Perrier NV) and an amazing singer in Stella Pinto. Its rival in the value-for-money stakes is the brunch at Zest which is buzzy, packed, lavish and grand.

Last Sunday, I found that Machan now had a new rival. The Maurya has had the bright idea of combining its two rooftop restaurants, My Humble House and West View, and offering a brunch that allows you to travel between both places and eat what you like. I thought the Humble House food was better (great dim sum) but the West View buffet had lots of caviar, lobster, foie gras, free-range corn-fed chicken, Wagyu and other luxury items.

But what swung it for me was the music. At West View, old faithful Peter Mehta has been joined by Becky and they make a great duo. At Humble House, two Naga sisters, Sede Kenn and Ase Kenn, sing beautifully. On a nice day, as the golden sun pours through the glass windows at Humble House, and as the music gets going and the champagne rushes to your head, it is easy to believe that all is well with the world and that it is going to be a beautiful Sunday.

From HT Brunch, September 18

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First Published: Sep 17, 2011 14:02 IST