Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Light my fire

Barbecue and open fire cooking are in vogue the world over, but Indian chefs have been reluctant to go down that road: till now!
Chicken tikka with yuzu aioli at Revolver
Chicken tikka with yuzu aioli at Revolver
Updated on Sep 20, 2021 03:36 PM IST
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Ask foodies to name the best Indian restaurants in the world and two names always come up: Gaggan Anand’s eponymous Bangkok restaurant and Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent in Delhi.

Gaggan regularly tops lists of Asia’s Best Restaurants, had his own episode of Chef’s Table and is the one Indian chef who the world’s greatest chefs have heard of. Those who have eaten his food can’t stop raving about it.

So it is with Manish. Any global foodie who comes to India wants to eat at Indian Accent and so great is Manish’s influence on Indian chefs that there should be a whole school of cooking named after him.

Both chefs use a variety of techniques. Gaggan has mostly moved away from the molecular wizardry that first drew attention to his cooking—though his Yoghurt Explosion remains the defining dish of modern Indian cuisine—and he now uses many different techniques from sous vide to dehydration to simple pan-cooking. Manish is as eclectic in his choice of techniques: his famous Daulat ki Chaat uses the principles of molecular cooking to achieve its lightness and durability.

Saurabh Udinia has pushed Revolver in an adventurous new direction
Saurabh Udinia has pushed Revolver in an adventurous new direction

But as much as everyone admires Manish and Gaggan, there is always one other restaurant that comes up when we list India’s great restaurants: Delhi’s Bukhara.

The chefs at Bukhara are not adventurous with their techniques. Nearly everything that emerges from the kitchen depends on the tandoor. It is a single cooking technique, tweaked, retweaked and adjusted to suit the dish, along with marinations using spice blends.

We may see it as old hat — Bukhara has not changed its menu since it opened in 1978 — but it is also classic; a measure of what good chefs can do with a traditional cooking method.

Oddly enough, it is also on trend. These days restaurants that rely on fire and the principles of barbecue are in vogue. One of the world’s most admired restaurants is Etxebarri near Bilbao in Spain. It is not elegant or fancy — the stone-adorned dining room has been called austere — but it owes its fame to the Chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s ability to cook a range of dishes on wood and charcoal fires. Even green peas taste more of themselves after the chef has subjected them to his fire.

The Indian Accent chef deserves a whole school of cooking named after him
The Indian Accent chef deserves a whole school of cooking named after him

The Australian chef Lennox Hastie (I wrote about him here in 2016 and described a dinner he cooked as one of the best meals I had that year) worked at Etxebarri before returning to offer up his more Australian-influenced version of fire cuisine at Sydney’s Firedoor. Lennox is now world famous (he was on Chef’s Table recently) and his steaks are widely admired, but in foodie circles he is known for his way with such unusual dishes as flame-touched caviar.

Over the last few years, one of the greatest exemplars of this fire-cooking style has been Singapore’s Burnt Ends. The chef-owner Dave Pynt is an Australian who creates magic when he cooks with wood and charcoal — and nearly everything on his menu touches the fire or the smoke.

When I spoke to chefs like Lennox Hastie and saw what they were doing with fire, I wondered why we did not do more with our barbecue traditions. It’s all very well to praise Bukhara but is it right that we do not have our own Firedoor? Has nothing changed or moved forward in half a century? The three-star Spanish chef Dani Garcia said to me, after visiting Bukhara, that he wished he could learn more about our fire-cooking traditions.

Well, now he can.

Stuffed courgette flowers (stuffed with creamy cottage cheese and finished with spiced tomato relish), are a Revolver speciality
Stuffed courgette flowers (stuffed with creamy cottage cheese and finished with spiced tomato relish), are a Revolver speciality

A couple of weeks ago, Revolver, helmed by chef Saurabh Udinia, opened in Singapore. It is a modern Indian restaurant like no other. All of the food is fire-based. There are just three cooking methods: tandoor, tawa and open fire. There is no modern technology in the kitchen. Udinia does it all (like Hastie or Pynt) with skillful use of fire.

Some of the dishes are familiar if upgraded almost beyond recognition. The barra kabab-style lamb chops are made with marbled lamb from the highly regarded Margra farm in Australia. The Scotch Egg (or Nargisi Kofta depending on what you want to call it) is made with melt-in-the-mouth minced Wagyu spiced with Kashmiri chillis.

But there are dishes that I have never heard of before. Courgette flowers are stuffed with a light paneer bhurji. Leeks are grilled with smoked paprika butter and finished with pine nuts and fennel. A small kulcha (“kulchette’) is stuffed with Gruyere cheese and topped with spiced pulled pork.

The baingan gets a dose of fire and is paired with a sesame salan. Chunks of paneer are served with a sambal that merges Goan and Singaporean flavours. Tikka-like chicken pieces are nicely charred before being paired with a yuzu aioli. And if you like luxury, there is a lot of that. The Scotch Egg has a molten yolk which is topped with high quality caviar.

I have known Saurabh Udinia for a long time. He started his career at Indian Accent and then went on to head Zorawar Kalra’s Masala Library and Farzi Café kitchens. Along the way, he developed a style of his own. Some of it came from his Indian Accent training and some from his admiration of Gaggan (who was kind enough to show him around his kitchens).

Gaggan Anand is easily the world’s most respected Indian chef
Gaggan Anand is easily the world’s most respected Indian chef

But over the years, he has found his own voice. When he opened Farzi Café in London, Marina O’Loughlin, one of London’s top critics, raved about his food as did the doyenne of UK critics, Fay Maschler.

But Saurabh’s style was very different from say, Lennox Hastie’s. So how has he made this transition to a fire-cooking restaurant?

Saurabh says it took him a while to get used to the simplicity of the cooking methods, though he was always at home with the complexity of the dishes. He has received rave notices from the Michelin star chefs who have eaten there (including Julien Royer and Tristin Farmer, both with three stars) so, that has boosted his confidence.

But after a lifetime in the kitchen, it has taken him a little while to get used to the theatre of Revolver, which is a small restaurant where most customers sit around a counter and are served each course from the chef’s hands. Even the few individual tables face the open kitchen, so guests can watch everything being cooked before their eyes.

Revolver is a personal passion-project for its majority owner, the Singapore-based entrepreneur Sameer Sain (whose giant Everstone group was also the original backer of Masala Library-Farzi Café). Sain (who I profiled in my book The Gamechangers) thinks of himself as a global Indian and wanted to create a restaurant that used Indian flavours and techniques with the world’s best ingredients (including those we do not associate with Indian food) and cut across culinary genres.

Lennox Hastie has set the standard for cooking with fire and smoke
Lennox Hastie has set the standard for cooking with fire and smoke

Sain admires Manish and has always been a great Gaggan-fan. He sees Indian Accent as a Rolls-Royce. Gaggan as a Ferrari. But Revolver, he says, is a Range Rover that ventures into terrain that others have not gone into before.

“I wanted,” he says candidly, “to create an Indian restaurant where, if you took your girlfriend on a date, the evening would not end there. It could go on.”

There are no curries, no biryanis and no pulaos on the menu, so the food is light. (Disclosure: Sain and I jointly founded Culinary Culture, a non-profit dedicated to rewarding and recognising Indian chefs.)

Judging by the early notices, Sain and Udinia have pulled it off. This is a restaurant you will be hearing a lot about in the days to come..

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, September 19, 2021

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Monday, October 18, 2021