Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Mumbai meri jaan

After being eclipsed by Delhi for so long, it looks as if Mumbai may become the food capital again. Here’s why
Chef Seefah and her husband Karan Bane (inset) divide the Japanese and Thai dishes at Seefah between them; Chef Seefah’s Massaman curry is among some of the fantastic dishes she makes now, unlike the earlier hotel-style food she would cook
Chef Seefah and her husband Karan Bane (inset) divide the Japanese and Thai dishes at Seefah between them; Chef Seefah’s Massaman curry is among some of the fantastic dishes she makes now, unlike the earlier hotel-style food she would cook
Published on Sep 04, 2021 09:41 PM IST
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There was a time when Mumbai was the food capital of India. But as one generation of chefs and restaurateurs — the Hemant Oberoi, Nelson Wang, Rahul Akerkar, etc. generation — retired or faded away, that title has been ceded to Delhi.

But as I discovered on my visit there last week, Mumbai is fighting back. I ate extremely well and most of the meals were ones that I could never have had in Delhi.

Let’s start with Seefah Ketchaiyo. I knew Seefah when she was the Thai chef at the Four Seasons in Mumbai. Her food was always fine. But frankly, it was nothing to write home about. So, when she opened her own restaurant (called Seefah in Bandra), I was not particularly interested despite the praise she received.

Then my son and daughter-in-law tried to change my mind by ordering a large take-out meal from her. They ordered lots of food: Krapow, Khao Man Gai, Red Curry with Prawns, Buffalo Massaman Curry, Chicken with Cashewnuts, Prawn Cakes, Northern style Pork Neck and much much more.

To my surprise, the food was outstanding; easily the best Thai food I have eaten in India for a long time and certainly better than anything available in Delhi — and a lot better than the food she cooked at the Four Seasons.

I called Seefah the next day and asked how she was turning out food of this quality. She said she had spent her life cooking at hotels (the Sofitel in Bangkok, the Shangri-La in Chiang Mai etc.) so she had learned how to make hotel-style Thai food. But when she finally struck out on her own, she decided to abandon hotel-style cooking and make the food her parents had taught her to cook along with dishes she had picked up from the streets. That may explain why her food is so much better now than it was in her Four Seasons days.

Seefah has stayed on in India because she married Karan Bane who she met at the Four Seasons when he was working with the hotel’s legendary Japanese Chef Kato. Karan cooks Japanese food and the orders at Seefah are equally divided between his Japanese and her Thai food.

Prateek Sadhu is someone I have known and liked from his Bengaluru days. He is one of the nicest guys in the business so I was a little worried when I thought he had lost his way after he opened Masque in a particularly insalubrious location in Mumbai.

Prateek Sadhu is finally cooking the food that his talent demands: full of clean, intense flavours; (left) At Masque, Prateek makes delicious rogan josh sausages
Prateek Sadhu is finally cooking the food that his talent demands: full of clean, intense flavours; (left) At Masque, Prateek makes delicious rogan josh sausages

I don’t think it mattered very much that I did not like his food because he got rave reviews anyway and Masque had Indian food writers eating out of the palm of its hand thanks to the most impressive PR machine of any Indian restaurant. It also hired Lotus, a top-flight London PR agency, to win the restaurant international fame and to set up collaborations with well-known foreign chefs, some of whom were also clients of Lotus.

Despite all the hype, Masque has never made any money because PR and reviews are no substitute for flavour and I imagine that many guests may have shared my view that the food wasn’t particularly good. There was too much about the story and the provenance of the ingredients and not enough about flavour. Most people don’t really care if a carrot has been grown on a small farm near Pune if the dish it goes into doesn’t taste good.

Just before the lockdown, I went back to Masque and thought that there had been a welcome shift in focus. Prateek was mining his Kashmiri roots rather than the influences he picked up during his stage at Noma and bold, distinctive flavours were beginning to characterise his food. Finally, he was back to being the gifted chef I had always regarded him as.

I went back last week and was startled by how far he had progressed on that journey. It wasn’t just Kashmir now. His influences took in all of India. There was no pretentious storytelling and no nonsense about the provenance of each celery stalk; just food full of flavour. These flavours were intense (the blandness that had characterised his early Masque food had vanished) and he had embraced sourness. Most important, there was now joy and wit in the food.

When the Oberois needed a Corporate Chef they turned to Mumbai and elevated Satbir Bakshi (left); At Oberoi, Nariman Point, dishes like (right) Nalli Nihari have a high standard
When the Oberois needed a Corporate Chef they turned to Mumbai and elevated Satbir Bakshi (left); At Oberoi, Nariman Point, dishes like (right) Nalli Nihari have a high standard

There was just so much good food that it is hard to list all the dishes but here are some: a rice rich in morels had been cooked with miso so that the umami in the mushrooms came to the fore along with the usual morel muskiness. Prateek had sent me his delicious rogan josh sausages earlier but they worked more brilliantly at the restaurant than I had realised when I had cooked them at home. At Masque, Prateek made a sort of Kashmiri hotdog with them.

There were vadas stuffed with prawn pepper fry and served with tempered dahi and a unique rasam. Barbecued pork came with a Khasi-inspired sauce and a yakhni formed a perfect base for slices of lamb neck.

This is a chef at the height of his powers. Prateek has not only found his own voice, he is confident enough to have fun with the food and to infuse it with joy. He is currently doing pop-ups all over India. If he turns up in your city, you would be mad not to go.

I have written about Alex Sanchez and Americano here before. Despite the crippling burden imposed by the lockdown and its restrictions, Alex has fought back, kept his team together and kept Americano going.

It was a joy to go back to Americano, to sit in the restaurant and to have the food fresh as it came from the kitchen. Everything is exactly as it was before. Service is even more outstanding. When I dropped a little of the clear broth that goes with one of the pastas on my shirt, somebody was at the table within minutes with a glass of soda water and a napkin to clean it up. Servers are just as enthusiastic as they were before the lockdown.

And Americano retains what I regard as its essential characteristic: it is a restaurant with very sophisticated food that masquerades as a neighbourhood trattoria. You can, I guess, come and have a bowl of pasta or a pizza with a glass of wine at the bar.

Chef Alex of Americano is a terrific chef whose food will knock your socks off
Chef Alex of Americano is a terrific chef whose food will knock your socks off

But if you want something more complex, Alex is such a terrific chef that his food will knock your socks off. He did two astonishing pastas for us, one of which came in a broth (brodo) that was so flavourful that once I had finished the pasta, I drunk up the broth like it was a soup.

Though pizzas were meant to be a sidelight at Americano, they have now become the restaurant’s most popular dishes and if you ask nicely, Alex may customise them for you. I had a Naples-style pizza, nicely wet in the centre with that crisp edge, charred and blistered from the oven. But if you want something more conventional, that’s even easier. As always, Americano remains one of the great Mumbai experiences.

And finally, a nod to the Oberoi at Nariman Point where I always stay when I am in South Bombay and where the food is so much better than the competition.

The man responsible for the high standard of the cuisine is the hotel’s Executive Chef, Satbir Bakshi. Just before I arrived in Mumbai, Satbir was promoted to Corporate Chef for the entire Oberoi group, a much deserved promotion that once again reinforces my feeling that these days, when people want good food and good chefs, they look to Mumbai.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, September 5, 2021

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Tuesday, October 26, 2021