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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

London Diary: Two great Indian chefs bounce back with terrific new restaurants after falling out with their partners

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi writes about the London Indian restaurant scene where Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochar have opened new restaurants even as the market becomes more complex and more competitive.

more-lifestyle Updated: Oct 16, 2019 11:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
One of the dishes at Vineet Bhatia’s new restaurant in London, called Kama by Vineet.
One of the dishes at Vineet Bhatia’s new restaurant in London, called Kama by Vineet. (Instagram/Kamabyvineet)
         

For years and years, there was a certain kind of upmarket Indian restaurant that characterised the London scene. London’s chefs and restaurateurs were so pleased with themselves that they bragged that London was now the capital of Indian food. And some Indian hotels slavishly followed the London model for their own Indian restaurants.

All that has changed now. The London Indian scene is more complex than ever before. For instance, India’s Indian restaurants have also launched successful operations here. Indian Accent has a London outpost. So does the Leela’s Jamavar.

For another, there is a new breed of restaurants that serve unfussy, non-pretentious food. There is Hoppers, which does Malayali-Sri Lankan food. There is Asma Khan’s Darjeelng Express which got Asma featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and put her on top of one list of the coolest people in the food world.

And now, Indians born and brought up in the UK are opening fresh, new restaurants that are in a category of their own: the best example is JKS, the group run by the Sethi family, owners of Brigadiers, Gymkhana, Hoppers, Trishna and many Michelin-starred non-Indian restaurants.

In this changing environment, the existing big boys of Indian cuisine are also re-adjusting their food and experimenting with new styles.

I went, last weekend, to restaurants run by two of the top Indian chefs in the UK: Vineet Bhatia and Atul Kochar. They were the first to get Michelin stars and for years and years, they have been the two guys that other chefs look up to. Both are now running entirely new operations.

Atul Kochar at his new restaurant.
Atul Kochar at his new restaurant.

Vineet Bhatia may well be the world’s best known Indian chef. Ever since he won his first Michelin star, he has been on a global expansion spree, opening new restaurants all over the world: Geneva, Mauritius, Doha, Dubai, Mumbai etc.

He has had bad luck in London though. His flagship restaurant was the Michelin-starred Rasoi, where over a decade ago, I first tasted his food. A few years ago, Vineet acquired new partners and opened Vineet Bhatia London as part of an effort to keep his food in London at the cutting edge .

The restaurant was acclaimed and won a Michelin star within a year of opening. But Vineet and his partners had problems and so, just as the Michelin guide came out and attention was focussed on Vineet Bhatia London, the restaurant closed.

It didn’t matter that much to Vineet. He already had 17 other restaurants around the world. But, I suspect, at some level, he really wanted an operation in London where he could show off his skills.

Vineet still has to open a new haute cuisine restaurant in London but in the interim, he is doing something new and interesting.

I don’t know if you have been to Harrod’s, the world’s most famous department store, lately. I stopped going two decades ago after its owner Mohammed Fayed turned it into a monument to bad taste. When I went back on Saturday, I realised that Fayed was gone. The new owner is a fund linked to the government of Qatar and the store is even ghastlier than I remembered .

Atul Kochar’s Sikkimese momos.
Atul Kochar’s Sikkimese momos.

It is a little corner of London that will always remain Touristland. There are few British people: not among the customers and not among the staff. Instead it has become the sort of place where Middle America meets the Middle East.

The American tourists don’t buy very much but the Arabs seem to love spending money. I guess it must be a good feeling for rich Arabs to buy things from an Arab store while simultaneously being able to claim that they have shopped at a great British institution.

What this flood of Arab money means is that Harrod’s which was never inexpensive anyway, can now get away with charging whatever it likes.

One consequence of this has been the opening of a new dining area, committed to serving upmarket food in counter-type surroundings at prices that are so high that they make your nose bleed. I gather Harrod’s requires owners of restaurant/counter options to maintain a high level of pricing so that one cannot undercut the other.

Vineet has opened a counter with a few small tables in this area and called it Kama by Vineet. He charges Harrod’s prices (£48 for a Lobster biryani etc.) and, I imagine, is raking it in because Kama stays open all day and is usually packed.

Atul Kochar’s scallop with cauliflower and Naga chilli.
Atul Kochar’s scallop with cauliflower and Naga chilli.

I went to see him at Kama just to see how a chef of his stature and vintage could adapt to a counter-led restaurant. To my surprise he was actually cooking at the open counter in full view of the guests (many of whom knew his name from the dozen or so restaurants he runs in the Middle East).

The food was, of course, vintage Vineet. One of the problems of dealing with a chef of his reputation is that you forget his way with basic dishes and only marvel at his new creations.

But this was simple food: Vineet’s distinctive Butter Chicken with its thinner-than-normal gravy, his rogan josh, his sweet water prawns in an lemon-grass-spiked curry, and more.

I don’t suppose Vineet will stay behind the counter at Kama for very long. He is always travelling to his other restaurants. But when he is in London, he says, he will always be there.

Vineet Bhatia At Kama by Vineet.
Vineet Bhatia At Kama by Vineet.

Hard as this is to believe, though we have both known of each other for years, Atul Kochar and I have never met. So, when he wrote that he was opening a new restaurant, I resolved to go.

There is something in the stars these days that seems to influence the partnerships of Indian chefs negatively. Just as Vineet had problems with his partners and Gaggan Anand fell out with his, Atul had such serious issues with his partners that around a year ago, he left Benares, the Michelin-starred restaurant he had created, on Berkeley Square.

With no flagship restaurant and a lingering controversy over an unfortunate tweet, Atul looked like he was in trouble. But you can’t keep a good chef down. To everyone’s surprise, Atul has bounced back with Kanishka, a great new restaurant on Maddox Street, that is much better than Benares ever was.

The bone marrow at Hoppers.
The bone marrow at Hoppers.

I went for lunch with my pal, Digvijay Singh, a pro who started his career in the kitchen before running the Taj group’s British operations (including 51 Buckingham Gate where I stay when I am in London) and we were both very impressed. Atul grew up in Jamshedpur and spent time in Calcutta so his food - unlike the cuisine of many London chefs -goes beyond North and South India.

He has leveraged that advantage to the hilt at Kanishka by using the flavours of East and North East India. All of the food was good (I loved a venison dish and a killer black dal) but I was blown away by a hand-dived scallop served with cauliflower and Naga chillies. I loved his Sikkimese-style momos, made like the Tibetan originals with no attempt to turn them into wannabe Chinese dim sum.

The restaurant is young so it does not qualify for stars in this year’s Michelin guide. It will get a star eventually, of course. What will be interesting to see, however, is whether Benares will retain its star in Atul’s absence.

After admiring Atul and Vineet’s food, I went for dinner to Hoppers, one of my favourite London restaurants where the Bone Marrow, the Egg Hoppers and so many other dishes are always outstanding. The Sethis, who own Hoppers, are not focussed on India. But why can’t somebody else open a Malayalii/Sri Lankan restaurant of this quality in India?

Kama and Hoppers are not in the race for stars. But when the Michelin guide to London comes out, it will be interesting to see who does get the stars. Will Jamavar win back its star? Will Rohit Ghai who started in Atul’s kitchen, before moving to Trishna and Jamavar win a star for his Kutir? Will Michelin continue to snub Manish Mehrotra or will Indian Accent get the star it deserves?

We shall see.

To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here

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