The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Key codes and secret doors; antithesis of restaurants - Hindustan Times
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The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Key codes and secret doors; antithesis of restaurants

By, Delhi
Feb 27, 2024 06:24 PM IST

In the era of key codes and secret doors, the article explores the true definition of hospitality and the joy of eating in restaurants.

The New York Times has just reviewed a hot new Korean restaurant called Noksu. The restaurant is not cheap. A tasting menu of 12 courses costs 225 dollars per head on top of which you pay tax and tips (which, in New York, means at least another 100 dollars per head). If you want to drink then an alcohol pairing is available at 175 dollars per head. With taxes and tips that works out to around 220 dollars. So you should expect to spend 500-600 dollars per head or more.

A restaurant is about joy, about fun, perhaps (in a certain kind of restaurant) about elegance and service. (Unsplash)
A restaurant is about joy, about fun, perhaps (in a certain kind of restaurant) about elegance and service. (Unsplash)

And remember, this is not a temple of high gastronomy. It’s just another New York restaurant serving the city’s trendiest cuisine: modern Korean. Nor is the food exceptional. Pete Wells, the Times critic, thought some of it was good but was unimpressed by much of the menu.

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Many people would find the idea of selling such expensive food offensive. I don’t. I take the line that we operate in a market economy where people who can afford to pay such prices have the right to eat where they like at whatever cost.

ALSO READ: The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Who should we credit for the invented dishes?

But here’s why I wouldn’t ever go to Noksu, even if I could afford it. It’s not the prices I object to. It is the attitude.

Noksu is inside a subway station (Herald Square ), one flight below the ground which, I guess makes it seem cool and trendy. It has only two dinner services, writes Wells, and a few minutes before each of the services, “a rolling gate clatters up to reveal a locked door with a keypad.” To get in you have to enter a six-digit code that is mailed in advance to those with reservations. Even after you enter the code and get past the door, you have to negotiate a heavy, floor-to-ceiling curtain.

As Wells notes, once you get past the high security, you see just another tasting menu restaurant, identical in most respects to hundreds of other tasting-menu expensive restaurants all over the world. There are other restaurants in New York including Brooklyn Fare, Frevo and the supremely pretentiously named “the Office of Mr Moto’ with similar secret entrances or codes.

Why do people think it is worth paying hundreds of dollars to enter secret codes, find hidden doors and the like? Why recreate the ATM experience at an expensive dinner? Why not just open the door and go into a restaurant that has a welcoming character? Why make going out for dinner an experience out of Mission Impossible?

There is only one reason: pretentious snob value.

What a secret door that you can only open if you have the top-secret code says is: this is very exclusive? Ordinary people can’t come in? Anyone who has been given the keys to the Kingdom is blessed.

Which is why I will never go to Noksu or to any of the ‘secret entrance’ restaurants.

It is only dinner for God’s sake. Why turn it into a spy movie? Why make it about exclusivity? What kind of person gets a thrill out of knowing that he or she is eating in a place where other people can never get in?

So much about going to restaurants now has nothing to do with the food. It is about one-upmanship. About saying to other people: “ha ha! I am eating where you can’t get in! Lucky me! Poor you!”

To me, this is the antithesis of everything that restaurants should be about. A restaurant is about joy, about fun, perhaps (in a certain kind of restaurant) about elegance and service. The food must always be paramount. And the point of going to a restaurant is that it is, by definition, a public place. If you want to eat alone, then stay at home. When you go to a restaurant, you are accepting that you will eat with a roomful of strangers.

This ‘secret door’ and ‘key code’ nonsense started with bars, especially in the US. The bar business essentially consists of reviving ideas that we thought were dead and buried. For instance, the Tiki Bar is a 1950s craze dating to the heyday of Victor Bergeron, who founded the Trader Vic‘s chain. But a decade ago it was back in fashion. The speakeasy dates from the early part of the 20th century when there was Prohibition in America. Because people will drink anyway, Prohibition or no Prohibition, enterprising bar-owners opened concealed bars called Speakeasies. These were hidden away so that the police could not see them. Over two decades ago, the Speakeasy became a craze even though, by now, the idea of a concealed space served no purpose.

No matter. People still thought it was cool and the Speakeasy became a hot concept among bar designers. I can just about take the idea of a speakeasy designed for people who don’t know what a real speakeasy was and who know nothing about Prohibition in America.

But when you extend that concept to restaurants, that’s when I take my shoes off and refuse to leave the house. As I have often pointed out here, I am not a member of any fancy Indian club (or Chambers, The Belvedere, the Bombay Gymkhana etc.) because I am uncomfortable with the idea of enforced exclusivity. I hate places that turn people away on the grounds of social unacceptability: policies have changed now at hotels but I spent many years fighting with doormen at five star hotels when they refused to allow entry to some decent couple on the fringes of the middle class who had only come to see what the inside of a glamorous hotel looked like. And if I am writing about a restaurant, I almost always take against it if I find that the waiters are being particularly snobby to people who seem less affluent or young couples who just want a coffee or a beer and not a high-priced drink or meal.

All restaurants are not equal: Some are more expensive than others. But once you get in there then the staff are obliged to treat everybody who gets a table in exactly the same way. That’s why the business is called ‘hospitality’.

My favourite hospitality story comes from Jeremy King who used to be the King of the London restaurant scene till he sold two different restaurant empires. Jeremy is in the process of opening three new restaurants, but this story comes from Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly in London, which he later sold.

When Brasserie Zedel opened, it was a hip restaurant, but the staff did not mind when an old lady took a table. As she looked at the menu, they served her bread. Eventually she ordered a bowl of soup. This came with bread, so they gave her another breadbasket. The old lady finished both basket of Zedel’s very fancy bread and the soup.

“That’s it”, she told the waiter. “Can I have my bill please?” The waiters were surprised. The old lady had occupied a table at a busy lunchtime for an hour and spent just £ 2.25 (this was over a decade ago) on the soup. But Jeremy King told his staff that this was entirely fine: this is what hospitality is about.

Another Jeremy story comes from The Wolseley, his most famous restaurant, till he sold it a couple of years ago. The Wolseley charges no premium for Christmas lunch, so a woman booked a table for one and ate eggs benedict, the cheapest dish on the menu. They served her with the attention and care they would shower on somebody who had ordered caviar or lobster.

Afterwards, she thanked Jeremy. She had no family, she said, and she hated being alone on Christmas. Coming to the Wolseley made her feel like she was part of a celebration.

In an age of key codes and secret doors, where the idea is to gloat about keeping people out, I often think back to what hospitality really means. And how who are losing sight of it!

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    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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