The Taste By Vir Sanghvi: Are Indian restaurants taken more seriously globally than ever before? - Hindustan Times
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The Taste By Vir Sanghvi: Are Indian restaurants taken more seriously globally than ever before?

By, New Delhi
Apr 02, 2024 03:09 PM IST

Nobody disputes that Indian food is now taken more seriously globally. But what about Indian restaurants? That’s a tough one but my instinct is to say ‘yes’.

Nobody disputes that Indian food is now taken more seriously globally than ever before. But what about Indian restaurants? That’s a tough one but my instinct would be to say ‘yes’.

The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: Are Indian restaurants taken more seriously globally than ever before? (Pixabay (Representative Image) )
The Taste With Vir Sanghvi: Are Indian restaurants taken more seriously globally than ever before? (Pixabay (Representative Image) )

There is no objective measure of these things, but one indication is the influential list of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants produced out of London by William Reed Media, originally as part of Restaurant magazine (a Reed title) and now as a standalone list.

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In its early years, the list either ignored or did not understand India. Bukhara sometimes made it but then so did Wasabi, which was a simultaneous double-kick to both India and Japan: There are hundreds of better Japanese restaurants in Japan and hundreds of restaurants serving good Indian food in India. It was silly to single out a modern Japanese restaurant in Mumbai.

Matters improved somewhat when 50 Best started a separate list for Asia but even then, I felt that India was under-represented. The compilers of the list took the line that this was not entirely their fault. The methodology is that a specially selected group of foodies in India and elsewhere chooses the best restaurants they have eaten at in the past year. The London office merely adds up the votes. So perhaps it was the choice of the electorate that worked against India, which is entirely possible given that even I was a voter for some years!

For whatever reason, things have got far better now. India is well-represented in the Top 100 in Asia. Charles Reed, who runs William Reed (a family company for many generations) often visits India and is knowledgeable about Indian chefs . And — let’s face it — our restaurants are much better than they used to be.

This year, the 50 to 100 list which was released weeks before the Top 50 included many familiar Indian names: Mumbai’s Americano was at 61; the Bombay Canteen was at 70; Gurugram’s Comorin was at 79; the original Delhi Dum Pukht was 87; and Mumbai’s Ekaa was at 98.

All of these were good choices. Ekaa is run by a very young chef, Niyati Rao, who brings freshness and originality to her cuisine-neutral menu. Dum Pukht is, of course, one of the most influential Indian restaurants in the world. Comorin is Manish Mehrotra’s second restaurant (after Indian Accent) and brings a casual joyfulness to his cuisine. The Bombay Canteen should have got on to the list a long time ago. And Americano is a chef-driven restaurant that reflects Alex Sanchez’s own interests and his multi-cultural American roots while framing its menu in terms of Italian cuisine.

I am sure that more Indian restaurants will hit the top 100 next year. Prateek Sadhu’s remote, new Naar will be on it. And I reckon that Hussain Shahzad’s brilliant counter-seating Pappa’s will head directly to the 1-50 list. The 50 Best will probably also have to find space for two outstanding Bangalore restaurants: Farmlore and Manu Chandra’s Lupa.

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It is the 1-50 list where India did not do so well this time compared to last year. The same three restaurants that made the list last year reappeared this year but all three slid down the ratings. The original Avartana in Chennai entered the list at 30 last year and was widely expected to rise further up this year. Instead, it went down to 44 which surprised most people.

I don’t think Indian Accent cares as much about its ranking given that it has been on the list for years and that Manish Mehrotra wins every award. But even so, it also slid downwards. It was 19 last year and dropped to 26 this year.

The highest Indian restaurant on the list was Mumbai’s Masque which was 16 last year. This year it was still the top Indian restaurant, but it had gone down to 23 belying speculation that it would be in the top ten. This was especially unexpected because Masque’s food this year is better than ever.

The thing to remember about lists is that they are relative. Just because a restaurant has gone down in the ranking, it does not follow that the food has become worse. It could just be that other restaurants in other countries have got better. Or even, given that this list is determined by voting, that global foodie attention has shifted elsewhere. All that really matters for most restaurants is to get on the list. As Varun Totlani, Masque’s gifted and good-natured chef said to me at the awards (even before the rankings were announced) “it is just a number”.

Because of the way the list is put together, nobody can predict what next year’s rankings will be. But I think (nevertheless) that Indian representation in the Top 50 will go up from three. And the rankings will go up, not down.

There was a lot else at Seoul that made me very happy. The comeback of Gaggan Anand is now complete. As some of you may remember, he closed his restaurant during the pandemic and did residencies in other cities (most notably in Singapore at the Mandala Club). He then re-opened in a new avatar: as Asia’s most exclusive gourmet restaurant, open for dinner only four nights a week with just 16 seats at a counter. The food is outstanding (his best ever) but I wondered if a restaurant that small and exclusive could get enough votes to crack the top of the list. I needn’t have worried. Gaggan was at number 3 in the list, the best restaurant in Asia outside of Japan.

Deepankar Khosla, another Bangkok-based chef made it to Seoul after some last-minute tensions; his visa only came through the day before he left for the awards ceremony. But it was worth it. Not only was his Haoma in the top 100, it also won the award for Most Sustainable restaurant in Asia, which, Khosla says, came as a surprise.

At a personal level, few success stories made me as happy as the rise of the Suhring restaurant. I have known the identical Suhring twins for 16 years now and the first thing I said when I first ate their food all those years ago at the old MezzaLuna was that this was two Michelin star food.

The Suhrings did eventually open their own restaurant and did get two Michelin stars (which they still retain) but I wondered how they would perform this year at 50 Best. Their food is delicious and perfect, but it is not trendy. They don’t bow to foodie fashion; they don’t lobby “influencers” or play the media game. Last year when the Suhring restaurant came in at 22, I thought they deserved better.

So, it turns out, did the voters. This year they were back in the top Ten at number 7 only because of their commitment to quality. This was positive proof that if you stick to making the best food possible then you may have ups and (relative) lows but the world will be forced to acknowledge your commitment to excellence. (Gaggan has been a backer of, and a shareholder in, Suhring so this was yet another triumph for him.)

I was pleased also for another Bangkok personality, Chef Tonn. Last year his LeDu was at number one and very few restaurants get to be number one twice in a row. But Nusara, my favourite of his restaurants, came in at number 6 this year with LeDu close behind.

In the last year or so, Tonn has cooked all over the globe, at some of the top restaurants in the world. He has single-handedly changed the image of Thai cuisine from an “ethnic” or “takeaway” cuisine to its rightful status as one of the world’s great cuisines. Because he is young, good-looking, sophisticated, articulate and knowledgeable about wine he has transformed people’s ideas about what a Thai chef is like. His country owes him a huge debt for everything he has done for Thai cuisine.

But then, as the 50 Best List demonstrated, the food world is getting more international. Number one on the list was Tokyo’s Sezanne located at that city’s Four Seasons Hotel. This is a French-influenced Tokyo restaurant with a British chef, working for a Canadian hotel chain that is now owned by an Arab and an American.

What could be more international than that?

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