Its Got The Look
A sprinkling of Indian avant-garde cuisine is making fine dining exciting.
A secret sauce was the team he picked. Ajit Bangera, Senior Executive Chef at ITC Grand Chola in Chennai, was tasked with what many would consider audacious in a city known to be conservative. The mandate was a new south Indian restaurant brand for the hotel, but he had to figure out a new way of eating, and presenting it. Bangera had worked across the world; this was his opportunity to "internationalise" south Indian food.
In his launch team, he picked mostly south Indians - but they were not south Indian chefs. They grew up eating south Indian food but professionally, they were Continental and Western chefs. "It would have been difficult to change a south Indian chef. We would have to make him un-learn. Very, very hard," Bangera says. The idea was to get in dishes without a name so gastrocrats don't expect the expected. "You may not recognise the food when it comes to the table but when you eat it, it would ring a bell," the chef says. "This is a restaurant where you don't come to just eat. You come for an experience."
Avartana opened at the Grand Chola on March 17 this year with four menus: Maya, a seven-course meal; 'Bela' a nine-course; 'Anika' a 13-course and Tara, a seafood menu. Along with it came a new Rasam, a distilled version where all its traditional flavours remained intact. The fun was in the way it was presented; brought to the table in a French press to compress and extract the flavours of fresh coriander and served in a Martini glass. There is a Stir-fry Chicken, which would remind you of a popular appetiser Chicken 65. But it is served on a granite stone with a crisp curry leaf tempura and buttermilk mousse. A Slow-roasted Pork Belly lends itself to dramatisation. It is cooked in vinegar masala from Coorg, but is served alongside an edible ghee candle. Even the twig of the candle is edible. All of this melts into the roast, creating layered textures in the mouth.
The restaurant is a hit. This writer visited Avartana on a Thursday and it was brimming with diners. Quite something considering the hotel wasn't serving alcohol just as yet. "We are doing over 50-55 covers a day on average. It is only a 63 cover restaurant," Bangera says. "A 90-year-old Tamil Brahmin lady from a business family has been here five times in four months. That's the biggest tribute to me."
Food of the decade
Avartana is the latest in a series of fine dining restaurants that present Indian food in a contemporary fashion. Even older restaurants such as Jamavar at The Leela Palace in Bengaluru, known for traditional Indian fare, have started curating special menus. Abhishek Kar, Assistant Food and Beverage Manager at the hotel, says Jamavar receives a lot of international travellers. "Lot of my guests are bankers from Wall Street. They may have eaten Beetroot Halwa in New York. So, we foray into new presentation. We have held on to the essence of Jamavar but the approach is contemporary," he explains. The restaurant has made a name for its lamb preparations, and for Lobster Neeruli, a coastal delicacy originating in Mangalore made with shallots and tomatoes. A modern representation of this dish is "Idiappam and Lobster Neeruli Lasagna". It is served with moilee sauce and a sprinkling of salmon caviar. This look and and its rich ingredients appeal to international tastebuds.
Varq at The Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi is one of the most recommended Indian restaurants by concierges advising foreign guests. There is a Duck Roast on its menu, a traditional Syrian Christian dish. Executive Chef Arun Sundararaj created two textures within the same dish. He cooks the duck breast as a curry and the leg, a tougher meat, is slow-cooked in a French technique, called confit.
In many ways, the trend towards this sort of a cuisine - where chefs experiment with new textures, presentation, and global techniques applied to the local - started when Manish Mehrotra opened Indian Accent in Delhi in 2009, a restaurant that created ripples showcasing "inventive Indian cuisine by complementing the flavours and traditions of India with global ingredients and techniques". Some restaurateurs such as Zorawar Kalra, Founder and Managing Director of Massive Restaurants, call it "progressive" cuisine. Food historian Pushpesh Pant prefers to call it "avant-garde" or "evolving Indian cuisine". That path to the present brims with many culinary twists and turns since India's Independence. Pant, a former professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, takes this writer through a crash course.
A category called the "New Indian Cusine" emerged in the 1950s when Punjabi refugees came to Delhi and introduced fare such as Rara Gosht and Keema Kaleji. "That was the melting pot of Indian cuisine post partition. That period stops in the early '60s. There is no new Indian cuisine after that. In 1970s-80s, Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces as well as ITC Hotels did a fantastic job in traditional cooking. The old was given an elegant and classical touch in restaurants such as Dum Pukht, Bukhara, and Dakshin," says Pant. Ethnic and regional cuisine such as Konkani, Kashmiri, and Chettinad among many others made an appearance in the 1990s. Subsequently, there was a short-lived period of molecular cuisine or fusion cuisine where everybody experimented. An era of celebratory chefs ensued - food as a reality show. "Indian chefs went abroad and got a reputation but cooked Indian for a foreign audience. Then came Indian Accent that experimented, but it remained Indian food. This food has not become mainline - it is an elaborate fine dining experience," Pant explains.
The historian says that the present trend could well become the new Indian cuisine or it could die out. "Masala Library (in Mumbai and New Delhi) is a very good example now because Zorawar Kalra does a lot of experimental work. But then the food ceases to be Indian," Pant notes. For instance, Masala Library, the luxury dining brand of Massive Restaurants, serves a hand-pounded lamb mix cooked with bitter gourd seeds, fennel, and onion seeds. It is served with pickled bitter gourd slices. The bitter gourd here is pickled in apple cider for six days. Certainly, there are elements of Indian technique but overall, could you call this an Indian dish? The answer is nuanced.
Kalra says the idea was to modernise Indian food to make it more up-to-date, in tune with what the global trends are. "Indian food is sophisticated and highly philosophical. But at the same time, it is cuisine stuck in the 1980s," he tells this writer on phone. "People were very happy eating it but there was no innovation. Masala Library is version 2.0 of Indian food. We took traditional food, introduced modern techniques, introduce fresh creativity, and came up with food that was ready for this decade."
What appears modern and progressive to the luxury diner could actually be a story of a finely bottled old wine. Ravitej Nath, the former executive chef of The Oberoi, Gurgaon, and currently a culinary entrepreneur, points to the Indian Thali, which represents multiple textures, from the crunch of the papad, to soft vegetables, to hot curries, and possibly a cold desert. A fine dining modern Indian restaurant plays on similar lines. Nath says if he serves two pieces of grilled chicken with some Makhni sauce, and ice cream, it would be textured and modern. "You had the same in the thali. What people are calling progressive, is revisiting the past," he says. "Like fashion, it is a cycle. The fabric changes, the style is the same."
Today for Today
The menu may appear an abstraction: "Yoghurt explosion | pickled lamb" or "Salmon | hamachi | gondhoraj lemon | mustard cream | ginger". That is, if you don't listen to the story. Chef Tejas Sovani, Executive Sous Chef at The Oberoi, Gurgaon, likes to play with food. He is also a storyteller.
At Amaranta, the modern regional Indian restaurant at the hotel, he has come up with a "Power Play" theme, a menu inspired by the game of chess. There is a dish associated with each of the pieces in the game - king, queen, rook, knight, bishop, and pawn. The bishop, for instance, is depicted by a camel in Indian chess and dishes in this course are inspired by the Thar desert of Rajasthan. Sovani has created an "Yoghurt Explosion," a curry-filled tortellini or pasta with a soft centre of yoghurt. There is also the Achari Lamb.
"Salmon | hamachi | gondhoraj lemon | mustard cream | ginger" is about the Pawn, the foot soldier. "Foot soldiers would need something which is high on protein and fattening," the chef says. "So, we have done a fish course. We have paired it with mustard cream sphere, a sauce of mustard and coconut cream, widely made in Bengal."
The salmon in the Pawn is imported but Sovani, increasingly, has been tilting towards local sourcing. Amaranta is now promising "Bay to Plate in 8 Hours". It is possible for trawlers to reach the dock from sea at 4.30 in the morning with their catch of lobsters, sea bass, and snappers. They auction it by 5.30 am. If representatives from The Oberoi pick the fish and pack it in a dry ice box by 6 am, it could catch the flight that leaves for Delhi around 8 am, from Surat, Kochi, Chennai, Vizag, and Kolkata. The fish could technically be ready to be plated at 12.30 pm.
This supply-chain, to serve food fresh, is complex. A small miss and the product may not be available to be served at all. However, many luxury dining destinations are willing to go the distance now - it is emerging as a new dimension to contemporary cuisine. "Everybody is worried about the carbon footprint a dish creates. I'm now struggling a lot with good quality seafood, even though India has got a huge shoreline," says Chef Arun Sundararaj of The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi. Varq has started sourcing "Today for Today".
"The focus is back on freshness. If you go to a restaurant today, the chicken you eat may be 15-20 days old. It would be in and out of the freezer. It is safe, but the quality deteriorates," he says. "Hotels have traditionally worked on storage. We have decreased our storage time drastically. We have decreased inventories. The purchase manager is always running and has lost half his hair," Sundararaj tells. And then guffaws.
The effort may be worth it. In the era of "Make in India", a brilliant representation of Indian cuisine would only be complete with great local produce efficiently sourced and cooked well. Just-in-time. ~