It is possible to get a fabulous Lebanese meal or an authentic Chinese experience in India. But a meal that takes a fresh look at Indian food? Nyet. One of the reasons is that Indian diners, who have, after all, been eating dal, sabzis and chicken curries all their lives, have a very clear idea of what they will pay for. If paneer khurchan in their favourite restaurant (or in their own home) is cooked a certain way, they won’t tolerate a deviation of more than ten percent in a new restaurant. And if a new restaurant tries to juxtapose two traditional dishes against each other in the same dish, diners will purse their lips and take their custom elsewhere.
Any new Indian restaurant has to do a skilful job of representing a multiplicity of Indian cuisines without any loss of authenticity – a nightmare, considering that ingredients in one part of the country are completely unknown in another. For example, radhuni in West Bengal, teflem in Goa or kalpasi in Chettinad are known only in their respective regions. The other aspect is that chefs have to walk the tight rope making pan- Indian menus. Gujarati food and its sweetness doesn’t cut the mustard in Butter Chicken Land; when Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail started operations in Mumbai, the public was furious that there was no Goan prawn curry or moong dal with hing ka tadka!
Consequently, it was with a sinking heart that I visited Masala Klub at the iconic Taj West End. Light Indian food is too often interpreted as a licence to invent rules as you go along. However, this is one chain that has actually become better as it has gone along. From 2001 when Masala Art started in Delhi to seven years later, it has been a steady climb for the brand. There are three separate concepts at the restaurant. Tawa cooking was found to absorb too much oil so there is a flat-topped teppan counter with bar seating and tables in a private dining room inset with stones on which seafood is grilled. You order from a degustation menu, of which several offerings are stone-cooked. A nifty metal cloche ensures that food is kept warm and/or continues being cooked while on the stone.
The third is a regular a la carte menu that has dishes from other Masala restaurants and a host of new ones from the four southern states. Thus, Uppu Kari, the Chettinad classic, is made with minimal oil but packs a mean punch with the spice levels. Scallops Curryvepellai is ideally suited to stone cooking, using as it does scallops and a til-based podi: any higher heat than 80 degrees would have slaughtered the flavour of the scallops. Chicken Patthar Pulao likewise has been adapted to stone-cooking, with the cloche on.
The highly talented Chef Sandeep Kachroo has worked out a sorbet made with tamarind and dates – the quintessential combination for a chutney, yet in a different format.
Caption: The bulk of nouvelle Indian restaurants is in London, including Cinnamon Club, Amaya and Quilon – the latter owned by the Taj Group.