I’ve done nothing but gossip these last few days. And the results have been fascinating. But first things first. In the last one year alone, three major restaurant brands have opened in the country. Hakkasan made its appearance in Mumbai and Le Cirque in Delhi. Very soon, Megu is going to open, in Delhi, on another floor of the very same hotel where Le Cirque is located: Leela Palace New Delhi. Before these three restaurants, the first major launch of an international restaurant in India would have to be Wasabi by Morimoto, which is hosted in the Taj Mahal Hotel Delhi and Mumbai. Around the same time came Blue Ginger, also hosted by the Taj group in Bangalore and Delhi. And a couple of years ago, modern Indian chef Vineet Bhatia brought his cooking to Oberoi Mumbai.
Prior to that, the restaurant brands that entered India were of the likes of KFC, Mc Donalds and Pizza Hut. Then came Hard Rock Café. The initial lot was all quick service restaurants. Have they done well? I would say phenomenally well, with one rider. Each one of them has made the effort to understand the Indian palate and to cater to it. Thus, a burger chain whose patties are made of beef worldwide, serves McAloo Tikkis in India, along with chicken and lamb burgers. Is it a sell-out to the local palate? That depends very much on how you view it. On one hand, multinational restaurant brands seek new markets. This serves everyone well, because the new market gets a set of tastes that they have not previously been exposed to.
Developing one’s palate and exposure to new flavours is an important part of growing. It’s also a subtle compliment given by the world’s top restaurants “We could have opened an outlet anywhere else in the world but we are opening it in your country because we feel that your palate is mature enough to appreciate our cuisine.” So, having a world-class restaurant or three in our backyard is a great way of exploring new tastes. I would have imagined that Vineet Bhatia opening in India was akin to bringing coals to Newcastle, but one visit to the path-breaking Ziya in Mumbai changed all that. It has as much to do with dal and chawal as a Piaget has to telling the time. It is served in pre-plated portions, and does not have the usual accompaniments like dal and sabzi, which has nonplussed some old-timers.
If you ask Le Cirque, Blue Ginger, Ziya, Wasabi, Megu and Hakkasan how their brands are doing, all you’ll get are bright smiles and platitudes. And there are numbers to back them up too. Try getting in to Hakkasan on a weekend for dinner and you’ll know what I mean. As a matter of fact, I’ve had to wait half an hour for a table for two at Blue Ginger (Delhi) on a Tuesday night! Now that must be some kind of record. But there’s the other side of the story as well, and there’s what I was gossiping about all of last week. The only trouble is that my sources don’t want to de-construct the happy smiles and carefully constructed messages of those behind these and other brands. So they’ve asked to be anonymous. Which is fine by me.
People who are associated with some of these brands say that though well-heeled Indians are traveling around the globe and know their food well, their numbers are small as yet. They are certainly not enough to fill up a restaurant. Thus, an oriental restaurant has to have many elements to cater effortlessly to various segments of the market. “You’ve got to make sure that your teppanyaki section is large and can handle volumes,” whispers someone associated with a high-profile oriental eatery. “You see, teppanyaki legitimizes catering to the local palate. The chef can spice up the food, use green chillies – otherwise a big no-no – and in general break a few rules.” This manager cautions against tampering with signature dishes. “They should be inviolate,” is his advice, “because they will give your place its reputation.”
Another manager in another city mops his brow when he recounts guest requests. “The chef takes two full minutes decorating a plate at the pick up counter and three guests, deep in conversation with each other, barely look at the plate arriving at the table, but ask the waiter to divide it into three.” He swears that his last expatriate chef almost had a nervous breakdown at the concept of a guest not even looking at the plate before asking it to be divvied up. Desi guests are known, apparently, not so much for their love of spicy food as for their fondness of sharing portions.
So much so that when Chef Manish Mehrotra was conceptualizing his path-breaking Indian Accent in Delhi, he had studied the market. “I don’t have any whole lobster on my menu. It would be an open invitation to guests to ask the waiter to cut it into four portions, and my lobster and my plate presentation would go to hell”. He claims to have studied another modern Indian restaurant where guests have been known to do just that.
One owner thinks – hopes – he has the right solution. “I have brought in a high profile brand into the country, so I do have a responsibility towards it. My chefs are not allowed to drown a delicate fish with spicy sauce, but at the end of the day, I do have to look out for the bottom line, so I allow my waiters to serve chillies at the table. The same people visit this brand in other cities across the world and never ask for chillies. I don’t know why they do so here. Maybe one day they will realize that this food is far more delicious without chillies. Till then, I’ll keep doing this unhappy trade-off by letting my customer ruin the food at the table, but I’ll never do it in the kitchen.”