Isha Singh Sawhney takes stock of the country's fine dining scene and finds that a plethora of enticing experiences are seducing gastronomes.
In the faint flicker of candlelight, 12 strangers sit down to dinner. At the head of this Agatha Christie-like setting is a little man, holding forth a passionate discourse on the food sitting on thalis and in mini tiffin dabbas in front of each person. The man, Japanese chef/artist Santoshi Date, is talking about the miso soup, tempura, and pumpkin pancakes that are served eclectically on the Indian plates and tiffins. The diners themselves are a motley crew of gastronomes who have come together to not only break bread with each other, but also to relish Date's specially created Japanese menu at Haus Khas's petite restaurant The Grey Garden's weekly Supper Club.
For Avinash Kumar one of the founders of the restaurant, the Supper Club takes the process of dining beyond just taste to presentation, experience, space, and even costume. "It's like a slightly magical and surreal extension of what we want to do with The Grey Garden-mould a holistic, sensorial experience of media, fashion, and art around the experience of food," says the B.L.O.T video artist of the nights where apart from guest chefs like Date, dinners involve period-themed costumes, props, food installations, and even eating in the dark. Kumar and his partners, designers Smita Singh and Shani Himanshu of 11.11 by CellDSGN, took this concept further at the recently held UnBox Festival in Goethe Institute, New Delhi. They put together the quirky Food Labyrinth, a playground of gastronomic adventures that included food face-offs and elaborate salad installations conjured up for die-hard foodies.
For the jaded Indian diner, the lack of dining spaces that go beyond just serving food is an issue that needs addressing-he is hungrily seeking out adventures, and fine dining for him is no longer about expensive restaurants and inflated bills. Gastronomes want to not only add multiple sensorial dimensions to their eating experience, but also want to know where their food is coming from, who is cooking it, and after a bit of polite chit-chat, want to be wowed theatrically. Eager to please the eager to experiment are a surge of restaurants and restaurateurs who are at the centre of this avant-garde food revolution.
Fellow supper club organisers, Mumbai's Brown Paper Bag girls Mansi Poddar and Kanika Parab say that the inspiration behind their Turning Tables nights, where a private home is converted into a family-style restaurant, complete with a celebrity chef and a group of strangers, was the lack of avenues to go out and meet new people. "Food is a great unifier. It's comforting and unisex, and people's experimental spirits manifest themselves through dining," explains Mansi, who ropes in some of Mumbai's best chefs to whip up meals for these disparate groups of strangers.
And this experimenting is not just restricted to the act of dining. Restaurant kitchens are donning a laboratory-like aura, where several processes explore ideas like how to make meat more succulent, broccoli more crunchy, and foie gras more buttery, and how to sex up the boring old beet. And in wanting to create modernist cuisines inspired by international restaurants, terms like cryo cooking, molecular gastronomy, sous vide, and pre-plating have become de rigueur. Meals now have curiosities, shapes, and textures; plates are the canvas, food the paints, and the chefs the artists. At Riyaaz Amlani's Delhi-based restaurant Smokehouse Room, Chef Gresham Fernandes complements the hallucinogenic interiors by whipping up elaborate sperification cocktails and grand degustation menus. Along with Fernandes, veteran Abhijit Saha at his Bengaluru-based Caperberry today craft epicurean magic with their wizardry.
After much trial and error, Saha has perfected techniques that create both a qualitative difference and a bit of a drama in the restaurant. "We cook everything in a sous vide vacuum, which makes meat tender, soft, and juicy," he says, adding with a laugh that cryo or liquid nitrogen techniques can create quite a spectacle as food is cooked at -196� Celcius in front of diners. Experiments aren't confined just to global cuisines. The boring old dal, roti, and sabzi are also being given facelifts, and today people are moving past Mughlai food. Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia's Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai , has he ralded a transformation of Indian cuisine into a sort of designer food-his current menu is infused with the myriad flavours of the ubiquitous Indian marigold. Bhatia says food fatigue makes it essential to have different shapes and materials to create new experiences. "With Indian food, much of it is what you make with the thali. So, a basil-flavoured chicken tikka with goat cheese or sun-dried tomatoes, or aromatic smoke rising from a dish, or blue curacao tinged kulfi are simply showmanship," says Bhatia. For the new calorie conscious Indian, Bhatia also ensures the flavours are simple and the food low-fat.
He is not alone in this phase of reinvention. Mumbai-based Blue Frog owner Mahesh Mathai, who recently launched Azimuth Chef's Studio at the Delhi venue, and Chef Sabyasachi Gorai next door at Olive Bar & Kitchen are equally serious about ensuring the shortest, easily traceable distance exists between the farm and the fork. Mathai brings new international chefs every three months to Azimuth, just like Chef Alex Sanchez at Mumbai's The Table, and is attempting to reinvent the term 'seasonal'. "We're using the word to connect with produce that is fresh and only available in that season," elaborates Mathai. "We want to cut miles and the number of people between the food and your plate." Sanchez meanwhile interprets modern American cuisines through Mumbai's locally available ingredients. "Our aim is to bring our guests pleasure through deceivingly simple, flavourful dishes that excite the senses and create lasting memories." His shocking pink beet risotto is doing just that as it climbs to number one on the restaurant's popular dishes chart.
These principles also strike at the very heart of Mumbai patisserie Le Pain Quotidien and Delhi's newest French brasserie, Chez Nini.
While the founder of Le Pain Quotidien, Chef Alain Coumont ensures that only the highest quality, wholesome, and locally sourced fresh ingredients find their way into the freshly baked breads, pastries, and desserts (like at any other international outlet of the patisserie), Chez Nini's chef Nira Kehar is attempting something similar in the very different set-up of Delhi's Meherchand Market. "Our dishes aren't French classics, but everything is executed with French culinary techniques and the food is as organic, local, and fresh as I can possibly make it. We bake artisanal bread using the sour dough technique with natural yeast of the flour," explains the first-time proprietor.
As shows like MasterChef and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations air at primetime spots on television these days, this progressiveness in food is also being taken advantage of by heavyweights like The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, and the Mumbai-based KA Hospitality. Banking on the fact that India is the newest hub for international food chains, Dinesh Nair, joint MD of the Leela chain, has introduced to Delhi's gourmands the joy of tucking into French cuisine at Le Cirque and Japanese dishes at Megu; KA Hospitality has debuted Hakkasan's renowned pan-Asian menu and Yauatcha's delectable dimsums in Mumbai, in quick succession. Aishwarya Nair, head, corporate food and wine at The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, calls this "the globalisation of cuisine". "People want to experience a restaurant as they would in Tokyo, London, Paris, or New York. Therefore, New Delhi is just a natural progression," she explains.
Natural progression could well summarise the present gourmet scene. In a country where people are willing to experiment and are hungering for new palatable experiences, the rites of passage are many and varied.
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