Thursday, 21 November 2013

FORTUNE COOKIE: Din Tai Fung's Amazing Success Story is a Lesson in Mall Dining for India

Fortune Cookie first appeared in the November 21, 2013, edition of Mail Today. I have tweaked the headlines and the order in which the individual items have appeared in the newspaper.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers

Din Tai Fung, Taiwan's gift to dim sum lovers,
has shown that even a mall setting can't stop a
restaurant from getting coveted Michelin stars
Image: Courtesy of 
MANY eyebrows were raised when the news first broke of Yuautcha opening at Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj? How could a pedigreed international restaurant open at a middle-market mall not particularly known for outstanding food offerings? I found the answers during a visit to the Din Tai Fung, the dim sum restaurant famous for its soupy dumplings (xiaolongbao), at its fifth-floor outlet in Taipei 101, the world's third tallest building whose steel-and-glass pagoda structure towers over the Taiwanese capital.
Like Din Tai Fung's growing legion of Indian admirers who lovingly call it DTF, I had discovered the brand in Singapore, before also finding it to my utter joy at Bangkok's Central World mall. But having the xiaolongbao, after piercing each one of them with a chopstick and seeing the soup ooze out seductively (if you eat it any other way, you'll be left with a scalded tongue), in the city of its birth is a different experience altogether.
It's a sprawling restaurant at a food court with not one vacant seat, but you'll ignore its regular appearance (and commonplace seating) the moment you immerse yourself into the delectable xiaolongbao with finely minced pork and crab roe cooking in the stock inside, and the star anise-flavoured beef noodle soup, which the Taiwanese revere as much as their oyster omelette, and the gently flavoured egg fried rice. A great food concept, you'll realise, doesn't need a plush appearance and credit card-burning prices to become an international sensation whose two outlets in Hong Kong (Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay) have won a Michelin star each.
The global network of restaurants spread across 11 countries had humble origins at the arterial Xinyi Road in Taipei, which acquired international celebrity status only after DFT was rated by The New York Times as one of the world ten best gourmet restaurants in 1993. It is also the road where Taipei 101 is now located. DFT's founder, Yang Bingyi, and his wife Lai Penmai, opened Din Tai Fung as a shop retailing cooking oil in 1958, but the rise of packaged cooking oil put them nearly out of business. They started selling xiaolongbao and steamed noodles from their shop to stay out of the red, but so popular was their food menu that by 1974 Din Tai Fung grew into a restaurant famous for its soup dumplings. Fortunately for its fans, it has only gotten better in the past four decades.

Two global celeb chefs raise a toast to our city
FOR THE first time after Wasabi, which introduced Masaharu Morimoto to the Nobu-obsessed city, Delhi will be home to restaurants of two international celebrity chefs -- Akira Back at the Aerocity's sparkling new JW Marriott and Aldo Zilli, who makes his Asian debut with Zerruco at the airy spot that was formerly occupied by Mashrabiya at The Ashok.
Back, a Korean-American who started as a professional snowboarder and acted in extreme action movies before becoming a student of Morimoto and an executive chef of Nobu Matsuhisa's Aspen restaurant, and Zilli, a celebrity TV chef and best-selling cookbook author who recently sold his successful restaurants in London and Dubai for a tidy pile, are alike in many ways. They are both intensely creative (an admiring JW Marriott insider was telling me the other night that Back can turn even a potato croquette, which he serves with seared foie gras, into a sensory experience) and they are also brilliant showmen with a celebrity fan following.
Back has had Taylor Swift, Eva Longoria and a host of other entertainment industry celebrities eating out of his hands at his Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant and Lounge at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Zilli, whose last book, Fresh and Green, was on the Daily Telegraph's Top Ten Books of 2012, made headlines not so long ago by creating an a pair of edible stilettos from fresh pasta stuffed with spinach, ricotta and truffles for the multiple award-winning Manchester restaurant, Cicchetti, which is said to be the favourite of Coleen Rooney, wife of the England and Manchester United football superstar Wayne Rooney.
A regular on the pages of Daily Mail, a food columnist for Daily Express and a television food show host who has also appeared on Celebrity X-Factor, Zilli is the corporate executive chef (they call him the consigliere!) of the company that runs Cicchetti. Zerruco, though, is his independent venture, for which he has tied up with restaurateurs Kashif Farooqi and Prashant Ojha of Urban Pind fame, industry consultant Manish Baheyti, and three private investors. It was the Michelin one-starred London chef, Atul Kochhar, who introduced Baheyti to Zilli -- Baheyti and Kochhar know each other since their days as students at the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development.
The entry of these successful international chefs seals Delhi's reputation as a foodie city that believes in spending good money on good food, but what do these chefs see in the city? I asked Baheyti this question and he said it is precisely this reputation that is drawing chefs of the calibre of Back and Zilli. Gone are the days when Delhi could be dismissed as the Republic of Butter Chicken. Yes, we (and I say this as a flag-waving Dilliwallah) do love our butter chicken (I'll have driven for more than an hour to Invitation, Ashok Vihar, to dig the best BC of Delhi), but we also have an adventurous, world-travelled palate.
More importantly, we put our money where are taste buds are. Another celebrity powerhouse of culinary talent, Mumbai's Rahul Akerkar, who's ready to open Indigo shortly on what was formerly a nallah on Africa Avenue, said as much when he described Delhi to me as a city of well-heeled, high-spending food lovers. For the new international imports, Delhi offers hope in a world where fine dining is yet to recover from the wallet-tightening aftermath of the economic downturn of 2008. Expect more to follow the road taken by Akira Back and Aldo Zilli.

Akira Back Lines Up His Best for Delhi Gourmet Club
AKIRA BACK'S restaurant at the JW Marriott opens with a Delhi Gourmet Club dinner on Saturday and the menu that the Korean-American celebrity chef has prepared for the evening will give you a foretaste of his inventive style. Back spikes his famous tuna pizza with ponzu mayo (ponzu is the citrus-flavoured soy sauce that the Japanese use extensively), kaenip (perilla leaves, which the Japanese call shiso and the Koreans use to make a kimchi) and black truffles. His other hallmark preparation, seared foie gras, comes with a corn croquette, tosaka (a seaweed that is either served cold or eaten with sashimi) and spiced litchi honey. And the supporting cast of his duck breast include a puree of kabocha (a white squash that the Japanese and Koreans believe to be an aphrodisiac), compressed Korean pear and the sweet soy-base Kabayaki sauce that an unagi or eel is dipped into. Ingredients Delhiites haven't experienced before.

Delhi-NCR's First Irani Restaurant is Chef Saby's Last Hurrah for AD Singh
I'VE BEEN constantly monitoring the progress of Gurgaon's Cyber Hub, which is evolving as the new must-go-to destination, but the new restaurant that's got the city chattering is Soda Bottle Openerwala. An AD Singh venture that is being justifiably billed as Delhi/NCR's first Parsi-Irani restaurant, the quirkily designed Soda Bottle Openerwala is also the last hurrah of the hugely creative Sabyasachi 'Saby' Gorai, who has spent more than a year researching a cuisine that most Delhiites equate with akoori scrambled eggs, and is now moving on to launch his own consultancy services.
The more discerning among us have been goading us to try out the amazing fare that Mrs Dhun Bagli serves at the Delhi Parsi Anjuman on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, but for those who can't think beyond Mumbai's iconic Irani restaurant, Britannia & Company, Soda Water Openerwala may be the best place to start for an understanding of the cuisine. I will review the restaurant at length, but I have not heard such a buzz accompanying any opening for a long time. With Zorawar Kalra's Made in Punjab drawing capacity crowds, Soda Water Openerwala doing better in its opening week, and Zambar with a new menu designed by the extremely creative Arun Kumar waiting in the wings, I can see all roads leading to the Cyber Hub.