By Sourish Bhattacharyya
IT'S NOT often that you get served the best risotto you've had in many years straight out of the pan by an international celebrity chef who has a warm-hearted laughter and vehement views on the wine that is sold in his own restaurant.
|London's celebrity chef, cookbook|
writer and television presenter, who
sold his chain of restaurants in 2012,
has returned to the business with
Zerrucco by Zilli at The Ashok
in Delhi's Diplomatic Enclave
It was a Friday night and Aldo Zilli's first day in India, a country he had known only through its spices, Gordon Ramsay and Rick Stein's television shows, and one of our best exports, Atul Kochhar, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred Benares restaurant in Mayfair, London -- the two had met 20 years ago at a television cook-off. He showed no signs of jetlag (he thanked British Airways for it) and laughed heartily when I said Jacob's Creek (the wine of the evening) was Wimbledon's official plonk and therefore fit to be served only to the Williams sisters.
I knew I was being uncharitable (because the restaurant, Zerruco by Zilli, was a couple of days away from its official opening and hadn't yet got its wine supply) and perhaps politically incorrect, but you can be just yourself when you're with Zilli, who has more restaurant success stories, best-selling cookbooks, product endorsements and newspaper columns than most other celebrity chefs, and yet wears his status very lightly. His Italian roots show up when he makes every guest feel special not because it is good for business, but because he's genuinely warm-hearted.
Zerruco by Zilli has come up where Mashrabiya, the Middle Eastern restaurant run by Arjun and Amit Amla at one corner of The Ashok, used to rock with its heady mix of belly dancing, good food, flavoured shishas and pleasing ambience. It survived longer than Maroush, the rooftop Lebanese restaurant at the ITC Maurya, but it had ceased to make business sense.
Zerruco by Zilli has stepped into Mashrabiya's vast space. Sprawling across a 3,000-square-foot dining room, with a 70-foot-long backlit panel made with individually designed wooden pieces, and an equally expansive al fresco area with its own bar and wood-fired pizza oven, it is Zilli's first foray into the restaurant business after 2012, when he sold his chain in London (the most famous name among them being Zilli Fish). And it promises to be Delhi-NCR's liveliest Italian restaurant serving what Italian chefs do best -- cook food whose simplicity is as beguiling as its bouquet of tastes and flavours is seductive. The laudatory tweets from the fortunate few who partied till well beyond midnight this past Sunday -- it started as a brunch, but there was no stopping the guests -- echoed the same feeling even as Zilli exclaimed: "OMG Indian people can party 12 hours later"!
Promoted by Kashif Farooq and Prashant Ojha, who turned Urban Pind into a nightlife phenomenon before it had to shut after the landlord demanded a rent that the duo couldn't afford, the co-branded restaurant has also benefited from the expertise of its principal consultant, Manish Baheyti, a former senior executive with The Oberoi Group who also had a stint as Director of Marketing at the Hyatt Regency New Delhi. As General Manager of The Trident Bhubaneswar in 2005, Manish, who's from one of Rajasthan's minor royal families, posted the hotel's highest profit in 23 years. The trio clearly bring a wealth of experience to the table and only they could have braved the one year it took them to build the restaurant out of a space that had become a rubbish dump after Mashrabiya shut down.
Kashif, who's 33 and a graduate of Delhi University's Sri Venkateswara 'Venky' College, has an interesting back story that I have to share here. The young restaurateur spent his early childhood in Srinagar, but had to relocate with his family to Japan because his father could not cope with terrorist extortion threats. "Kashmiri Pandits weren't the only people who were made refugees by terrorists," Kashif said with feeling. He had always wanted to be in the business of hospitality and next big dream is to open a hotel in Dubai. "Why not in India?" I asked. He replied that it is very difficult to do business here.
My meal with Zilli alternating with Kashif, Manish and an old friend, image consultant Pareina Thapar, started with minestrone soup -- I loved the way it was served just the way I have been having it since childhood, without any modernist interventions. Next came the crispy fried squid tossed with fresh chilli, garlic chips and coriander -- a temptress, it's one dish that would keep drawing me back at Zerruco by Zilli, as would the silky wild mushroom risotto. The Margherita Pizza was, again, just the way you'd have it in Naples.
Another Italian classic, Melanzane alla Parmigiana, layers of fried aubergine with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil, was also presented without any fuss or frills, and the vegetarian tagliatelle was brought alive by a red pepper sauce. But the show-stoppers were the pan-roasted seabass fillet with fennel and orange salad, potatoes and spiced red wine sauce, and the Cicchetti Lamb, which is a mover and seller at Manchester's acclaimed Italian restaurant after which this pan-roasted rack of lamb with a red wine glaze takes its name. It's home-style Italian fare whose beauty is that it is well-made and connects with the soul.
With Zilli's life being regular fodder for my favourite U.K. newspaper, Daily Mail, there's not a nugget of it that is not known to the reading public, so I merrily flaunted my knowledge of his stiletto ravioli, which he had originally designed for the U.K. edition of Vogue. He quickly produced two of them, the green (and more popular) one being stuffed with mushroom and ricotta, served with asparagus and tomato mascarpone sauce.
The baked dark chocolate and chilli fondant complemented with vanilla ice-cream was the fitting finale to the treat. Zilli proudly declared that it beat the entry by a Michelin-starred chef on a television show. Well, Zilli doesn't need a Michelin star to prove his credentials. He has mastered the art of stunning simplicity.