Thursday, 27 February 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: How Delhi Got Over Its Fear of Raw Fish

This column first appeared in the February 27, 2014, edition of Mail Today. Here's the link to the original:
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
I STILL remember when Delhi/NCR's first real Japanese restaurant, Sakura, opened in the year 2000 at what was then called The Metropolitan Hotel Nikko, even seasoned diners would shudder at the thought of having raw fish. They regarded sushi and sashimi with trepidation because the closest contact the city, outside the Bengali community, had with fish till then was the batter-quilted, deep-fried Amritsari variety. Raw fish wasn't our idea of good food. And Japanese meant Fujiya's chicken gyoza (fried dumplings) or what passed off as Japanese at The Ashok's Tokyo restaurant.
The popularity of the sushi platter
of Wasabi by Morimoto, which
has just turned five, mirrors the
evolution of the city's taste buds.
Sakura, predictably, became a hangout of Japanese expats, who found heaven in the o-toro (tuna belly supreme), hotate (scallop) and hamachi (yellowtail), blast frozen and flown in three times a day by Japan Airlines, that Master Chef Nariyoshi Nakamura would slice for them with his platinum knives, which he kept with reverential care at one corner of his kitchen. For family outings, they would head to Tamura, which was run by one of them in that quiet corner where Vasant Vihar's Paschimi Marg meets Poorvi Marg, the only place in the world where East  meets West.
The local clientele preferred the comfort of tempura and yakitori, the Japanese pakodas and kebabs, or go to TK's at the Hyatt Regency and assume that its Benihana-type teppanyaki offerings were Japanese. That may explain why the Taj did not open a Wasabi in Delhi for five years after launching the restaurant with the much-acclaimed Japanese American 'Iron Chef', Masaharu Morimoto, in Mumbai a decade ago. And even when threesixtydegrees at The Oberoi decided to make its sushi boat the talk of the town, it consigned its Japanese counter to one corner of the popular restaurant presided over by a Filipino expat named Augusta imported from Dubai. Augusta, with his charming ways, made sushi accessible to the ladies who lunch by getting them addicted to his sushi-rolling classes. It coincided with the discovery of Nobu by the chatterati, who made a pilgrimage to Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's London restaurant their annual holiday pilgrimage, and they got addicted to its miso-marinated black cod.
When Wasabi by Morimoto opened at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, the market had already grown used to Japanese food, but Sakura had ceased to matter and the city still feared raw fish. Unsurprisingly, like elsewhere in the world, California rolls started getting popular (and home delivered), because you ate the rice first and the minuscule presence of raw fish got masked by mayonnaise, avocado and what not. Some people even tried to introduce tandoori sushi, but, thankfully, the trend did not catch on even in this Republic of Butter Chicken. Nonetheless, California rolls, in a number of avatars, are on offer at restaurants as different from each other as Set'Z at DLF Emporio, Kylin Premier at the Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj, and the new and funkier TC behind DLF Place, Saket.
Wasabi by Morimoto now has competition from Megu, the Indian outlet of the trendy New York restaurant at The Leela Palace New Delhi, and the most recent addition to this growing family of Japanese restaurants, Akira Back at the New Delhi Aerocity's JW Marriott, whose tuna pizzas have acquired a cult following. Outside five-star hotels, Guppy by Ai at the Lodhi Colony Market and En at the New Ambavatta Complex in Mehrauli are jostling for attention, but the price points and location of the former are clearly working to its advantage. The menus of these restaurants have convinced us that Japanese cuisine doesn't equal raw fish, though, given any opportunity, I'd personally have raw tuna belly or scallops or salmon at any time on any day -- like a tom cat on steroids. Wasabi by Morimoto has turned five by unveiling a new menu with inventive vegetarian options. The Capital's roller-coaster romance with Japanese cuisine is now a decade old, but it has shown with its adaptive agility that ten years is a long time for a city's palate.

FIVE-STAR restaurant menus can be predictable to the point of being boring, but there's always the occasional creative spark that makes you want to set out on a mission to find out more. It is such a long journey from South Delhi to the Vivanta by Taj, which opened not too long ago at Sector-44, Gurgaon, that your immediate response is to give up the idea of visiting the hotel. But when the story waiting at the other end of the interminable drive is the Yellow Line Menu, curiosity drags you to it.
The Yellow Line Menu takes you on a culinary voyage across the Metro line that stretches from Jehangirpuri, via Chandni Chowk, to the HUDA City Centre in Gurgaon, which is next door to the hotel -- in fact, from Latitude, the all-day restaurant where the menu is on offer, you can see the trains zipping up and down. Executive Chef Neeraj Chaudhry, who avoids the spotlight as hard as possible, has turned the Yellow Line Menu into an engaging creative statement.
Chaudhry's gravy train takes off with Sita Ram Bazaar's Dahi Bhalle Papri Chaat served in a cute three-tiered utensil -- the presentation is an ode to Chandni Chowk's timeless class. Connaught Place is celebrated with bread rolls stuffed with mozzarella, a delicious twist to a snack that will take you back to your childhood, and Shankar Market's lassi; INA's dhabas have inspired the silky chicken malai tikke and the tangdi and seekh kebabs; Sarojini Nagar's bustling market, famous for its hardy perennial halwai shops, is represented by gobhi and palak patta pakore; Hauz Khas by steamed momos served with hot garlic sauce, an obvious reference to the bustling 'momo economy'; and Chhattarpur, which we associate with opulent temples and manicured farmhouses, makes an appearance with mutton korma and tawa parantha.
For an expat, or a newcomer, can there be a better introduction to the city's food cornucopia? It makes me want to discover the Violet Line Menu at other Vivanta at Surajkund. The Metro line connects Central Secretariat with Badarpur, via Khan Market, Jangpura, Okhla and Sarita Vihar. I wonder how this food story will shape up.

WHEN Enzo Renda, a Sicilian entrepreneur from Montreal, tied up with Jaypee Hotels a decade ago to launch his Eggspectation chain of restaurants, which is famous for its many versions of  Eggs Benedict, he couldn't have imagined that his menu would have Chholey Samosa Burger.
When I first chanced upon the burger at the outlet at Jaypee Vasant, where I have been going for years to quell my post-drinks hunger pangs with the fully stacked Eggspectation Omelette, I was stuck by the originality of the idea. There's not one of us who hasn't had a samosa sandwich; all it needed was a bright spark to turn the snack into a burger on a brioche bun. It was a similar stroke of genius that turned the McAloo Tikki Burger, a McDonald's India creation, into an international phenomenon, selling from Dubai to Indonesia.
Eggspectation's new menu should turn the restaurant into a destination for diners perennially on the lookout for wholesome ideas. Between the Bad Boy Tenderloin Burger with crispy bacon and Cheddar cheese and the Mushroom Melt Burger with tofu and melted Provolone cheese, there's a world of new tastes waiting to be discovered out there.

PRESIDENT Xi Jinping's crackdown against China's culture of ostentatious gifting, which was the accepted way of bribing in the past, has had an unusual victim -- the luxury cognac brand, Louis XIII, a bottle of which sells for Rs 1.9 lakh (duty-free!) in Delhi. China accounted for 40 per cent of Louis XIII's worldwide sales. It was also the biggest market for the cognac's rare cask version, each of whose 738 decanters, is priced at 50,000 pounds sterling duty-free. The sales today are down to zero. India therefore is back to being the darling of the luxury business. And yes, there are unusual takers, such as rural Delhi's landed gentry, for such extravagant indulgences.