Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Matter of Taste: Dissecting Asia's 50 Best List & How It Gets To Be Made

This is the original, and much longer, version of the article that first appeared in Mumbai Mirror on Sunday, March 2, 2014.
To check out what appeared in Mumbai Mirror, go to:
http://www.mumbaimirror.com/others/sunday-read/Race-of-taste/articleshow/31231445.cms
Copyright: Mumbai Mirror


By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHEN THE Restaurant Magazine unveiled The World's 50 Best Restaurants list last year, a wave of anguish swept through foodie circles across the country, for not one Indian name from India figured even in the 100 Best -- Gaggan's of Bangkok made it to No. 66, but unfortunately for us, it has a Bangkok address!
The cause of the widespread despair was the clout that the list has acquired ever since it was first released by the London-based magazine in 2002. It was, after all, this list that made El Bulli, which was then just a local favourite, though it had earned its third Michelin star by 1997, an instant international star. Not only El Bulli, a number of other restaurants, notably Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, owe their global celebrity status to the list.
Manish Mehrota, seen here with
one of his younger colleagues at
Indian Accent, without doubt is
the top choice for India's No. 1
With this change of status comes an avalanche of footfalls -- El Bulli made history by getting over two million requests for table reservations from all over the world in a year -- and a rush of new business. Well-known food writer Rashmi Uday Singh, who heads the Indian sub-continent committee of the Diner's Club Academy, the votes of whose invited members shape the list, points to how, thanks to The World's 50 Best list, Noma attained stardom and put Copenhagen on every gourmet traveller's world map.

DISAPPOINTED BY THE LIST
When the magazine released its Asia's 50 Best list, for the second year, in Singapore this past Wednesday, our flag-waving foodies should have been overjoyed, for six Indian restaurants figured on it. But the critics aren't amused.
They sneeringly point out that the Indian restaurant in India to secure the highest rank -- at No. 27, Bukhara at ITC Maurya, New Delhi -- is 24 notches below Gaggan's, which is at No. 3. They also question the wisdom of ranking a restaurant with an uninspiring and unchanging menu (Bukhara) above one that's been making waves, like Gaggan's, for its lively modernist take on Indian cuisine (Indian Accent, which is at No. 29). Sid Mathur, Director and Head of F&B, Impresario, the company that owns and operates Salt Water Cafe and Smoke House Deli, echoes the dominant sentiment when he says: "This is 2014. Indian Accent should have been on top. This list is a bit too touristy."
Indian Accent's Manish Mehrotra rose from obscurity to overnight fame when television audiences saw him transform everyday dishes on the popular reality show, Foodistan, which pitted Indian chefs against their Pakistani counterparts. Most recently, he wowed critics with his Baigan Bharta Cornetto because of both the unusual presentation of a common preparation (served in cornetto cups) and the use of goat's cheese to give it that unusual twist. The other favourite is the dish that bring together seared prawns, karela cooked with chooran, and quinoa puffs -- a seamless marriage of memorable textures and tastes.
Malhotra's all-time hit is the Meetha Achaar Chilean Spare Ribs, where the critical ingredient is the sweet mango pickle -- it was the first time the world had spare ribs this way and we continue to love it. Comments US-based food writer, educator and author of Modern Spice, Monica Bhide: "The way he pairs his spices with meats is nothing short of magical. The food works and then the chef plays with 'Indian-ness'. The jamun-churan sorbet that is served inside a mini pressure cooker, for instance. It is delicious, it is playful, it works!
Not all hope is lost. Indian Accent, which Mumbai-based food blogger Rushina Munshaw-Ghildayal describes as "fabulously different", has gone up by 12 places from No. 41 in 2013 (and it is the only Indian restaurant to have experienced upward mobility). Mehrotra, its star chef, though, isn't surprised. Indian Accent has been, without a break, TripAdvisor's No. 1 restaurant in Delhi for 19 months, and counting.
Gaggan Anand, the ex-Taj hand who's behind the phenomenal success of his namesake restaurant Gaggan's, says it all when he hopes that more chefs "follow Malhotra's lead and reinvent Indian cooking like no one has done before". He says: "We don't travel by bullock carts anymore, do we? So, why should we keep cooking what we have eaten for a hundred years?" Adds Bhide, about both Indian Accent and Gaggan's: "It is very difficult to achieve what they have because they are fighting against the battle of the stereotypical Indian restaurant that is 'supposed to', in the eyes of the international audience, serve only butter chicken and naan."

WHY MUMBAI FARES SO POORLY
The other point of contention has in fact triggered the old Mumbai versus Delhi debate. Just one of the six Indian restaurants is from Mumbai -- Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj, which has dropped by 16 points to park itself at No. 36. And last year's No. 28 doesn't figure anywhere? Has Mumbai lost out to Delhi's vibrant new dining scene, as Munshaw-Ghildayal suggest, or it doesn't have adequately good Indian offerings to make it to an international list? "Delhi leads because its dining experience is mainly Indian cuisine-centred," says Zorawar Kalra, Founder-Managing Director, Massive Restaurants, whose Masala Library at BKC is Mumbai's new favourite.
Kalra has a point. International 'best' lists seek to showcase creative expressions of the home cuisine of the country whose restaurants are being judged. Mumbai's basic flaw, as Munshaw-Ghildayal also emphasises, is that it has very few Indian restaurants of any calibre and even among them, just one -- Ziya at The Oberoi, run by Vineet Bhatia of London's Michelin-starred Rasoi -- stands out because of its inventive cuisine. As Anand puts it: "If an Indian chef makes sushi or dishes out Chinese food, no matter how creative they may be, he can't expect global recognition. International juries are looking for what's new in our cuisine."
But with formidable front-runners such as Indigo, Ziya, Koh, Joss and The Table, Mumbai surely can stand up to Dum Pukht at ITC Maurya, New Delhi (No. 30), which has dropped precipitously from last year's No. 17; Varq at The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi (No. 32, down by two); and Karavalli at the Gateway Hotel, Bangalore (No. 40, down by five). The list also leaves out hugely successful and critically acclaimed restaurants in other cities, such as Abhijit Saha's Caperberry in Bangalore, Pan Asian at the ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, where Vikramjit Roy has got his fan following eating out of his hands, and Patron Bowra Jap's Bomra's at Candolim, Goa, which counts novelist Amitav Ghosh among its regulars.

PEOPLE BEHIND THE LIST
Nevertheless, the contentious list has become the definitive benchmark of quality for the dining public and travelling foodies. To be fair, the making of the list is a democratic process, based on voting by the 936 invited members -- hoteliers, top chefs, well-known gastronomes and food journalists -- of the Diner's Club Academy. This hallowed group is expected to dine around the world at its expense and then, when Judgment Day comes, members hand in their ballots listing their best seven restaurant experiences (including four from their region) in the past 18 months. The Academy divides the world into 26 regions to ensure near-equal representation for every culture and taste profile, and each region has a committee of 36 members selected by a designated chairperson.
The Indian sub-continent committee, which includes representatives of the five metros as well as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is headed by Rashmi Uday Singh, who has been a part of the process since its inception in 2002. Its members include people she describes as "serious travelling foodies", such as India Today Group's Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Aroon Purie, The Park Hotels Chairperson Priya Paul, RPG Enterprises Vice Chairman Sanjiv Goenka, Apeejay Surrendra Group's Chairman Karan Paul, writer Shobhaa De, adman and television personality Suhel Seth, Restaurant Week India founder Mangal Dalal, Madhu Neotia, wife of Ambuja Neotia Group Chairman Harshvardhan Neotia, and Mariam Ram, wife of N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi & Sons, the company that publishes The Hindu.
In the past, Singh says, the committee included former Pakistani cricket captain and politician, Imran Khan, as well as media baron Aveek Sarkar (Star Ananda and Ananda Bazar Patrika), Indian Hotels Company Managing Director Raymond Bickson, celebrity chef Hemant Oberoi and the former boss of ITC Hotels, Syed Habibur Rehman. You can't question the credentials of these committee members, but as Singh points out, she has no control over the restaurants they choose to frequent.
"Any list (even if God made it) will attract criticism and controversy," says Singh, adding that this one is "a democratic snapshot of dining trends, not a definitive guide". She goes on to make the point that we should celebrate the inclusion of six Indian restaurants on the list. "We must not forget we're up against Japan, where Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris," she says. "We have at least put our foot in the door."
Kalra shares Singh's optimism. "I am happy to see so many Indian restaurants," Kalra says. "It shows the world takes India more seriously now." Malhotra of Indian Accent counsels patience. He says: "Look, there was a time when Bukhara used to be among The World's 50 Best. It then dropped to The World's 100 Best. And now it's not even on it. Lists keep evolving, so will this one." His fans, for sure, hope it does.