Saturday, 29 March 2014

Tonino Completes Decade Under Chef Suman Sharma; Cafe Tonino Brand Next on Owner Parmeet Sawhney's Agenda

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
On Friday, March 28, celebrated its tenth
anniversary with a party that featured its
signature delicacies on an evening that
had turned cool after a sudden shower

THERE ARE some restaurants that deserve to be around, that never go out of fashion even if they advance in age. Tonino is one of them. It's not what we call a top-of-mind restaurant, a conversation starter like the Indian Accent or Chez Nini, but it's a hardy perennial, which never ceases to surprise you each time you visit it. I am happy to report Tonino has turned 10 at the same Andheria More location where it started in 2004. And its owners, Parmeet and Simran Sawhney, is ready to roll out a Cafe Tonino chain nationally to make the restaurant's most popular dishes available across India at what he calls "economical price points".
It was in 2004 that I first Parmeet Sawhney, his sister Simar Duggal, who was a ramp scorcher and a regular on the front pages of HT City, which I used to edit, and Chef Suman Sharma, whom I had known because of his association with the Indian Culinary Forum from its formative days, at a picture-perfect restaurant that looked exactly like a trattoria you'd find in the Italian countryside. It was before the appearance of malls and that part of Delhi was still very much the cow country.
The spot where I spent an unforgettable afternoon that sunny day in 2004 was formerly an Indian restaurant and banqueting space called Pyramids. Parmeet and Simar's family owned the space, which the serial restaurateur Sanjay Khullar, formerly of the ITC Maurya, used to run. Their father, Jaspal Sawhney, an Old Cottonian, presides over a business conglomerate named Eagle Group, which was launched after Partition, and among the many businesses he owns, the Plaza cinema was the one that made me very curious.
Sawhney Senior had bought Plaza cinema from Sohrab Modi, the man known as India's Cecil De Mille, in 1963-64 after the actor-director-producer's big-budget project, Jhansi Ki Rani, bombed. In my childhood, I had spent many a morning watching animated movies produced by Sovexportfilm in the days when Indira Gandhi's romance with the Soviet Union was at its peak; in my callow youth, I would spend many a stolen moment watching Malayalam films with horrendous desi semi-porn clips spliced in (in those days of innocence, even exposed thunder thighs were a turn-on!) or act superior and spend an afternoon trying to make sense of an European entry for the film festival's competition section.
All these memories came back to me as I came back to me as Parmeet, Simar and I gorged on the food that Chef Sharma, who recently won the National Tourism Award 2012-13 for Best Chef, kept dishing up in rapid succession. I especially remember the pizza. It was the first time I had thin-crust pizza and I just loved it. And I also discovered insalata caprese, the ageless Italian salad with lettuce, tomatoes and mozzarella. In the course of the conversation, I learnt that Parmeet had made his F&B foray in 1995 with the Pyramids restaurant at Roshanara Road, near the historic club where the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was born. His love for food and beverage must be programmed in his genes. Plaza, after all, was famous once upon a time for its cold coffee!
Today, ten years later, I spent a good 15 minutes talking to Parmeet and asked him a question I should have asked 10 years ago. Why is the restaurant called Tonino?  Parmeet, whose leather business first brought him in contact with Italy and its cuisine, said the restaurant is named after Tonino Generale, a restaurateur from Napoli, whom he had befriended 15-16 years ago at a place named Garlasco in Pavia to the north of Italy.  Tonino, the man, is an acclaimed chef back home because he keeps winning pizza-making championships and it is under him that Chef Sharma, who's been the long-time general secretary of the Indian Culinary Forum, has perfected his skills.
"Italy seems to be my lucky country," Parmeet said. Building television and radio stations is among Parmeet's many business and it brings him in touch with businessmen and designers in Milan. With the help of these friends and business associates, Parmeet has ensured that Chef Sharma get to go at regular intervals to hone his skills and study new dishes at restaurants across Italy -- "restaurants where no one gets access." In the last ten years, as a result, Tonino's menu has kept evolving to reflect Chef Sharma's travels to Italy.
I asked Parmeet what happened to Piccadelhi, an innovative food court that he had opened at Plaza around the same time as Tonino (a little after Eatopia at the India Habitat Centre). He said he had to shut it after its operator, Rahul Bhatia, who was a tour operator and restaurateur before he launched IndiGo, scripted his remarkable success story and had no mind space for the project. Well, you gain some, you lose some. Tonino's consistent success has definitely been a gain for Parmeet and Simran.