Thursday, 19 June 2014

FORTUNE COOKIE: How Delhi Became India's Gourmet Capital

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

DELHI is experiencing an efflorescence of dining like it has never seen before. Today, it can lay claim with justification to the mantle of being the country's 'gourmet capital' -- a crown that Mumbai regarded as its birthright.
Rahul Akerkar (right), seen unwinding with his
star executive chef, Jaydeep Mukherjee, is yet
another established Mumbai restaurateur (after
AD Singh, Riyaz Amlani and Jay Singh) who
has recognised the potential of Delhi, which
he describes as a "well-heeled, well-travelled,
consuming market".
 
I am using 'gourmet' not in the stuffy sense of the word, but to signify an informed interest in good food, irrespective of its provenance, whether from a hole in the wall that has stood the test of time or from a white-tablecloth restaurant that is the rage of the season. Delhiites like to eat and spend good money on food (as Mumbai's favourite restaurateur Rahul Akerkar of Indigo once described the city me, "Delhi is a consuming market, a well-heeled market"). And can they be opinionated about food and hold forth on it (mostly intelligently) for hours!
Go to Facebook and you'll see in abundance this side of Delhi. And just as you start thinking that you've seen the last of the food groups on Facebook, another one pops up with its own fan following. There are people who deride these culinary churnings as exercises in narcissism, as outpourings of extremely boring people who live in some la-la land, but isn't that true of people who are passionate about politics, films and sports?
Delhi's long march from the days when it used to be derided as the Republic of Butter Chicken is being reflected in the new wave of restaurants thriving across the city and now, increasingly, Gurgaon. I remember AD Singh, the brain behind the national success of Olive Bar & Kitchen, saying to me in 2004 that "Delhi goes to a restaurant to eat; Mumbai, to see and be seen." He was very nervous, in fact, before opening Olive Bar & Kitchen in Mehrauli, despite the success of its philosophy of laidback fine-dining in Mumbai, because he was certain Delhiites would judge the new restaurant primarily on what they got to eat, not the looks or the vibes. The city's fabled love of good food, and the lengths it can go to be adventurous, is mirrored in the new restaurants mushrooming all over, powered by imaginative young restaurateurs such as Zorawar Kalra, whose Farzi Cafe is the most anticipated restaurant launch scheduled for July.
Delhi was the country's first city to have a Spanish and a Thai restaurant with expat chefs -- Esmeralda (1986) and Thai Pavilion (1992), respectively, at The Oberoi -- but these turned out to be flashes in the pan. Its love for the unfamiliar and the authentic, this time round, is here to stay and get more intense as more restaurants open to cater to this gastrolust.
Delhi today has in Indian Accent the country's finest 'Inventive Indian' restaurant. It has India's first and only conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, which was started by Varun Tuli, whose calling card is his commitment to his calling, some eight or so years ago after he had just returned from higher studies at an American university. Delhi has also become the second home to regional cuisines -- from stalwarts such as Oh Calcutta, Punjab GrillCity of Joy, Saravanah Bhawan and Delhi Karnataka Sangha to newbies like Carnatic Cafe (New Friends Colony) and Yeti: The Himalayan Kitchen (Greater Kailash-II, M-Block Market), to the north-eastern quartet of Jokai (Assam Bhawan), The Nagaland Kitchen and Rosang Cafe (Green Park Extension), and Dzukou (Hauz Khas Market), to the Cyber Hub Gurgaon's quartet of Made in Punjab, Soda Bottle Opener Wala, Dhaba by Claridges and Zambar, and Bernardo's, Delhi-NCR's lone flag-bearer of Goan food a little farther away.
This passion to go regional now expresses itself even in global cuisines showcased in the city. Before Neung Roi opened at the Radisson Blu Plaza, Mahipalpur, did anyone care about the geographical divisions of Thai cuisine? Or did anyone have the foggiest on Emilia-Romagna till Artusi opened at the city's new foodie destination -- M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-II -- and popularised the region's cuisine? Today, we have what no one would have wagered on not even five years ago -- a thriving French restaurant (Rara Avis), a second outlet of the Spanish eatery Imperfecto, two more chef-driven restaurants to give the grande dame Diva company (Nira Kehar's Chez Nini and Julia Carmet De Sa and Jatin Mallick's Tres), and a neighbourhood Japanese restaurant (Guppy by Ai). Welcome to the Gourmet Capital!

FINE DINING UNDER THE METRO
IT'S A great feeling to be able to sit below a Metro line and have a fine meal without being shaken by the rattle and rumble of trains, looking out to a garden shielding you from the bustle of one of the city's busiest commercial complexes -- Nehru Place. I was at Fio Cookhouse & Bar, smacking my lips after a soul-warming portion of broccoli raviolo soup, in Epicuria, the country's first community food mall inside a Metro station.
Fio Cookhouse & Bar, without
doubt, is the finest restaurant
at the successful Epicuria
food mall at Nehru Place 
The brainchild of entrepreneur Vivek Bahl, Epicuria has transformed the Nehru Place Metro station into a destination. And with four lead attractions besides Fio -- the hugely popular nightclub Flying Saucer, Starbucks, Karim's and India's first Benihana (despite mixed reviews!) -- it has brought home the idea of dining at a Metro station. Epicuria, thankfully, will soon have three or four clones across Delhi, starting with the Airport Metro station at Connaught Place.
Fio at Epicuria turned out to be a real discovery, for I had last visited the original restaurant at the Garden of Five Senses in Said-ul Ajab, and was piqued by its attempt to balance Indian and Italian menus. The combination seems to have worked for its owner, Vineet Wadhwa, a 1980 graduate of the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa (New Delhi), who spent his green years in the hospitality business under the tutelage of A.N. Haksar, ITC's first Indian chairman.
At Epicuria, Fio is a tad more Italian with a food library look. Its collection of culinary books neatly stacked in towering racks accentuate the sense of walking into a retreat where food for physical sustenance competes with food for the mind. After 11, though, the place transforms into a party zone for the hip and young where new genres of music rock the scene.
I haven't checked out Fio's desi menu, but sharing the chef's table, I was won over by the peri peri olive chicken noisette and the petit roesti (a nifty cocktail snack) loaded with butter beans, portobello mushroom, artichoke, caramelised onion and cheese phyllo, followed by the basil lime steamed fish with balsamic butter, the forest mushroom risotto with asparagus broth, and finally, the unforgettable Viennese chocolate mousse.

A BEEHIVE OF ATTRACTION
A NUMBER of tall buildings have natural beehives, but it takes a manager who thinks out of the box to turn one into a tourist attraction, which is what has happened to the beehive thriving on the ledge overlooking a glass pane on the 11th floor of Pullman Gurgaon Central Park.
To draw attention to the beehive, the hotel has put up a plastic sign on the window, which tells us, among other things, that a beehive can produce up to 27 kilos of honey in a good year. I doubt if anyone has ever attempted to extract honey out of the beehive tucked away in a corner of the hotel's exterior wall that even a spiderman would find hard to negotiate, but it has become a tourist magnet.
Not a guest passes by without shooting a picture of the beehive, or taking a selfie with the beehive appearing to rest like a crown on top of the head. Touches like these can make even anonymous corners of hotels become conversation points.

This column first appeared in Mail Today on June 19, 2014. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers