Friday, 18 July 2014

DINING OUT: Diya Turns Five with the Menu of a Masterchef

QUICK BYTES
WHAT: Five Years of Diya with Kunal Kapur
WHERE: The Leela Ambience Hotel, NH-8, Gurgaon
WHEN: Till July 27. Open only for dinner (6:30 to 11:30 p.m.).
DIAL: (0124) 4771255
PER PERSON: Four-course meal (vegetarian) Rs 3,350++; (non-vegetarian) Rs 3,850++

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

Masterchef India co-host
Kunal Kapur earned his spurs
as chef de cuisine at Diya, the
under-rated Indian restaurant at
The Leela Ambience Gurgaon,
where he's now the executive
sous chef.
FIVE YEARS AGO, after dining at Diya at The Leela Ambience Gurgaon, I'd hailed the restaurant as the next big thing in Indian fine dining, without knowing that the chef who had sweated it out to inspire me to write that glowing review was the now-famous Kunal Kapur, the endearing (and enduring) face of Masterchef India.
Kunal was then an uncelebrated chef de cuisine, but he brought with him the experience of working at some of the finest Indian restaurants of the Taj Group hotels -- the old Handi and Haveli in Delhi; Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel, Chennai; Karavalli at The Gateway Hotel on Residency Road, Bangalore; and at the Holiday Village, Goa, under the greatest exponent of the state's cuisine, the inimitable Urbano Rego. Yet, Diya hardly ever figures in drawing room conversations, or in animated Facebook food group discussions. Neither does Made in India at the Radisson Blu, Noida, where Kunal worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the under-rated master chef, Arun Tyagi.
In the last five years that Diya, and the hotel, has been around, Kunal has become a celebrity TV show host and best-selling cookbook writer (he has moved up the corporate ladder as well), and the restaurant is now headed by Angshuman Adhikari, a former acolyte of the Michelin-starred, UK-based chef-restaurateur, Atul Kochhar. You can imagine my joy therefore when the hotel invited me for a meal cooked by Kunal, who has returned to his old kitchen to showcase the cooking skills that got him the ticket to fame. Giving me company were the hotel's friendly (and hands-on) General Manager, Michel Koopman, and the charming Nidhi Verma, the marcomm manager, who's a fund of stories.
I have had a lunch orchestrated and served by Masterchef Australia co-host Gary Mehigan at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, where I shared my table with a media baron who had just made a lot of money selling his popular afternoon newspaper, but who insisted on describing himself as a farmer from Alibaug (of course, he knew more about farming than all of Delhi's farmhouse owners put together, so he could qualify to be a farmer!). Mehigan wasn't cooking; his executive chef was. On July 15, however, it was Kunal who prepared dinner for me and at the end of it, I was happy to see my long-held view -- that TV chefs can't cook, so they are on TV -- lying in ruins around me.
The mutton shank guddu kurma
is one of Kapur's stand-out
dishes, which showcases his
ability to meld the influences
and flavours of India's many
kitchens into an unforgettable
taste experience
Kunal surprises you not in the Gaggan Anand or the Manish Mehrotra way, with modernist drama and molecular gastronomy, but in his orchestration of flavours and influences he has imbibed from across the country. His style of cooking is classical with a contemporary twist, a touch I find missing in my favourite Indian fine-dining restaurant, Dum Pukht at ITC Maurya. The most eloquent representative of his style is the multi-textural haleem kebab, where the solidity of the mutton boti is balanced by the slight mushiness of dal, daliya and jowar -- biting into one is like having a generous helping of the Hyderabadi dish (a Ramzan must-have), whose taste is reinforced by the quenelle of haleem that is served along with the kebab.
The Hyderabadi influence kept showing up, first in the grilled scallops served with the saalan of a baghare baigan, and then in the guddu kurma, where mutton shanks were cooked in a rich bone marrow gravy. If the surprise of the evening was the 'Punjabi bruschetta' -- liver, kidney and diced mutton cooked in the tak-a-tak style, topped up with a kachumbar salad, and served on toasted French bread -- the murgh malai shorba with a vol-au-vent island stuffed with murgh khichda was a treat for the senses: an explosion of flavours that did a tango with the taste buds. But the desserts blew my mind: cinnamon-flavoured shrikhand with juliennes of a Granny Smith apple (its tartness the perfect counterfoil to the shrikhand's sweetness) and the Bailey's chhena payesh must at once be declared the national dish of Greater Bengal! Kunal is not just the co-host of Masterchef India; he's the master of his craft.

This review first appeared in the Mail Today edition dated July 18, 2014. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.