New age restaurateurs are colonising palates and pocket books with their unique no fuss formats, clever menus and distinct avant garde style.
Flatbreads to carpaccio, taco pizza with chili ground beef and pork-dry ribs to baida roti, the smart dining scene now seems to be all about broad-based menus, unpredictable decor and wallet-friendly prices. A.K.A, ‘casual- fine dining that loosely translates into great-tasting food and interesting spaces that make you feel fine,’ say our young crop of new age restaurateurs who are rocking this trend. In the grunge-spartan, concrete-floored and Manga (Japanese comic art) inspired space of Mamagoto, located at Delhi’s Khan Market, where the atmosphere is more ‘noisy canteen’, less ‘culinary Mecca’, you can probably spot Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, rubbing shoulders with a gaggle of uniform-wearing school kids, a bunch of work buddies or a sedate family of five. The service in this pan Asian cafe is warm and engaging, the cooking inventive and delicious, and the price will not make you wince. Mamagoto is set to make its city debut this week and positions itself as India’s first Asian cafe. It is the flagship chain of the Azure Hospitality group owned by the young resto-preneur duo Rahul Khanna and Kabir Suri. They, along with a growing tribe of restaurateurs are “undoing the proverbial top button in dining experiences and defining a new hierarchy of taste especially tailored to suit the well-travelled diner who wants to eat out more often, expects more bang for his buck, and knows his sushi from his paella,” explains Suri who plans to take the brand across Goa, Hyderabad, Chennai, Dubai and Colombo in the coming months, hopefully “rolling out at least four Mamagotos annually in the foreseeable future.”
Blurring the lines
So, with a host of brand new casual dining spots popping up across the national foodscape, is the whole dining out experience becoming increasingly open to interpretation?
Is fine dining on the way out?
Elsewhere in town, Rohington Mottahed and Siddarth Poojary (of The Glass House, Zaffran and City Bar fame) are launching their gastro pub chain – My Bar, in a couple of weeks. “It is a place where you can order not just a peg but a bottle of spirits to share at the table. The menu is very global and the prices are well within most budgets. It is like entertaining your friends at home but without the stress of it all. We want people to come by in their flip flops and enjoy a gourmet hamburger. Or a perfectly made cocktail,” Mottahed tells us.
Riyaaz Amlani, CEO of Impressario Hospitality with over 27 pan Indian outlets, caters exactly to this segment of discerning yet no-fuss customers. “Nowadays, the best experiences often pop-up in the least assuming places. I’ve had superb meals on mismatched plates and boring fare on fine china,” he notes. Amlani recently launched Social Offline, a wildly popular urban hangout where the menu is interesting and the atmosphere trendy yet unpretentious. Long Island iced tea comes in a yard beaker, you can get a mile high club sandwich skewered on a wire file, or a Thai meal in a thali, a dish of butter chicken biriyani and chicken noodles in bowl while you relax on mismatched chairs or at a community style dining table with a pleasant bunch of friendly strangers. “We like to take great food off the fine-dining pedestal and bring it onto our own stage,” says Amlani.
Finding the groove
The Khanna-Suri duo uses the same principal. Khanna, 31, is a graduate from Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland and has worked extensively with the Mandarin Oriental group across London, Hong Kong and Dubai. Suri, 33, originally a banker in Manhattan, quit his job to join his family business — the uber- fashionable Zuma and Roka chain known for cutting-edge Japanese cuisine, and a popular haunt for celebrities and gourmands in Hong Kong, London, Istanbul, Dubai and the USA. The two childhood buddies, whose ‘parents are friends’, returned to Delhi around the same time and decided to open ‘a cafe that served Asian food yet tweaked to suit local tastes and lifestyles’. Suri notes that working at Zuma for three years taught him a lot. “I washed dishes, I helped in the kitchen, I got my hands dirty, and I learned about the kind of contemporary Asian food that I wanted to reformat for India.”
Azure was founded with a venture capital in 2009. Mamagoto is currently present in nine locations across Delhi, Bombay and now Bangalore. “We also offer industrial food solutions under our brand Celeste, catering to thousands of office-goers everyday. We also create pop-up restaurants in the capital, centered around events like the Delhi Art Fair, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors – it has become our USP, ” says Suri. So, does all this down scaling mean we have become less discriminating and less sophisticated? Khanna argues that, in fact, the opposite is true. “Our standards haven’t fallen, our criteria has simply changed. Today, sophistication calls for a different degree of discernment — the ability to take an experience out of its context. I once flew to Singapore for a meal before catching up with a friend in Shanghai. My palate is very eclectic. I’ve sampled grasshoppers and cockroaches, I enjoy my steak medium rare, my refrigerator is loaded with Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream and fruit, and I also think everything tastes better with red wine. Yet my comfort food is kadhi chawal,” he confesses.
Although Mamagoto will only open for business on August 6, the place was already inexplicably buzzing with groups of diners enjoying the food, the ambience and the funky artwork. “We are gearing up for the opening and since food trials are underway, we invited people who popped by to stay and have a meal on the house,” says Suri. He plans on introducing gluten-free, soy-free and sugar-free options to their menu this year. “Today, diners are very knowledgeable about ingredients, cooking techniques, and the global nuances of food. As a result, restaurant service needs to be less about manners and more about information. We want a waiter to know where the ingredients came from, and the bartender to be able to tell you exactly what went into your cocktail. Diners are not looking for less — they’re actually asking for more,” he says. The Azure group also has the Rollmall and Speedy Chow brands under their umbrella with a delectable selection of Indian street favourites as well as Chinese and Thai. “Being in the food business means I look at every situation as a consumer and a restaurateur. My palate needs to be very versatile. I have flown to Vietnam just on a food expedition, and on a daily basis, I can go from eggs Benedict for breakfast to Indian for lunch and Asian for dinner. So, I expect my customers want the same choices. We change our menus every three months, we come up with exciting promotions, and are constantly researching trends and customer feedback,” he adds.
Breaking the mould
But does this definite shift towards casual dining mean that we should dismiss restaurants without exposed ducts and unfinished walls? “It’s the food network effect,” says chef-restaurateur Manu Chandra whose recently launched Fatty Bao has people actually booking tables up to five days in advance, a concept yet to come of age in India even in the fine dining segment. “Dining out is no longer a treat but a necessity. Especially for the young, and restaurants have quickly adapted to the change. Chandeliers morphed into industrial light fixtures, pad Thai, sushi and dimsum arrived, curry bowls and beer went artisanal, burgers turned gourmet and settings became flip-flop and tee-friendly.” At Mamagoto, you can actually buy any of the mugs, art work or t-shirts that may catch your eye as you wait for your bowl of perfectly calibrated Burmese khow suey, New Zealand lamb chops or steamed fish with chilli oyster sauce – Khanna’s favourite – to arrive.
We want a waiter to know where the ingredients came from, and the bartender to be able to tell you exactly what went into your cocktail. Diners are not looking for less — they’re actually asking for more.”
— Kabir Suri
An integral part of the Azure core team is Jaiyanti
‘Janti’ Dugal, their engaging food director. A bespoke caterer, of Dutch-Indonesian-Sikh descent with 25 years of experience under her belt, she designs their menus across all their verticals, managing quality control and heading a band of 150 chefs. “I take standard recipes and tweak them, but I also keep my dishes
original and scalable. We use zero preservatives, MSG or artificial colouring. I know that certain essential ingredients in a pan Asian recipe might not suit Indian palates – for example, shrimp paste, hence I avoid using them. That’s why we never claim our dishes are authentic — they are always tweaked.”
Kabir Suri drives a Porsche 911, enjoys his handmade Berluti shoes and has treated his taste buds to everything from frogs legs to baby food. He loads up his refrigerator with chocolates, golf balls, and Grey Goose. And feels the customer dictates the trend. “The rise of street food, niche fast food and informal eateries have triggered a marked casualisation of the eating out culture. When people think ‘fine dining’, waiters in suits, tons of cutlery and a hefty price tag springs to mind. We break all that down. We like guests to laugh and enjoy themselves. If people come in jeans and sneakers, they are as welcome as those wearing Hugo Boss or Armani. You no longer
have to spend big, to eat well.”
Jackie Pinto, m email@example.com with inputs from Ryan Peppin