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Indian cuisine makes a comeback
Anoothi Vishal
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August 13, 2005

If the name Amaya rings a bell, it's because it is dropped repeatedly in gourmet circles as the smartest Indian restaurant in London; much feted, much toasted and awarded. The latest lunching place for the city's celebs, it has finally liberated Indian cuisine from the tyranny of lowly curry houses.

On the other side of the Atlantic, places like Tabla are making style statements with sarson ka saag-topped pizzas even as discerning America discovers dum ka rabbit... The point, of course, is that Indian cuisine is finally finding its (rightful) place in the sun. It's also a point being (rightly) bandied about by every critic and food writer in the country. Naturally, that's not our story.

Close on the heels of this newfound enthusiasm for "Indian", the cuisine is making a comeback in one other country: India. Before you raise your hands in protest -- of course, we always ate desi at home.

But when it came to restaurants, it was just the neighbourhood dhaba (or Shetty's) versus the mandatory restaurants at the five-stars -- over-priced, deliberately ethnic and catering to more foreign than Indian diners. The deluge of smart, mid-level hangouts for the young and upwardly-mobile focused on trendier cuisines -- Lebanese one year, Italian the next, and now sushi.

That is changing. In food capital Delhi, for instance, most new, talked-about restaurants serve Indian cuisine. More specifically, north Indian, Punjabi. But these are not your usual places whose only "ambience" comes courtesy brass haandis.

Instead, here an unusual amount of thought -- and money -- has been poured into creating the right "concept" or "theme" (restaurateur-speak for interiors). Bollywood kitsch, pre-historic relics, dhaba paraphernalia, even an entire village created by no less than film set makers.

The last would be Pind Baluchi. With outlets in Gurgaon, Delhi's Lajpat Nagar and another on the anvil in Rajouri Garden, the chain is an enterprise of the Vatika group. "We thought of a new concept, that of a village, and decided to have the restaurant around that," says J S Chadha, owner.

So you have a village chaupal, haveli, gufa, village well and even a (plastic) mango tree simulating stylised rusticity. Food consultant Marut Sikka too has recently opened his own Dhaba serving "hygienically prepared fast food" (all the production is done in a central kitchen, food merely reheated at the outlet). And then there is another chain called Urban Pind -- "a modernised village", as partner Prashant Ojha explains, positioned as a lounge bar.

At Filmi Masala, the brainchild of industrialist V N Dalmia whose company is the largest importer of olive oil in India, the "theme" is different. Bollywood posters adorn the walls, even as another bid at distinctiveness means that all the cooking is done in olive oil. That and a dance floor, unheard of hitherto in a typical "Indian" restaurant.

Dalmia, who is now ready to open three more outlets in the NCR this year, put Rs 1.5 crore (Rs 15 million) into the flagship outlet. Most of the money went towards the interiors for, as Dalmia defends, "People are interested in the entire experience rather than just food."

What Dalmia underscores is that these new Indian restaurants are wooing the same urbane, cosmopolitan palates that all those chic Italian and Lebanese restaurants are; people who look at eating out as entertainment and spend substantially on it.

Which is why this new preoccupation with themes and interiors -- instead of just the food -- makes sense even if you don't agree with it. The food served at all these restaurants is pretty much your usual fare sans any twist -- even when proprietors try to sell it differently.

At Urban Pind, for instance, little oil is used for the pre-plated offerings in keeping with modern sensibilities. Sikka, of course, places a premium on authenticity -- having roped in real dhaba hands.

Yet, nothing is what you haven't had earlier. Sometimes quite the opposite. A well-travelled diner remembers how a meal at Punjabi Rang's Beijing sister restaurant was much better than that served here. And those who stand solidly by the quality of food in a restaurant rather than the frills remain unimpressed.

"I'd rather have honest food at Moti Mahal", Diva's Ritu Dalmia stresses. This, however, does not faze the restaurateurs, who all want to tap the "mass" market for Indian food rather than be a "niche" player, quoting studies showing that 95 per cent of the market is still devoted to Indian and Chinese, 75 per cent to Indian.

Even a year ago, it was "not okay" to be heard saying that you'd be dining at a Gujarati restaurant in Mumbai. Today, it is. Gujarati cuisine has gone fancy with restaurants like the upmarket Som, off Marine Drive, using its imagination. Gujarati snacks now come in platters rather like a mezze, even as interiors get stylish.

So, will this new formula of dishing out comfort curry in snazzy surroundings click commercially? In the last few years everyone assumed that the sophisticated Indian was looking at flavours further from home and as Sikka, ironically, had then pointed out, "The best Indian food is what you get at home."

That and the neighbourhood dhabas with high quality offerings at minimal pricing. Which is why it was deemed so tough for desi restaurants to compete. And which is why it was said that none of the five-star Indian restaurants really made a mark - including the brave Priya Paul's Fire at The Park hotel that still presents Indian cuisine with a twist. So what's changed between then and now? We're waiting to find out.

New Players

Pind Baluchi: Striking "village" ambience created by Bollywood set artists - you can't miss the well and the mango tree.

Urban Pind: "Indian" lounge. Pre-plated, ostensibly low-on-oil food. Kashmiri specialities, but it is the "Indianised" cocktails -- � la masala martini -- that steal the show.

Dhaba: Consultant Marut Sikka's venture. "Fast food" (reheated at the outlet) from the dhabas along the GT Road till Delhi.

Filmi Masala: Bollywood posters, dishes named after favourite characters and food cooked in olive oil.

Khaja Chowk: Street food goes hip, as the restaurant reportedly plans a US opening.

Amritsari Rang:

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