Not too long ago, the eating-out experience in India was a bipolar world. At the exclusive—and expensive—end of the spectrum were the five-star restaurants; bunched at the other end were the pedestrian, utilitarian dhabas.
Then came a band of gourmet entrepreneurs who changed the order of things.
While not exactly the Gordon Ramsays or Charlie Trotters of the world, they are holding their own in the gastronomic landscape of India with their culinary creativity. Armed with an irrepressible passion for their craft and some business sense, they have set up fine-dining stand-alones and have taken on the might of a Taj or an Oberoi.
All around the world, the best restaurants are the ones run by chefs. Self-taught chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, who runs the three-star Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Berkshire, UK, and chef Guy Savoy, who runs a restaurant of the same name in Paris, find pride of place in any top of the line culinary list. This is simply because these chef-owners bring to the table a fine-dining experience driven by passion, creativity and rigour that few five-star menus can match.
We profile some trendsetting chef-owned restaurants in Indian cities.
Also on the list are restaurants which have guests eating out of their hands for reasons ranging from a complete epicurean experience to food, ambience and, quite simply, value for money.
Ritu Dalmia. (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)
A TASTE OF ITALY
On the menu: Italian food
Run by chef and co-founder Ritu Dalmia and Gita Bhalla under partnership firm Riga Food
It was during business trips to Europe—mainly Italy—that chef Ritu Dalmia was influenced by Italian culture and cuisine. Dalmia, who began cooking as a little girl, found the simple style of Italian cooking so interesting that she spent time learning Sicilian cooking from Anna Tasca Lanza, the owner of one of Italy’s finest vineyards. “Even though Italian cooking involves a whole lot of ingredients, the actual preparation is very simple,” says Dalmia.
In 1993, Dalmia started what was, perhaps, Delhi’s first Italian restaurant, Mezzaluna. It was sold after running losses for two years. Then Dalmia set up a successful fine-dining Indian restaurant—Vama—in London with her friend Andy Verma, following it up with Diva, which became operational in 2000. The initial investment was Rs48 lakh. “I decided to start small since I already had a couple of flop ventures and had lost a lot of money,” she says. Dalmia and her partner Gita Bhalla kept putting back money into the business and, last year, they had a turnover of Rs4.5 crore.
Luckily for Dalmia, Diva had all the makings of a success story. With its eclectic Italian food , Diva became one of the more popular dining places, and has been featured in the ‘Wine Spectator’ best wine list from around the world every year since 2002. The restaurant has also bagged several awards. The Italian embassy in Delhi invited Dalmia to set up a branch on its premises. “That was the best compliment I could ever get. The Italians who eat here love my food,” she says.
Three or four years ago, Dalmia points out, around 90% of her clients comprised the expatriate population in Delhi. Today, almost half of her clientele is made up of locals. “The palate of Delhiites has changed drastically since I opened Mezzaluna,” says Dalmia.
What has also changed is the offering, since import has become easier. “Earlier, the menu was based on what we could source. Now, we decide the menu and just order the ingredients,” says Dalmia.
Diva changes its menu every three-four months. Dalmia, who does not have a single qualified chef and has trained her staff in Italian cooking, wields the ladle most of the time, and supervises all her outlets in Delhi, including Diva Restaurant at the Italian Cultural Centre, Le Café at N-Block Market, Greater Kailash-I, and Divattra at Amatra spa in Hotel Ashok. The 35-year-old is currently taking Italian lessons and looking forward to her book, ‘Italian Khana’, slated for an April launch. What are Dalmia’s aspirations for Diva? For it to be like The River Café in London, “the epitome of honest cooking with fresh ingredients”.
SOME OTHERS IN DELHI
• Magique This Asian food outlet run by food consultant Marut Sikka at Delhi’s Garden of Five Senses tries to create Oriental magic with its settings and food.
• The Big Chill Café Run by Aseem Grover and Fawzia Ahmed, it has three outlets, and is an example of enterprise and café food.
• Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail This grand dame of the culinary world, now managed by Monish Gujral, continues to bank on Mughlai fare.
• Basil & Thyme This quaint café-restaurant at Santushti Complex opened in the 1990s and is known for its chocolate gateau and quiche.
Rahul Akerkar. (Photo: Ritam Banerjee / Mint)
On the menu: Eclectic Euro-Asian cuisine
Rahul Akerkar and other shareholders of deGustibus Hospitality Pvt. Ltd
It took an argument with his adviser for Indigo chef and owner Rahul Akerkar to take up the ladle. The biochemical engineer from Columbia University gave up two and a half years of research on the extraction of plastics from bacteria and decided to continue working in restaurants since “the only thing that was constant in my life was a restaurant—and I decided to stick to it”.
Akerkar embarked on his gastronomic adventure when he worked as a dishwasher at a French bistro for additional pocket money during his college years in the US. He kept shuttling between laboratories and kitchens for a few years before jumping the fence. Akerkar worked for more than 10 years with several celebrated chefs at New York’s leading restaurants, including Michael Romano of the Union Square Café, learning cooking and the art of hospitality. “I have been very influenced by Romano’s approach to being a chef.”
In late 1989, he returned to Mumbai to start a catering business, The Moveable Feast, and a bistro, Under the Over. Both were popular and successful. Time magazine’s restaurant guide listed the bistro among the Best of Asia in 1994. Between 1995 and 1997, Akerkar and his wife, Malini, ran Protima Bedi’s Kuteeram retreat outside Bangalore.
The couple launched Indigo when they moved back to Mumbai in 1999, with an investment of around Rs4 crore. Akerkar’s wife found an old-world bungalow which offered the perfect setting for his concept of a fine-dining restaurant serving eclectic Euro-Asian cuisine. In its May 2000 issue, ‘Conde Nast Traveller’ featured Indigo as one of the World’s Hottest 60 Tables. Last year, Indigo was voted the 75th best restaurant in the world at the Pellegrino “Best Restaurants in the World” awards in London.
In its ninth year, Indigo continues to be one of Mumbai’s must-eat restaurants. The executive-chef says it’s the food that makes all the difference. “Good ambience and other trappings can make the food experience better, but people go to a restaurant for the food, and what brings them back is food,” says Akerkar. He now spends less time cooking at Indigo, but still personally oversees what goes into the kitchen and comes on the plate, creating menus for special days and training his staff. Akerkar emphasises training and exposure to succeed in the food business. “Food and drink is very sensorial,” he says, adding, “you can’t describe taste without tasting.”
The chef-owner’s focus on training is understandable as he gears to expand to other cities. “We are looking at setting up Indigo in Delhi by early next year,” he says. Currently, he runs another restaurant, Indigo Deli, that serves delicatessen-style food. He is also a partner in a music lounge bar venture, Blue Frog, in Mumbai.
SOME OTHERS IN MUMBAI
• Olive Bar and Kitchen The first Olive from restaurateur A.D. Singh has the combination of a good wine list, Mediterranean cuisine and an ambience that is clearly its strongest point.
• Moshe’s This place in Cuffe Parade, run by chef-owner Moshe Shek, has an in-house bakery and serves Continental and Mediterranean food in a European cafe-style setting.
• Britannia Restaurant This is perhaps the only food place where you get berry pulao—in mutton and chicken versions.
• Trishna at Kala Ghoda is a seafood restaurant that has foodies swearing by its crab dishes and coastal Malabari cuisine.
• Thakkar Bhojanalaya The best bet for a Gujarati thali in Mumbai is Shree Thakkar Bhojanalaya at Kalbadevi, which stands out for its quality and authenticity.
Arjun Sajnani. (Photo: Hemant Mishra / Mint)
On the menu: Italian, American and French food
Run by Arjun Sajnani and partners Vivek Ubhayakar and Vandana Virwani
Arjun Sajnani straddles the worlds of theatre, film and his restaurant with great ease and poise. The director of ‘Agni Varsha’ (2002) returned to India in 1992 from the US, where he had acted in plays such as ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’. “I had to make a living because theatre does not give you money,” says Sajnani. “I have always enjoyed cooking and, as a child, I spent many evenings watching our maid cook.” Sajnani worked for restaurateur Warner LeRoy, the son of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ director Mervyn LeRoy and Doris Warner (the daughter of Warner Brothers Studios’ Harry Warner) at his restaurant, Maxwell’s Plum, in New York. The self-taught chef-owner says he picked up cooking and the hospitality part of the business from the chef-owner of Campanile Restaurant, Mark Peel.
He started his restaurant in 1995, and named it after his Golden Retriever. A 150-seater restaurant with a garden and a bar, Sunny’s offers Italian, American and French food. “We started Sunny’s with Rs40 lakh and my specialized equipment for desserts ate up a significant part of that. Three years ago, we spent around Rs2 crore for the expansion,” says Sajnani.
Sajnani, who trudges to the market every morning to buy vegetables, fruits, fish and meat, cooks around 70% of the dishes on the menu. “I try to make sure that I get the best of ingredients for my dishes,” he says. “Sunny’s has given me a lot,” Sajnani says, adding: “It has not only earned me several awards, but also given me this great opportunity of meeting interesting people from all walks of life. I could not have asked for more.”
Sajnani is planning to take Sunny’s to Hyderabad and Chennai, and add another outlet in Bangalore.
SOME OTHERS IN BANGALORE
• Harima A Japanese restaurant run by the mother-son duo of Junko and Mako Ravindran on Residency Road, it is popular with the city’s gastronomes for its authentic fare.
• Shiok This restaurant run by owner-chef Madhu Menon serves different styles of Asian cooking, including Thai, Malay, Indonesian, and Singaporean.
• The Legend of Sikandar This restaurant at Garuda Mall serves Persian, Afghan and north Indian cuisines, and is known for its curries and kebabs.
• Koshy’s This no-frills place known for its Sunday ‘appams’ and stew is run by third-generation restaurateur Prem Koshy.
• Karaikudi V. Ponnuswamy brought his Chettinad chain of restaurants to Bangalore on popular demand.
Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint)
Kewpie’s Kitchen, Kolkata
On the menu: Bengali cuisine
Run by chef and food writer Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta, her father, Pradeep Kumar, and sister, Pia Promina Barve Dasgupta
Kewpie was the nickname of Meenakshi Dasgupta, who authored the cookbook ‘Bangla Ranna’. To give a real flavour to her classic recipes, her daughter Rakhi Purnima, also a food writer, decided to open a restaurant in 1998. “We decided to start a eating place that served the kind of food our mother cooked and documented in her cookbooks,” says Rakhi. “We saw a space between the NGO-run Suruchi and the more expensive Aheli at the Peerless Inn.”
The Dasguptas have had some experience of the restaurant business: Rakhi’s mother and brother had helped run Suruchi, a no-frills restaurant owned by a women’s welfare group. Kewpie’s started small, with an investment of Rs10,000, functioning out of a garage at the Dasguptas’ home in south Kolkata’s Elgin Road. It had just four tables and could seat only 16 people.
But it grew fast. Its distinctive Bengali cuisine attracted not just the Bengalis but also Marwaris, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Biharis, among others. Now in the 10th year of operations, the restaurant has taken over the entire ground floor and can seat 50. Its daily turnover is upwards of Rs16,000. Although Dasgupta is planning to expand to other cities, a concern for quality holds her back. “I look after my cuisine and I am looking for partners who share the same passion,” she says.
It was not easy to set up a Bengali restaurant in Kolkata—Bengalis almost always ate Chinese or Continental while eating out. “Bengalis have this thing—whatever my family makes is the best,” says Dasgupta. “Fortunately for us, we could take learnings from our mother’s cookbook and bring it to the table,” she adds.
For Dasgupta, who has a postgraduate diploma in film and television from Middlesex University, cooking has been a natural progression. “I grew up in a household where food played a very important part of our lives. My mother spent most of her time cooking or writing down recipes,” she says.
Dasgupta, who has been influenced by celebrated chefs and food writers such as Julia Child, James Beard and Jiggs Kalra, proudly informs you that her mother has left behind some 2,000-odd cookbooks. And, like her mother, the daughter, too, spends a great deal of her time reading and writing on food, finding old recipes and trying them out for her guests.
And that’s the reason why no Bengali restaurant can perhaps boast of serving ‘chingri dhoka’, ‘saada malaai curry’, ‘chiney kebab’ (lobster stuffed with lobster meat and other condiments), ‘ilish maach’ stuffed with meat. “We were the first restaurant to serve dishes such as ‘chital muitha’ (feather back fish in light gravy), which is cooked at home on special occasions because of the sheer cumbersome process,” she says .
SOME OTHERS IN KOLKATA
• The Blue Potato Chef and co-owner Shaun Kenworthy has made a good attempt at a fine-dining experience, with this restaurant serving modern French-Italian fusion cuisine.
• Oh! Calcutta Anjan Chatterjee has a winning proposition with this speciality restaurant brand, which serves Bengali food, and Mainland China, which serves Chinese food.
• Tamarind at Sarat Bose Road. Those who love south Indian food swear by this restaurant’s Malabari seafood and traditional Udipi vegetarian fare.
• Taaza This popular speciality restaurant in south Kolkata serves many styles of world cuisine, including Continental and Italian, experimenting with ingredients.
• Flurys The recently redesigned celebrated tea room on Park Street continues to be a must-visit with its puffs, pastries and sandwiches.
Regi Mathew. (Photo: R.A. Chandroo / Mint)
On the menu: Thai cuisine
Promoted by M. Mahadevan and run by Regi Mathew, Oriental Cuisines Pvt. Ltd
Regi Mathew was all set for a career in hospitality, but he never knew that he would be cooking. It was in the final year of his hotel management course at the Institute of Hotel Management, Thiruvananthapuram, that Mathew discovered he had a knack for cooking. He took part in several cooking competitions, which “acted as a springboard to a chef’s career”.
In 1993, Mathew was selected by Taj Group of Hotels to work as a management trainee at Taj West End, Bangalore, where he stayed till 2000. At Taj, Mathew got the opportunity to work with 12 Thai chefs, including the celebrated David Thomson. “My days in Taj made my culinary foundation very strong,” says Mathew. After a short stint at Bangkok’s Shangri-La Hotel , he joined M. Mahadevan, owner of Hot Breads and sister company of Oriental Cuisines, as a chef and CEO and conceptualized Benjarong in 2001.
Mahadevan and Mathew chose an old house and converted it into a sophisticated Thai home for the 65-seater restaurant with an initial investment of Rs60 lakh. Like the ambience, the name, too, was authentic Thai: Benjarong means five colours and also refers to traditional Thai porcelain, painted in five colours. The restaurant offers a complete Thai experience: Apart from chefs bringing in authentic recipes and piquant seasonings with fresh local produce, it even has a live fruit carving counter. “We were the first Thai restaurant in Chennai when we started and now the city has three Thai restaurants,” says Mathew. Benjarong clocked Rs1.5 crore in revenues in 2007.
The chef, who loves reading about food, is currently working on several projects to take Benjarong and Oriental Cuisine’s other brand, Zara, a Spanish tavern, to Kolkata in May, Bangalore in June and Delhi by year-end. “We held back our plans to expand Benjarong till we had adept hands to maintain the reputation of Benjarong,” says Mathew. “You need a minimum of three years to train people.” His chefs have been training at Benjarong, and some have been sent to Thailand for further schooling in Thai cuisine.
Mathew, who spends most of his evenings cooking at Benjarong, says what he likes best about his job is the spontaneous response from his guests. He fondly recalls the comment written by the deputy prime minister of Thailand, “Believe me, I am Thai... good food and quality”. “That’s the best compliment I ever got,” says Mathew.
His next ambition? “Perhaps a limited cover restaurant,” he laughs. It is difficult, he says, to make a success of an “on reservation only” dining place, but “we are getting there”. In another two years, India will be ready for limited cover restaurants, adds Mathew.
SOME OTHERS IN CHENNAI
• Cedars The Lebanese chef at this restaurant serving French, Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine in Kotturpuram has foodies hooked to its hummus and shawarmas.
• Akasaka This discreet Japanese restaurant on LB Road is a favourite with sashimi lovers and the seafood tempura has people coming back for more.
• Sanjeevanam This eatery on First Avenue in Indira Nagar offers pure vegetarian food based on strict Ayurvedic principles.
• Saravana Bhavan Synonymous with scrumptious sambhar, this restaurant chain serves south Indian vegetarian fare in a non-fussy manner.
• Buhari Hotel This restaurant on Anna Salai is more than 50 years old, and is a heritage spot of sorts. It serves excellent biryani and a signature spicy fried chicken item called Chicken 65.
AN EXCLUSIVE BLEND
Shankar Krishnamurthy. (Photo: K. Sudheer / Mint)
Fusion 9, Hyderabad
On the menu: Global cuisine
Run by chef Shankar Krishnamurthy, Maya Shankar and their Delhi partner, Arvind Kaila
Sunday brunch is a very leisurely affair at Fusion 9, often continuing till evening. And chef-owner Shankar Krishnamurthy is not complaining. “Fusion 9 is like a house party,” he says. “People come here for food, to party and connect with the rest of the world.” He was earlier a chef at The Oberoi Group of hotels and now owns Fusion Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which runs six outlets in Hyderabad: Fusion 9, a restaurant that specializes in global cuisine; Grill Room, offering grilled food from India, West Asia and the Far East; Deli 9, a delicatessen that serves desserts and breads, among other things; Café D’Art, a concept café that marries art and cuisine; and Café Odyssey, a bistro coffee shop.
But Krishnamurthy wants more. “I am looking at setting up a high-end catering college in 18-20 months and a Fusion 9 outlet each in Delhi and Bangalore,” he says. Also on the menu is a fine-dining Indian restaurant in Florida and catering operations with business hotels in Dubai. What started as a Rs80 lakh business five years ago netted revenues of Rs15 crore in 2007.
Krishnamurthy started as a kitchen trainee in the Oberoi School of Hotel Management. He went on to work with the Oberoi hotels—six years in Mumbai and eight in Dubai—where he rose to become an executive chef. “In Dubai, I helped set up 12 new restaurants that served cuisines ranging from Thai and Chinese to Mediterranean, Mexican and Lebanese,” says Krishnamurthy. In 2001, he joined the Soaltee Crowne Plaza in Kathmandu and finally decided to quit in 2002.
The choice of Hyderabad for his maiden venture was no accident. Krishnamurthy had spent some time in the city and felt that it needed a restaurant that could bring them European, American and other world cuisines. “We were the first ones to bring the fine-dining concept to a city that only had Indian and Chinese restaurants,” says Krishnamurthy.
The chef-owner, who has been inspired by celebrated Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, says that he was clear from the start that his restaurant would be a niche, upmarket product. Around 90% of Fusion 9’s clientele consists of expatriates in Hyderabad.
This business is more than bread and butter for Krishnamurthy. “It’s very satisfying to see people enjoying a meal,” he says. He cooks regularly at the restaurant, changing the menu every three months. “I watch the plates which come back and the faces of my guests, and I know if I am going in the right direction,” he says.
Ask him what separates a good food place from a great one, and pat comes the reply: “quality and consistency”. “Whether it’s the pastry sold at Deli 9 for Rs75 or the expensive dish at Fusion 9, the level of delivery has to be the same,” he adds. Krishnamurthy ‘s firm also caters to select companies with its first venture in institutional catering, the Google Café in Hyderabad.
SOME OTHERS IN HYDERABAD
• Hyderabad House The heirs of Mir Baber Ali carry on the legacy with this restaurant chain, serving Deccani cuisine. It is well-known for its biryani.
• Paradise This Irani teashop has, over the years, become a landmark in Hyderabad for its Irani chai, biryani and bakery, among other things.
• Chutney’s It specializes in south Indian food and is known for its steamed dosa and assortment of chutneys.
• Nanking This Hyderabad Chinese restaurant, run by third-generation restaurateur Liu Sze Yuan, has regulars swearing by its food—especially the ginger chicken.
• Angeethi The BJN Group serves north Indian cuisine for those who love ‘sarson da saag’ and ‘makki di roti’ through this Punjabi-dhaba style restaurant.