Mumbai: From 11-15 November, the pristine white decor of south Mumbai’s swish Italian restaurant Villa 39 will get a complete makeover. Indian dancers and Japanese geisha girls will perform, sushi will replace prosciutto and the menu will include Nobu’s famous signature dishes. Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s 26-strong entourage from London—sous chefs, managers, senior waiters—and his kitchen equipment will be flown down. His design team has worked on the decor and for that duration the restaurant will be converted into a mecca for Nobu followers in India to come and dine.
Culinary history: Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is set to hold one of Mumbai’s most significant gastronomic events from 11 to 15 November.
Invitations have been sent out to the city’s swish set. The cursive silver font on the white invite reads: “Enchantments of India—Your invitation to history in the making.” Discounting for the breathless public relations hyperbole, this still counts as an important gastronomic event for Mumbai. If there’s one international restaurant popular among the wealthy in India, it’s Nobu. Dining at the restaurant would be the equivalent of carrying a Louis Vuitton bag.
Prices range from Rs24,000 per person to a sit-down dinner hosted by the man himself for 110 guests, which will cost Rs58,000 for one.
For Mumbai, this has been a year of many firsts. Michelin star chef Vineet Bhatia, in association with Oakwood Premier, started Azok in Juhu where he serves his signature style of modern Indian cuisine. When The Oberoi reopened after the terrorist attacks, it partnered with the chef for Ziya. Bhatia, who runs Michelin star restaurant Rasoi in London and 11 others around the world, has created quite a buzz in Mumbai.
Then came Ian Kittichai, whose eponymous restaurant in New York is one of the best-known Thai eateries. His contemporary style Thai cuisine may not have earned him a Michelin star yet, but he’s one of the most famous Thai chefs in the world with successful operations in Barcelona and Bangkok.
And more Michelin stars are expected to be sighted on Mumbai’s firmament. Hakkasan, the Oriental fusion restaurant in London frequented by the city’s elite that received its Michelin star in 2003, is slated to open in a few months. Kishore Bajaj, responsible for bringing Italian men’s fashion brand Brioni to India, is behind the venture.
Wealthy gastronomes in Delhi needn’t feel left out. Leela Kempinski’s new property in the Capital will house Megu, a branch of the renowned New York Japanese restaurant. The restaurant will open in March next year in Delhi and at The Leela Kempinski in Mumbai a few months later.
“We were very clear that we wanted an international brand. We wanted to raise the bar for Japanese food in India,” says Rajeev Kaul, president of The Leela Hotels. The company looked for the best Japanese restaurants it could partner with, including Megu, Nobu and Zuma, and finally struck a deal with Megu.
The New York restaurant, known for its stunning décor and first-rate ingredients, has prices considered steep even for that city. White porcelain columns made of over 5,000 interlocking rice bowls and sake vases, and rolls of antique kimono fabric cover the walls there.
Capital call: An artist’s impression of Megu, which will open in March at The Leela Kempsinki, New Delhi.
Everything from the crockery and cutlery to the décor and service will match the Megu, New York, experience. Staff from Leela travelled there to understand the nuances of the personalized service that the restaurant is known for. The vegetarian section was expanded, and the pork and beef choices got smaller. A meal at Megu would normally cost $140 (around Rs6,250), but the prices have been lowered slightly for the Indian market.
With the luxury stakes in India rising, restaurants don’t want to be left behind. Harley Davidson, Ducati, Diesel and Etro all opened flagship stores in the country this year. When it comes to restaurants, though, brands are built around big-name chefs who manage to create their own signature style. “New school” and “cutting edge” seem to be the catchphrases as fine dining gets bracketed with luxury and the chef’s identity becomes a part of the brand. Bhatia has just returned to London from Dubai where he rebranded his restaurant Indigo to Indigo by Vineet Bhatia.
“Regulars at my restaurant in London told me we didn’t know the restaurant in Dubai was by you. So they didn’t go there. I fly with British Airways because I am familiar with their service. People travelling to different parts of the world go to my restaurants because they trust the brand,” Bhatia says in a phone conversation from London. For the same reason, InterContinental Marine Drive added Kittichai’s name to its Koh restaurant.
Restaurant industry veteran A.D. Singh, who owns the Olive chain of restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi, is excited about the new development, which he says has been long overdue. Singh had visited Shanghai three years ago to gauge the dining scene in the city and realized that the big difference between both was the lack of big names in Mumbai. “Morimoto was the only big international chef here. We are still very far away from matching up to London or New York, but these restaurants will (give) an impetus to our dining culture. It will help bring international columnists and diners into the country,” he says.
According to Singh, Nobu and Hakkasan have been looking to make an entry into the Indian market for a long time. “Anton Mossiman and Atul Kochchar are also very interested,” says Singh about the Michelin star chefs from Switzerland and London, respectively.
As Nobu said in an email interview: “We have received wonderful feedback from our Indian clientele and the biggest compliment is the amount of regular Indian guests that visit my restaurants each day.” From New York to London and Tokyo, the Japanese restaurant has outposts in over 20 cities in the world. Indians may not like fish, but they love their sushi. “The vegetarian options at Nobu are the highest in London, because there are so many Indian diners who go there,” says Gaurav Assomull, chief executive officer of Marigold Group, which is bringing him to India.
Every few years a new cuisine fights to be the new Chinese. Italian, Thai and Japanese cuisine have all gone on to find takers, but French food remains tucked away in the corners of a few five-star hotels. To break the stereotype of French cuisine as being too expensive and introduce the city to bistro-style food, two restaurants are set to open in the city.
After serving fresh organic bread in bakeries across 19 countries, including Australia, Spain, France and the US, Le Pain Quotidien will open its restaurant in Colaba in the next few months. The chain has also popularized its concept of the Communal Table, where strangers get an opportunity to break bread together.
It could be in for some serious competition from a passionate trio who will be launching Chez Vous in Churchgate next month. Sundance Cafe, the iconic south Mumbai haunt, has been stripped down and converted into a French home-style eatery. Frederick Fernandez promises that you won’t have to brush up on your French to enjoy a meal here. “French food is not advanced mathematics. People don’t need to be intimated by it,” he says. Passionate about food and in love with Mumbai, Fernandez quit his corporate job in Paris last year to open the restaurant with two partners.
The restaurant has an extensive wine list that includes imports from France. Apart from foie gras, crab creole and veal, Chez Vous wants to familiarize Mumbai with spirits such as absinthe.
From visiting Sassoon Dock to buy fish to struggling with licence issues and getting permissions from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, it has been a difficult year breaking into the Mumbai restaurant scene. But Fernandez wouldn’t do this anywhere else. “India is the place to be in the next 20 years, and Mumbai will be the most exciting,” he says.
Fortunately for the epicures of Mumbai, the city is home to the flagship properties of various five-star hotels. So Wasabi by Morimoto, Bhatia and Kittichai came to the country’s commercial capital first.
But international standards are a challenge to maintain. According to Singh, trained staff is difficult to come by.
“Availability of ingredients is a bit erratic. Importing perishables like seafood is difficult and the best ingredients from India are exported. Partnering with a hotel definitely makes things easier,” says Bhatia.
According to Singh, real estate costs in Delhi are much lower and the spending power high. So while he is unsure why Mumbai is ahead in the big-ticket restaurant race, for Assomull, Mumbai is always the first choice.
“I wanted to bring Nobu to Mumbai. It’s a better market and people are more prone to entertaining out. I think people here are more adventurous also,” he adds.
Assomull concedes that Nobu’s event in the city is also an opportunity to gauge the market. “We want to find out if people will really pay international prices in India and it’s not just all talk,” he says.