Nine months in the world’s toughest restaurant market and Manish Mehrotra hasn’t lost any of his legendary calm. It’s 11 in the morning in New York City. In a few hours, he will be leaving for an American Express-hosted, five-day-long pop-up in Israel, which will also feature 12 edgy restaurants from around the world, including The Musket Room (New York), L’Ami Jean (Paris) and TriCiclo (Madrid). In between, he has to get through a regular lunch and dinner service. Oh, and no pressure, but less than a week ago, the 2017 Zagat guide ranked Indian Accent New York the best Indian restaurant and the runner-up best new restaurant across cuisines in the city, based on a survey of 30,961 regular diners, eating regular lunches and dinners.
It is no mean feat for a business that comes without an American pedigree, helmed by a chef with no previous exposure to the US and determined not to compromise on the character of “inventive Indian”, hallmarked by Indian Accent when it opened in 2009 at The Manor, New Delhi. To raise the stakes further, New York City was already familiar with upscale Indian dining: Critics and diners alike continue to lament the demise of the Danny Meyer-Floyd Cardoz-led Tabla (it closed down in 2010 following recurrent financial losses), while Vikas Khanna’s Junoon, set up in 2009, has hung on to its Michelin star for five consecutive years now.
What does it take for one of India’s top chefs to start anew in a completely unfamiliar landscape? And why does he do it?
Over an hour-long FaceTime chat, Mehrotra, 43, opened up with answers and insights. Edited excerpts:
Close to a year in the US. What’s been the biggest takeaway?
It’s been a lot of learning for me. Operationally, the two places are very different. Though we have a 10-strong team of chefs—all of them from Indian Accent New Delhi—it’s not that big if you consider the kind of detailed food we do. Plus, there are regulations by way of staff hours, health, hygiene that have to be followed strictly (at the risk of losing your licence). Then, of course, there’s new ingredients, new equipment.
But what really surprised me is how well we were received here: People already knew about Indian Accent New Delhi; they’d been there, or their friends and family had been there and they’d told them about it. That doesn’t make New York City easy to negotiate, of course: If this city doesn’t like something, it can be ruthless. At the same time, it allows you to push the creative envelope.
You also push the envelope on prices, don’t you?
Yes (at $75, just over Rs5,000, for three courses and $110 for the tasting menu), we are one of the most expensive Indian restaurants in the US. It was very difficult breaking that under $50 mindset about Indian food. People will happily spend $300 at Sushi Nakazawa or Eleven Madison or Per Se, but they will hesitate to spend that kind of money at an Indian restaurant. Also, there’s a category of Indian fine-dining that offers fine crockery and good service, but also chicken tikka masala and biryani. We don’t do that—and in that sense, we are completely new for America.
How easy or difficult was it to convince the critics and the clientele about your food?
Very, very difficult. There are those who say, oh, you’re doing what Floyd did with Tabla or what Srijith (Gopinathan) is doing at Taj Campton Place, San Francisco, but what we do is very different. What Floyd did at Tabla or what he is now doing at Paowalla (which opened in May in NYC) is American food with an Indian influence. My food, on the other hand, is Indian food. The Dal Gosht is made in exactly the same way here and in New Delhi. Ditto with the Dal Moradabadi or the Daulat ki Chaat. My food is Indian food with influences from all over and, yes, presented in a far more beautiful manner than other restaurants. For many here, putting garam masala on French fries is the equivalent of modern Indian food, but that’s not me.
Some diners compare me to London restaurants, the kind of Indian food Atul (Kochhar of Benares) or Vineet (Bhatia of Rasoi) do, but my food is slightly different from theirs as well. The reason, I think, is because I run a restaurant in India to satisfy the Indian palate—which is a difficult thing. That’s why I tell my kitchen staff as well, if an Indian loves this dish, so will everyone.
There’s also been a wave of new Indian restaurants, mostly run by chefs born and brought up in the US, some of whose families came here after migrating to Africa. For them, a keema pao slider is something unique, but, again, that is not what I do.
The reviews, though, have been positive.
Yes, I wouldn’t say we got excellent reviews from everyone, but we have got good reviews from The New York Times, Eater NY and others. See, for them too, it becomes slightly difficult to judge us because they don’t have a reference point. But I’m in this for the long haul. When I opened Indian Accent all those years ago, people told me, you’re insane, opening an Indian restaurant in Delhi without butter chicken on the menu. But we did it and, for the first two years, we really struggled to make people understand what I wanted to do. And I’m doing the same thing here. In fact, my experience in India is helping me stick to my convictions about what I serve in New York City.
How has New York City shaped you creatively?
Oh, the supply chain is amazing. You name it, you get it. When we launched in spring, it was the season for ramps and nettle. Ramp is a kind of wild onion that also tastes very garlicky; it’s a big thing here in New York. We incorporated both ramps and nettle in our dishes. Now, you do get nettle in India—it grows in the North-East and is known as bicchubuti, but it’s so difficult to get it in Delhi.
Then came the time for soft-shell crabs. In all my years as a chef, I’d never seen live soft-shell crabs, only frozen ones. The fresh ones, I realized, were high in water content and they also spoil very fast. It would be an injustice just to dunk them in a generic masala. So we did a light dusting of rice powder, ginger-garlic paste, haldi and red chilli powder and deep-fried them because the crisp coat contrasts well with the soft meat. The rest of the flavours came from a dried shrimp pulao—based on the Malwani kismur —and a thin kokum curry. Till about August, we were selling 50-52 portions of Koliwada everyday. It was like eating a bit of the sea.
Going forward, actually, is going to be my most difficult season because we rarely eat the American winter food in India. Things like beetroot, parsnip, turnip—these aren’t mainstream vegetables for India; that is when we thrive on gobi, green peas and the like. But now we’ve found a supplier for fresh sarson da saag here. By the third week of November, we’ll also have bajre ki khichdi, arbi, aloo-aur-mutton ka cheela with turnip korma on my winter menu. Years ago in Delhi, I used to have a roasted scallop with gobi masallam. That is coming back.
Where do you draw the line between tradition and innovation?
I was very clear about this right from the beginning: Whatever innovation I was doing, it had to make sense, there has to be a rationale to combinations and flavours. I have two thumb rules: One, I don’t fuse two cuisines in a dish—so you’ll never find a paneer Chettinad or a Kashmiri kofta in a coconut curry on my menu. And two, the ingredients you’re pairing have to complement each other. For instance, my blue-cheese naan. Blue cheese and bread is a classic combination. Or the kathal phulka—I used to have it as a child. Or take our soy keema, one of the most talked about dishes on the New York menu. It has Nutrela granules with quail egg and lime-leaf pao, a play on Bombay’s keema ghotala. The soy keema is again something I grew up eating in a vegetarian household—and now no one here believes it’s not actually meat.
One last question: Indian Accent New Delhi is on the world’s bests lists and the like, but is the New York outpost a gambit for bigger recognition, like a Michelin star?
Um, well, see, opening a restaurant in New York was a business decision, and I’m not involved in the business at all. I am a chef, first and foremost. We were looking for spaces in Mumbai, London, New York, Dubai.... and only New York came together satisfactorily.
That said, I have to admit I’m fortunate to be in New York. The Zagat list came out just four days ago: Out of 5, we got 4.7 for food, which I’d say is good enough for an eight-month-old restaurant. Above us is Le Bernardin, also the city’s best (for 10 out of 12 years of the Zagat survey), which got 4.9 for food, and a few others. They also called us the second-best new restaurant in New York City—so many restaurants open here every day, so this makes me go, “Wow.”
As to whether I’m pleased with this, I have to say these are early days yet. We have to work hard, we have to be consistent... If Indian Accent were to get a Michelin star, I’d be the only India-based chef and India-based restaurant to have one. Any award makes you happy.
6 ingredients that define his kitchen
Back in the day, Mehrotra used to shop for quinoa at Tesco in the UK and lug it back to Delhi to serve his guests. In New York, with the world’s best supply chains at his command, he found himself sorely missing the desi staples that gave his food an incomparable savouriness.
The six ingredients that define a Manish Mehrotra kitchen:
Tata Salt: When we started doing food trials in New York, one of my first realizations was that the salt—sourced locally in the US—wasn’t working. Then we got Tata salt and the dishes just came together like that.
Amul Cheese: There are far superior cheeses available in New York, but they don’t work for my food. Amul Cheese is what I grew up eating, and that homely taste is what my food needs.
Amul Butter: It has a kind of savouriness that I simply don’t get in any other butter.
Kashmiri Morels: The company I work with (Old World Hospitality) has a strong Kashmir connect, and I’m very familiar with good Kashmiri produce. You get fresh morels in the US, of course, but I need my Kashmiri morels.
Kolhapuri Masala: A family in Kolhapur makes this masala for me. It’s very, very important for my meat dishes; it works almost like ajinomoto.
Fatafat: As in India, we serve these digestives at the end of a meal here as well.