It was the late 1980s. India’s foreign reserves were slowly creeping towards a chunky red line; our fourwheeler aspirations followed an unsteady trajectory from the dependable Amby to the desperate comforts of the Rover 2000 (3km to a litre); and a personal loan was an indelible mark of failure.
In the midst of this rather drab reality, a story did the rounds about a new restaurant in Mumbai, nestled inside a historic five-star hotel. At this eatery, newcomers to the city were told, there were no prices on the food. The dishes were so exclusive and the patrons so “high-class” that the hotel did not condescend to price its creations. It was believed that customers simply paid what each meal deserved.
Such was the aura of the Taj Mahal Hotel’s Zodiac Grill. For almost two decades, Mumbai’s most expensive restaurant has survived the trials of flighty tastes and quadrupling competition by focusing on the tiniest details of fine dining. For that, and despite the restaurant’s deliberate effort to never be topical, it would be highly remiss of us to overpass the country’s most luxurious dining experience in an issue focused on sumptuous living.
The Grill (never be presumptuous enough to shorten the Zodiac Grill moniker to a monosyllable; except, of course, if you have to take its name over and over again, as we are about to) was founded as a showpiece of Taj hospitality—to flaunt a style of service uninhibited by restrictions of price. It is one of the few Indian restaurants that spoils its clientele with butler service and the rather flamboyant practice of using a cloche. Regulars are served on personalized napkins, and it’s not unusual for a birthday celebrant to get a little prezzie. But that extra quotient has maintained this eatery’s position as the preferred dining address for the city’s most influential residents.
Author Shobhaa Dé has spent every significant family celebration within its wood-panelled womb and promises to continue to do so. “There’s a real sense of continuity and intimacy at the Zodiac Grill,” says Dé. “They remember every detail about what you like and make sure they add a little extra something to every occasion.”
They remember because the Grill has a database on all regulars—the number runs to more than 1,000—with information as specific as the name of the institution where an offspring is enrolled. “We have a detailed client-profiling system,” says Mehernavaz Avari, the restaurant manager. “In addition, we assign specific staff to clients they have served before, so they know their tastes already.”
The restaurant is set up for a conservative 44 covers and there are plenty of weeknights when a customer would be forgiven for thinking he’s got himself a private dining room. As one critic said, it’s a great place for a clandestine dinner with a lady you’re trying to you-know-what. But the regulars call that sort of ambience charming. “World over, restaurants are getting noisy and crowded, but Zodiac Grill is like a cocoon, they make everything special and you can actually have a conversation with your guests,” says Kamini Banga, author and wife of former HLL chief M.S. Banga.
Born in the days when Continental cuisine was the ‘It’ flavour in town, the Grill presents a choice of French classic and nouvelle dishes that hasn’t changed much since its inception. (Critics, such as Mumbai restaurateur Prahlad Kakkar, say this is the Grill’s most sensitive A-heel.) Their latest is a degustation menu of six/nine courses that includes foie gras and the signature Camembert Dariole, an airy cheese soufflé that regulars can’t do without.
There’s no doubting the luxuriousness of their dishes—served on Bernardaud and Thomas Keller, flanked by Christofle and Riedel—which can run up a tab of more than Rs10,000 per person. And the expensive, if not expansive, menu is complemented by a 586-label wine cellar that hosts bottles of every varietal and price range, from basic reds and whites to the Karl Lagerfeld edition champagne for Dom Perignon. The wait staff, for whom the Grill is a “royal posting”, is put through more than a month of training to get familiar with the wine list. But tables are still serviced by old hands and rookies must satisfy themselves with playing support staff.
But, that level of nit-picking means that despite the fact that Mumbai’s gastronomic landscape has changed as remarkably as the condition of India’s coffers and shopping districts, the Grill’s clientele—the likes of the Ambanis—remain doggedly faithful to the institution. “We’ve safeguarded our regulars,” says Avari confidently. “They’re not going anywhere.” Remember the urban legend about price-less menus? That story is inspired by fact. According to Avari, the priced menu is only given to the host of a meal—everyone else at a table gets a copy without prices, so they can’t calculate the final tab. Now, how many restaurants would have thought of that?