Some weeks ago, I was at a food and wine tasting, put together by Food Lovers, a Bangalore-based magazine with a self-explanatory name. I read the magazine for its restaurant reviews and foodie news. Occasionally, the magazine invites me to be part of its free tasting panels. A group of us sample food and wine and offer written opinions. Like foodies everywhere, we talk in obsessive and excruciating detail about things that might make a technocrat’s eyes roll: Wasara tableware, Laguiole knives, Rosenthal stemware, Thai cutlery, food trends, vacuum cooking, ice wine, single malts and such. On that day, six of us sat around discussing why we go to the restaurants we do; and why we don’t go to some restaurants, even if we know they are good. Here then is a list of Bangalore’s underrated but good restaurants.
Graze at the Taj Residency, for instance, gets uniformly good reviews from all the foodies I know. Yet, few of us actually go there frequently. Part of the reason is that getting into a five-star hotel for dinner is a real pain these days, what with the security checks at every stage. The other reason is that even though Graze’s current chef is Indian and very good, the Taj group doesn’t promote him very much, perhaps because of the much-hyped opening chef: Oscar Gonzalez from Mexico. Here is another reason that is hardly politically correct but I will put it out there anyway: the chef’s name. Chef Selvaraju sounds like he would fit right into an Indian restaurant, perhaps a Chettinad one. When it comes to Continental food, do we expect a chef with a Westernized name? Or am I just stereotyping? Tell me, would you go to Bukhara or Dum Pukht if you knew that the chefs there were called, say, Pierre Gagnaire or Giovanni Mastraluca? In other words, should chef Selvaraju change his name, or take up a Westernized moniker?
Speaking of names, West View at the ITC Royal Gardenia has an unfortunate name for a restaurant so good. The name says nothing about the food or its location and falls right into the category of restaurants with elliptical, almost meaningless names—such as Ebony, Queens and the now-defunct Tai Tai. This is a pity because West View’s all-women staff makes it a trailblazer. The women sommeliers are particularly good and make thoughtful wine suggestions without being pushy. I just wish the lighting were better. Which brings me right to my pet peeve.
Minimalism is so over. Why, oh why, do restaurants chuck coziness for a spare, ascetic décor and lighting that is closer to pitch dark than well-lit? Rather than showing off their sommeliers and waitresses, West View’s dim lighting makes them look funereal in their dark suits.
The other five-star restaurants aren’t much better in the lighting department. Oko at the The Lalit Ashok is another example. It serves very good (and very pricy) pan-Asian food. Its rooftop ambience is lovely but it suffers from association. Many Bangaloreans view The Lalit as a conservative hotel where government guests are put up. How exciting can that be? Its location, opposite the golf course, is also far from the centre of town. But if you are on an expense account and want to get away from the chaos of Bangalore’s Metro construction, Oko would be a good choice.
Dim view: West View’s all-women staff makes it a trailblazer, but its name says nothing about the food or its location. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Some restaurants benefit from their location. The ones at UB City, for instance, can be mediocre but will get their business simply because of the number of visitors. If Shiro is full, people go to Fava; or Café Noir; or Toscano. Some go straight to Rajdhani. All are reasonably good restaurants; none is a standout. They don’t have to be. Why mess with the formula if it works?
When it opened, I had a wonderful meal at Indian Affair, the restaurant at the Chancery Pavilion, but I haven’t gone back since. I often wonder why. I think it is because the Chancery Pavilion seems like a boring hotel. It doesn’t have that ephemeral but incandescent thing we call buzz.
In Bangalore, there are two stand-alone restaurants that have buzz: Sunny’s and Olive Beach. The old timers all seem to go to Sunny’s. Newcomers like me prefer Olive. Whatever its flaws and there are several, Olive works. You can’t walk through the pebbles in stilettos; you are always in danger of falling into the puddles that they have created, particularly after a few drinks; the rattan furniture is ageing; the food is terrific on some days and spongy on others. Chef Manu Chandra is a big draw because he manages to do something that most chefs hate: actually converse with his guests. And somehow, you have a good time. You meet people you know and the restaurant is cozy. Sunny’s, in contrast, is cold. Even people who love the place say that its owner doesn’t take critiques well. “You have to take Arjun aside and gently break it to him,” said one. I haven’t gone to Sunny’s for years.
The restaurant that should have the buzz is Caperberry. Its chef, Abhijit Saha, is hard-working and earnest. The food is beautifully presented. They encourage local photographers and recently had a group of wonderfully abstract food photographs (by Sudeep Gurtu, I believe) on the walls. What Caperberry lacks is a festive feel. It has fallen prey to the whole minimal décor trend and the room ends up looking like an army bunker with little character. A few sheesha pipes, some colour on the walls and a few billowing purple curtains a la My Humble House’s Singapore branch or even the Park Hotel’s I-Bar, which chef Saha used to head, and the atmosphere would be totally different.
There are many more underrated restaurants but I’ve run out of space and a soapbox. If you know of any underrated but exciting restaurants in Bangalore or other Indian cities, I’d love to hear.
Shoba Narayan wishes she weren’t vegetarian just so she could try Kanua, another underrated Konkani restaurant. She plans to go to The Higher Taste at the Iskcon temple which a friend described as “high-end sattvik”. Write to her at email@example.com