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Riyaaz Amlani (left) and A.D. Singh at Hauz Khas Village, Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Riyaaz Amlani (left) and A.D. Singh at Hauz Khas Village, Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Gastronomy | The future of food

Restaurateurs Riyaaz Amlani and AD Singh, once fine-dine pioneers, are changing their menus and business models to suit her tastes

In 2005, I was still in school when I ate asparagus for the first time as tempura at Riyaaz Amlani’s Salt Water Grill—that Goa-like paradise smack in the middle of Mumbai at Chowpatty beach, now remembered mostly as an oasis too good to be true.

A few months after A.D. Singh’s Olive Bar and Kitchen opened off Carter Road in Khar in November 2000, my family, dressed in all-white and pastels, went for our first weekend “brunch" at what had already become the city’s celebrity central.

For me, both these food memories are right up there with eating McDonald’s fries the day they opened under the country’s first Golden Arches sign on Linking Road, Bandra West, in 1996.

Singh and Amlani have been key players in Mumbai’s modern, stand-alone restaurant scene ever since they set up their hospitality companies, around the same time, a little over a decade ago. Singh established Olive Bar and Kitchen Pvt. Ltd with the launch of the flagship Olive in 2000, and Amlani founded Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt. Ltd when he set up the first outlet of his coffee shop chain Mocha at Churchgate in 2001.

In my late teens and early 20s, I may have been an unlikely customer for both restaurateurs during those first 10 years—except for Mocha. Obviously, I lacked the taste, the sophistication and the money for their flagship properties in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore—variations of the laidback Mediterranean-themed Olive for Singh and variations of the modern-European Smoke House Grills for Amlani. But in my mid-20s, the businessmen—in separate interviews—say I now make up the single most important demographic in their expansion plans.

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A.D. Singh says Olive Beach in Chanakyapuri was designed as a seaside shack for landlocked Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“I’ve shifted the focus of the company from what India thinks of as fine dining, like, say, the Olive in Bandra, to more casual fine dining, like delis, cafés, pizzerias," 53-year-old Singh explains. “We are creating new brands which will be able to tap into the wide emerging market of an age group I’d say is a bit like yourself—roughly, let’s say, the 25-year-old—which is the biggest new market across India in most cities."

It makes sense, as Singh points out: In my mid-twenties, I’m into my second job since college and I haven’t started thinking about saving yet. In fact, as if on schedule every month, I end up spending my salary in the first two weeks on just eating and drinking out. I then find myself swiping the credit card at the city’s newest restaurants or my favourite budget bars until the next pay cheque arrives.

Singh understands that there are many others like me. Amlani, too, is clearly in the know. “In the last two-three years, there’s been a definite trend going towards cafés and away from fine-dining restaurants," says 38-year-old Amlani, in an informal chat at his company’s Byculla headquarters. Impresario’s portfolio got a boost in 2011 with 48 crore investment from Mirah Hospitality and Food Solutions Pvt. Lid (behind brands like Khandani Rajdhani and Citrus Hotels and Resorts) and Beacon India Private Equity Fund. The company currently has 33 establishments—17 restaurants and cafés in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune and 16 company- and franchise-owned Mocha outlets. “The casual segment is the one we are bullish about right now and we don’t want to go into the premium to luxury segment," says Amlani.

As trendsetters and pioneers of culinary cool in India, it’s a bit surprising to see Amlani and Singh suddenly latch on to industry trends and go the chain route. Both started their careers with one-of-a-kind hospitality and entertainment projects that they felt were missing in the country. Singh, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from the Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, US, ran a makeshift, desserts-only parlour at an Irani café called Parisian on Homi Mody Street in 1990, at a time when only Parsi aunties baked whole cakes. A decade later, Amlani, who studied entertainment management at the University of California, Los Angeles, encouraged city folk to linger for hours at the living room style Mocha for the price of a coffee.

Singh helped set up the first bowling alley at Phoenix Mills while Amlani was involved in the creation of the first go-karting race track at Hiranandani Gardens, Powai. Singh modelled the first Olive after a restaurant he had enjoyed on a holiday to Phuket, Thailand, and Amlani says Salt Water Grill was designed as a mini vacation spot for his diners. To date, their establishments are extremely detailed and concept-driven—giving them a first-mover advantage in the restaurant business, but also making it difficult for them to scale up.

Until a few years ago, they were also neck-deep into some of their most ambitious projects. In 2008, the Olive group launched ai, a 13,000 sq. ft, contemporary Japanese stand-alone at the MGF mall in Saket, south Delhi, while Impresario took a leap with its molecular gastronomy restaurant, the Smoke House Room, and adjoining nightclub, Shroom, taking up an entire floor at The Crescent Mall overlooking the Qutub Minar in the Capital in 2011.

Over the last two years, Singh says, a few things prompted him to rethink the company’s business plans. The first was the closure of ai in January 2012. “With our first Japanese restaurant (ai), unfortunately we had significant losses as the mall did not do as we had all hoped," he explains. “At 9 crore, it was a big, beautiful space, very well finished, but we’ve recently reopened it as Guppy by ai (in Lodi Colony, Delhi) at 20% of the cost of the old project. We are looking to do the new restaurants at fairly good rates, keeping the project costs tight and the spaces small."

“Two was that three of the best things that opened in Delhi in 2012 were opened by ex-Olive people. Laurent (Guiraud) opened Rara Avis, a very popular French bistro, Vaibhav (Singh) helped open PCO, which is Delhi’s best performing bar for the last year, and chef Nuria (Rodriguez) opened Imperfecto, another very popular hot spot," says Singh.

The Olive group, says Singh, was slow to get into the café space. “We were looking at cafés very early on but only got around to those products last year, by which time there were several very good products in that space across India like Indigo Deli, Smoke House Deli, Diva Café," he says. “There are many great entrepreneurs in India today and if you have an idea and you don’t open it, somebody else will open it. For instance, we’ve been looking at microbreweries for about five years but because of the headaches and costs involved, we’ve been playing a waiting game. Now that they’ve reached a level of presence in the marketplace, I feel like we’re a little bit behind the curve so we might not go into it at all."

Riyaaz Amlani at the third and newest outlet of Smoke House Deli in Mumbai on Dr Ambedkar Road, Bandra West. Photo: Gopal MS/Mint
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Riyaaz Amlani at the third and newest outlet of Smoke House Deli in Mumbai on Dr Ambedkar Road, Bandra West. Photo: Gopal MS/Mint

It’s no secret that the hospitality industry suffers from some of the most brutal attrition rates. Like the Olive group, Impresario too has lost chefs like Viraf Patel and Conrad D’Souza, who now run some of the best-known eateries in Mumbai—Café Zoe in Lower Parel and Pali Village Café in Bandra West, respectively. “Of course people will grow and create their own restaurants, it’s part of the business. You cannot block people by putting contracts," says Amlani. “You can retain talent if you can provide good growth and great career opportunities. The larger we grow, we’re able to give more ownership to our team members."

Singh, who is more open than Amlani about his company’s HR practices, says that apart from entering into strategic partnerships with high performers (like chef Manu Chandra for Monkey Bar and likethatonly in Bangalore), the Olive group has recently introduced an Esop (employee share ownership plan) scheme too. “I believe very much in the basic capitalist model—that is, if you have the chance to earn for yourself, you’ll make it happen, you’ll work twice as hard and you’ll bring all your energies," he explains. “I’m not looking to take every last piece of the pie for the company. I want to make sure that our best people grow within the organization and hand-in-hand with the organization."

Scaling up and letting managers take over the everyday minutiae also allows Singh—whose restaurants have been inseparable from his celebrity persona for the greater part of his career—to finally take the back seat and make time for his two-year-old daughter, Zoe. “When people walk into our new properties, they don’t know the connection to Olive, they have no idea who I am, and so the product stands on its own legs and this way it can really grow," says Singh. “I would host innovative, fun events at Olive for years but increasingly we’re working with good promoters who play that role because I really can’t. I’m a family guy and it feels to me like I’ve been waiting for Zoe my whole life."

Amlani, who married Pakistani singer-songwriter Kiran Chaudhry in December 2012, is, however, travelling much more, shuttling regularly between Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. “I actually spend my time out of a suitcase," he adds. “But I think when it comes to restaurants, these are probably the most interesting times that we are going through now."

Naturally, at the outset, it was all about private equity, processes and people management at Olive and Impresario, but it’s the challenge of expansion while retaining the company’s “soul" that preoccupies both Singh and Amlani now. Luckily for them, creating niche boutique concepts, high on novelty value, is now a well-honed skill that sets them apart from competitors, big and small, old and new.

Conglomerates like Pan India Food Solutions Pvt. Ltd, behind brands like Bombay Blue and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and JSM Corporation, which runs Hard Rock Café and California Pizza Kitchen in India, rely on aggressive multiplication of their cookie-cutter outlets for growth. But at Olive and Impresario, no two restaurants look alike, even if they fall under the same brand. In fact, they are highly tailored to their geographical location and presumptive customer base, a feature that is usually considered incompatible with expansion.

Take, for instance, two of the brands that will drive Impresario’s growth now—Smoke House Deli and Social. The first is an all-day café chain that’s rapidly multiplying in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Amlani describes each of its outlets as “mini illustrated museums", with all-white interiors that have been meticulously doodled by artists to depict the history of the neighbourhoods they occupy. So while the walls of the Lower Parel outlet trace the history of cotton mills in Mumbai, the one at Khan Market in Delhi is a hat-tip to the locality’s literary stalwarts, and the Lavelle Road outpost has roots in Bangalore’s colonial past.

The neighbourhood café-bar chain Social, scheduled to launch in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai over the next few months, follows a crowdsourcing model. This means patrons—Amlani hopes to host many freelancers during the day—will dictate everything from food and drink menus to music. Each Social will even be named after the area it’s located in, like the Church Street Social in Bangalore.

“There are many different F&B evolutions taking place all at the same time—we’ve got the five-stars, the Udipis, the quick-service restaurants, the coffee shops, the fine-dine restaurants, and now so many branded, casual offerings have come around," says Amlani. “But for us, the joy is to be a chain and yet be different with every new product. I believe restaurants are like personalities and our one-word philosophy is ‘handmade’ restaurants—this means you can’t go factory or lab conditions. Every little thing (for the restaurant) has to be hand-picked and every little detail is handcrafted and I think our attention to detail is what allows us to really thrive."

Singh says that because he never trained as a chef, he can easily dream up restaurant concepts that aren’t built around kitchens of specific kinds of cuisine. “Since I don’t cook, I’ve always had to work hard on the overall picture," he says. “I have to take good food, put in a good ambience and back it up with good service. This has really helped me stand out from the next guy and be successful."

Singh adds that he’s mindful of matching his new set of brands to the correct locations—so while the company has already begun to penetrate smaller markets like Hyderabad and Pune with the Olive Bistros, the casual Japanese stand-alone Guppy by ai, the modern-day Irani café-bar SodaBottleOpenerWala, the French-themed Le Bistro du Parc and gastropub Monkey Bar will only expand in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Impresario’s expansion, limited to key metros, is slightly less adventurous. Most of its restaurants and cafés, including Smoke House Deli, Salt Water Grill and Social, are centred on no-frills, modern European comfort food.

“It’s all about the fine balance between trying to build a company with scalable brands and trying to cater to the food intelligence," explains Amlani. His forte is European and international cuisine, as opposed to Thai or Chinese or pan-Asian. “Even QSRs don’t disinterest me, you look at a restaurateur like Danny Meyer who had successful and iconic restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Tabla (in New York) but he went into a burger joint (Shake Shack) and that’s what’s really made him his billions. As of today we are focusing on scaling up our Smoke House Deli and Social brands. Also, let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there for whom European food is novel enough," he says.

Singh agrees that it’s best to play it safe with menus while building with scalable models at a time when diners have access to multiple online social forums to express their disappointment and rant openly. “I don’t mind smaller menus but I tell my staff that you can no longer afford to have any bad dishes," explains Singh. “Since we are talking about scalable models, the whole point of the menu is also to be able to make a particular kind of sandwich over and over again anywhere in the country and it should taste the same."

“Everybody has a bad day but it’s become very scary that something as small as a well-drafted Facebook outburst can almost shut down a restaurant," says Amlani. He believes that growing awareness levels will positively impact a restaurateur although that means diners will be able to point out shortfalls.

“In fact, it’s nice to get kids coming into the restaurants these days asking for wagyu steak, black truffle drizzle and foie gras—I didn’t know any of this until I was in my late 20s, but it’s like I said, we are going through many different kinds of food and drink evolutions," adds Amlani, almost as if he has already begun to keep tabs on his future clientele.

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Restaurateur A.D. Singh and Riyaaz Amlani talk about their favourite dishes at award-winning restaurants, at home and on the streets.

Mutton Berry Pulao
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Mutton Berry Pulao

Name the best restaurant in India currently.

My new favourite is The Flying Elephant (at The Park Hyatt) in Chennai.

Pick a favourite dish from one of your restaurants.

The Mutton Berry Pulao at our new Irani café SodaBottleOpenerWala.

A meal you crave from a restaurant overseas.

I enjoy the tasting menu at a good Japanese restaurant (chain) like Zuma.

How has your two-year-old daughter Zoe changed your eating habits?

I’m eating many more chicken nuggets now.

The one big difference between Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore diners?

Outside Bombay and Delhi, diners are very sensitive about price points.

Name your favourite street-food dish.

A Mysore masala dosa.

Pick an Indian city for the best street food.

Delhi.

Name your favourite fast-food chain, if at all.

None.

Do you have a favourite home-cooked meal or dish?

My mother-in-law’s tikkis.

Pick a restaurant in India for a date night with your wife.

A place with a great setting like Thalassa (Vagator, Goa) at sunset.

Tell us about the most indulgent meal you’ve ever had.

Not my cup of tea.

Which sort of diners give you nightmares?

Aggressive ones. Someone slapped a waiter of mine once. I’m still mad about it.

Pick a restaurant trend in India you’re most excited about.

The growth of youngsters bringing out new restaurants all the time. Many are shit but some good ones have emerged.

If you had to pick just one, name your favourite restaurant in the world.

Mine.

How often do you eat out in a week?

About 10 meals.

Food-wise, what’s the one thing that your home city Mumbai has that other cities don’t?

Swati Snacks, Soam, bhelpuri.

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RIYAAZ AMLANI

John Dory with Smoked Shimla Chilli
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John Dory with Smoked Shimla Chilli

Indian Accent at The Manor, New Delhi.

Pick a favourite dish from one of your restaurants.

John Dory with Smoked Shimla Chilli at Smoke House Deli.

A meal you crave from a restaurant other than your own.

Black Cod Miso at Wasabi by Morimoto.

Name your favourite street-food dish.

Naan chaaps.

Pick an Indian city for the best street food.

Bombay.

Name your favourite fast-food chain, if at all.

Chitpotle (Mexican Grill).

Do you have a favourite home-cooked meal or dish?

Mum’s dhansak.

Pick a restaurant in India for a date night with your wife.

Yauatcha.

Tell us about the most indulgent meal you’ve ever had.

Food-tasting session at Arzak (in San Sebastián, Spain).

You said you don’t like enjoy taking your friends out to your own restaurants. Why?

I don’t like to go out with my friends to one of my own restaurants because it keeps me distracted. I have to make sure the service is the best, the music is good, etc. I love entertaining my friends at home.

Which sort of diners give you nightmares?

A diner who comes with his/her own specifications of a dish and does not like it the way it is offered by the restaurant.

Are there any eating and drinking trends in India that excite you?

In Bombay, I love the fact that it has made space for individual cafés with their own personalities. In Delhi, the fact that parties can go on till the wee hours. Bangalore starts buzzing very early, the pubs and bars are packed by 7pm.

If you had to pick just one, name

your favourite restaurant in the world.

sketch in London.

How often do you eat out in a week?

Eight-nine times.

What’s worse—a diner who knows too much or a diner who knows too little?

A diner who knows a little, too much.

Food-wise, what’s the one thing that your home city Mumbai has that other cities don’t?

Pav bhaji.

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