January 29, 2023

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Covid impact | How fine-dining restaurants adapted to lockdowns and restrictions



a plate of food: Covid impact | How fine-dining restaurants adapted to lockdowns and restrictions


© Chanpreet Khurana
Covid impact | How fine-dining restaurants adapted to lockdowns and restrictions

The writing is on the wall. Due to the capriciousness of the authorities and the constant policy flip-flop, India’s restaurant industry is struggling to survive. Many smaller players have been wiped out, while the pedigree restaurants have been constantly adapting, evolving and creating fresh paradigms to stay afloat.

We put together a definitive guide on how the crème de la crème of Indian restauranteurs and chefs have bounced back from the edge of a precipice.

HUNGER INC. (Bombay Canteen, O Pedro, Bombay Sweet Shop, Brun & Babka, Kung Fu Canteen), Mumbai

This Independence Day, The Bombay Canteen, The Hunger Inc’s mothership, will serve up its 7th Independence Day Daawat. What makes it special is their tie-ups with causes they care for, from Teach for India in 2015 and 2016, to support the kids of Miracle Foundation in 2017 and 2018, and collaborating with Naandi Foundation, which works with independent farmers and coffee growers, mostly tribals, in the Araku Valley (from where comes the famous Araku coffee) as well as farmers in Cheduputtu district.

The Independence Day Daawat box will contain regional delicacies cooked using indigenous produce from the region, such as a Chickpea Sundal stir-fried with jaggery-mustard, tapioca crumble and curry patta, and Chef Floyd’s Tendli Foogath made with kokum, Goan garam masala and coconut. There are also online workshops and talks by personalities such as comedian Rohan Joshi, Chef Thomas Zacharias, Chef Heena Punwani and Chef Vinesh Johny.

The week-long extravaganza is just one of things on the Mumbai-based hospitality group’s programme. The team led by Sameer Seth and Yash Bhange has expanded the portfolio to include several new businesses, some opened just before the pandemic-induced lockdowns last year, and some during the stifling lockdowns.

Also read: It’s all gravy: Restaurateurs dial up focus on more premium cloud kitchens

Bombay Sweet Shop, for instance, opened on March 3, 2020. What was meant to be a rose-hued, art deco-sque dessert parlour and some sort of lab for reinventing traditional Indian mithais, soon adapted to the delivery mode. Much like the way their restaurants, The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, did.

“Initially we put the best dishes from the two restaurants on the menu, many of which did not travel well. So, we created special delivery menus with dishes that will not wither during the commute to a customer’s home,” says Bhange. “The learning curve has been sharp.”

Chef Hussain Shahzad, the executive chef of the group, says they have reverse engineered their menu to include ingredients that farms are growing at the moment. “We have a lot of monsoon greens, laal math saag, and dishes made with banana blossoms and Gongora lemon.”

The team has also set up three delivery pop-up brands: Kung Fu Canteen, Brun & Babka, and Same, Same But Different Thai Food, and there could be new ones popping up as seasons change or the mood strikes.

Brun & Babka is the canvas for pastry chef Heena Punwani, who serves up old school cakes with a modern twist such as the tangy tart, Gondhoraj Lime Bundt Cake, made using plump lemons from Bengal, and Babka, the sweet, braided Jewish cake-cum-bread.

Kung Fu Canteen pays a homage to the Indian Chinese culinary tradition served in erstwhile Bombay Chinese restaurants and Kolkata’s buzzing Chinatown. The trip down memory lane is evoked by smoky and steamed Choriz Buns, hot and spicy Mutton Momos, corn & asparagus ‘Drums of Heaven’, crunchy Dragon Tofu Toast and crispy Lotus Root Dry Fry.

Their newest delivery pop-up, Same, Same But Different Thai Food offers all the classics infused with the magic of modern cooking by Chef Hussain and his team. Dine on chilled Ahi Tuna Larb with lime leaf oil, pineapple, water chestnuts served with tapioca crackers. Order in grilled skewer classics such as Pork Belly and Pineapples in Sticky Tamarind Sauce that is inspired by the food stalls at Bangkok’s night market, Massaman Curry, and tofu slathered with spicy peanut BBQ and lemongrass chimichurri, besides the delectable Tub Tim Krob, a sweet coconut create delicacy stuffed with lychees, and with water chestnut rubies in sweet coconut cream.

O Pedro’s delivery brand, O Pedro’s Pita Shack, is a take on the popular shawarma carts in Goa’s Mapusa market. The menu includes creamy hummus such as Classic Chickpea, Roasted Mushroom and Spicy Pumpkin, pita sandwiches, besides shack bowls like the Harrisa Roasted Haloumi and Lebanese Seafood Rice. The team has also ventured into retail, selling sauces, butter and bread, besides collaborating with Stranger and Sons to launch a Bombay Canteen-branded guava gin.

“We launched the first pop-up, Kung Fu Canteen, to keep the team motivated,” says Chef Hussain. “The food was inspired by the time I spent in Kolkata, researching the Indian Chinese tradition. I realised how a simple bowl of chicken fried rice is comforting and brings a smile to your face.”

Upgrading technology has helped Hunger Inc stay on top of things. Besides being on Thrive, a food delivery app with a lower commission structure and willingness to share customer data, Seth says they have set up an internal delivery platform. “Now technology offers far more value benefit. For instance, our packets include a QR code, which when scanned will show you how to reheat the food at home for the best experience.”

MASQUE, Mumbai

The restaurant, helmed by Chef Prateek Sadhu and Aditi Dugar, is No. 32 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 list. Masque has redefined Indian cuisine by putting the focus on indigenous ingredients and transforming traditional recipes into modern and elegant dishes.

Chef Sadhu is experimenting with a new Japanese contraption he has just acquired. He recently showcased dishes he had cooked using this minimal Japanese cooking tool, the ANAORI kakugama, a solid block of carbon graphite. “It is one tool that does everything. You can grill, poach, fry, steam…all in one minimal cube,” he says during a lunch at The Masque Lab, a space dedicated to experimentation in ingredients and techniques, which he set up last year. This is a space in which he hosts private, customised meal experiences for anyone who books it.

ANAORI kakugama’s chamfered edges are inspired by Japanese tea ceremony architecture. Its imo-gata (rounded bottom) pot shape is ideal for ensuring uniform heat distribution.

“Thanks to the properties of carbon graphite, the cellular destruction of cooked ingredients is minimized and their original fl­avour is concentrated,” he says. Among the dishes he is cooking up for the ANAORI Naturality Tour (which is being hosted across several Asian countries, with 24 chefs, of which Sandhu is one), is the ‘Kashmir-meets-NYC’ seasoned Katlam bread (from Kashmir), pickled jackfruit sausage and Tomme de Bombai cheese, with mango ketchup and homemade mustard; Kashmiri morel yakhni and Maharashtrian Ambemohar rice, cooked with morel miso from the Masque Lab, and Passion Fruit jalebi, among others.

Chef Sadhu is also hitting the road to host pop-ups in five Indian cities to celebrate five years of Masque. The first was hosted at The Manor in New Delhi; to follow are pop-ups in Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and Leh, from where he hails. “I will be adding several local and seasonal ingredients to my food as we go along,” he says.

He will draw from his vast experiences, his Kashmiri roots, his travel, his stints at some of the world’s best restaurants such as Alinea and Noma, and his repertoire of classic dishes for this six-month-long tour.

And in Mumbai, he is set to bring back the tailgate experience. Customers can book slots via WhatsApp, drive into the compound which houses the Masque restaurant and dine from the safety of their cars.

INDIAN ACCENT, Delhi

After several lockdowns, Chef Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent is back to doing what it does best: serving Indian cuisine in a modern avatar but with a traditional soul at his glass-fronted, garden-and-water body facing restaurant in The Lodhi. Chef Mehrotra believes that people come to his restaurant not just for dining but also for the “theatre of dining, the drama of the presentation, the warm courtesy of our staff”. These are things you cannot package or take away, which is why Indian Accent has eschewed takeaways all through the lockdowns.

The restaurant was listed as No 1 in India and No 18 in Asia, in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year. Keeping up to this reputation isn’t a cakewalk but Chef Mehrotra’s inventive cooking ensures he occupies the top spot. In February, he experimented with a chaat menu which featured a Rainbow Quinoa Bhel infused with herbs and spices and balanced by a zesty avocado, and the Tamtari, a speciality of Varanasi. “We love our chaat and we even have fights over what city serves the best chaat. Our chaat menu includes dishes from cities such as Lucknow, Banaras, and Old Delhi, and each has been given an Indian Accent signature spin. A moonglet (a vegetarian pancake made with lentils) is served with a dash of gari, with the taste of Old Delhi still intact in every mouthful.”

The buzz in Chef Mehrotra’s restaurant revolves around new menus, private catering, Makery—a bespoke home cooking project, and Yoni, a customised wedding planning business owned by its mother company, Old World Hospitality. Chef Mehrotra’s team is also hosting bespoke home dining experiences, the cost of which is a minimum of INR one lakh. “We have done several smaller and bigger parties, with a minimum spend of INR 1 lakh. I need to take my entire infrastructure, my chefs to someone’s house if I want to create an Indian Accent experience, which costs money,” he says.

KAPPA CHAKKA KANDHARI, Bengaluru and Chennai

Chef Regi Mathew is known for abjuring the safe path to follow the unknown. His restaurant doesn’t serve any parotas, the staple of eateries serving cuisines from the south. Instead, you can order traditional dishes such as Pazham Nanachathu (a zero-waste Syrian Christian dessert) and Meen Nellika Masala (a pan-seared fish made by a tribal community in Agasthiyar forest).

At the moment his restaurants are serving a selection of nine carefully crafted set menus and one-pot meals that spans the Malabar cuisine from the north, kallu shaap cuisine from toddy shops that speckle Kerala, as well as Syrian Christian and Travancore cuisines.

The restaurant also has, on its menu, 20 one-pot meals. Pick from the working-man’s favourite of overnight-fermented rice porridge the Pazhan Kanji, a lunch special or Payaru Kanji and Cloud Pudding, a dessert made with tender coconut.

“Many are under the impression that the big hitters in Kerala cuisine are dishes such as biryani or parotta. But once you start exploring, you realise what an enormous universe this is. We wanted to present the food that we’ve grown up eating at home. So, we conducted in-depth research for almost three years across the entire state, visiting around 265 houses and 70 toddy shops. And we found a wealth of recipes that most people outside the state would have no clue about,” says Chef Mathew.