The Telegraph: Funky dining

May 19, 2011



Restaurateurs are adding a dash of innovation to their menus to make eating out a fun affair, says HOIHNU HAUZEL.

Let’s rewrite the rules of fine dining? How about a deep pink risotto with dollops of Parmesan cheese on it? And don’t get turned off by the colour — the taste is just right. Or would you prefer a ‘trendy’ dal makhni? It will be topped with Parmesan ice cream (yes, you read that right) instead of the usual thick cream. And it’ll be served not with the mandatory pudina parantha but a handful of Italian crackers.

Marut Sikka’s contemporary Indian restaurant, Kainoosh, offers a menu that’s high on the funky factor Pic: Jagan Negi

You can play with your food in more ways than one. Even if you are half-way through your steak and decide that it could have had a smokier flavour, don’t worry. If you’re at the right restaurant, the chef can oblige you by putting a ‘smoke gun’ to your steak right there on your table.

The popular dishes at Hitesh Gupta’s L’angoor are blue summer crab cakes and herb yoghurt; Pix:Jagan Negi (below) Michelin-star chef, Norbert Niederkofler, has introduced guests to a pink risotto among other unusual dishes at The Oberoi, New Delhi Pix: Rupinder Sharma

If that’s not enough, peep into celebrated chef Hemant Oberoi’s kitty at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai. You’ll find yourself staring at tangy dhokla pizzas and stuffed khandvi rolls.

As restaurant menus get funkier (some prefer to call it more progressive), the list of eye-popping, out-of-the-box dishes keeps swelling. And, in their never-ending quest to make dining an evolved experience, talented chefs are coming up with extraordinary dishes that are definitely out of the ordinary, visually appealing and delicious to boot.

And no, this experimental cuisine is not to be confused with fusion food. “That’s long dead,” declares Nikhil Chib, Mumbai’s hotshot chef who runs Busaba, a restaurant that serves Asian food with generous helpings of Thai, Korean and Burmese.

Adds Marut Sikka, food connoisseur and restaurateur: “You can’t survive if you don’t invent.” That’s where innovative culinary practices step in.

Sikka, who recently drummed up some exotic dishes for the state banquet held at Rashtrapati Bhavan in honour of US President Barack Obama, says: “It’s passion that drives people like me. Also, it’s the quest for something new that’s pushing chefs or else we would be eating the same dishes that were prepared 500 years ago.”

And so, exotica like the pink risotto have crept onto the Travertino menu at The Oberoi, Delhi. The dish, is the speciality of visiting Michelin star chef, Norbert Nied-erkofler, head chef of the famed Restaurant St. Hubertus at the Rosa Alpina, Hotel and Spa, Italy. Niederkofler insists that except for its colour, the dish is very much Italian and tastes just as good as it looks

The grilled ginger and chilli lobster with broccoli khichdi and spiced cocoa powder garnish is a hit at Ziya, The Oberoi, Mumbai

The colour, he says, comes from fresh puree of beetroot that’s been pre-marinated and cooked at low temperature.

For inspiration, Niederkofler actually works with a team of painters. “I try to interpret their art into my food. For me, it’s important that the food looks visually appealing. We also eat with our eyes,” he says.

But don’t think this is purely an Italian phenomenon. The chefs are at it across all global cuisines. Another Michelin star chef, Vineet Bhatia, who relocated from India to London in 1993 too has been busy inventing in the kitchen.

Bhatia has spread his wings in recent years. In 2007 he opened Rasoi by Vineet at the ultra-luxury resort One & Only Le Saint Géran, Mauritius. Then, last year The Oberoi, Mumbai opened a fine dining Indian restaurant called Ziya with Bhatia at the helm in the kitchen. Here, guests are introduced to a “haute dining experience” and the six-course meal with dessert is the highlight of the restaurant.

The menu is aggressively different — from the starters onwards. There’s masala foie gras or spice dusted foie gras and even wild mushroom naan. Bhatia’s menu also serves foie gras with raisin and cashew served with spiced fennel salad. On a different flavour trail, there’s also Bloody-Mary jelly (a regular Bloody Mary with a pinch of gelatin is left to chill and set like jelly and served) and white tomato soup.

The pick of the main course is the grilled ginger and chilli lobster. What you get is a delicious helping of spiced lobster with curry leaf and a portion of broccoli khichdi that’s garnished with spiced cocoa powder. Another hot favourite is the oven-baked spiced pomfret. Your meal can be neatly rounded-off with a champagne sorbet or even a Chocomosa — that’s chocolatesamosa for you.

Nikhil Chib of Busaba loves playing around with herbs and his speciality is prawns cooked with fresh lemon grass Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Says Rashima Bhatia, Vineet’s wife and managing director of their Rasoi restaurant in London: “The chocolate samosa has become his signature dessert that features on menus across all our restaurants. It’s so deeply associated with Vineet that we ‘have’ to put it on our menus as guests demand it.”

Some chefs like Sabyasachi Gorai popularly known as Saby, of the Olive Bar & Kitchen restaurant chain, even use fancy tools and accessories to create dishes.

Deep sea tiger prawns with soft shell crab gnocchi and bruleed foie gras (below) are hotsellers at Olive Bar & Kitchen Pix: Jagan Negi

Saby who heads the chain’s three restaurants — Olive Bar & Kitchen, Olive Beach and Ai, a Japanese speciality outlet — always has his thinking cap on, creating and innovating. “People’s palates have evolved. I’m wooing people who are well-travelled, well-read and aware,” he says as he pulls out his ‘smoke gun’ from a sealed box.

The smoke gun, as the name suggests, looks like a gun but is a tool that chefs use to give a dish a smoky flavour. After inserting burning pieces of flavoured wood (apple or strawberry) into the gun, a pipe, which is attached to the piston, releases flavoured smoke.

Saby also wields an aromatiser with which he can spray different food aromas on a dish. “This is essentially to enhance the aroma of the food,” he says.

But the king of his kitchen gadgetry is the digital water bath which he calls the “Ferrari of the kitchen”. This apparatus cooks food at low temperatures without changing the texture or colour. For instance, if you insert a cut of bloodshot beef into the cooking apparatus, it will emerge well done but retain its red colour. The same goes for vegetables that look a lush green even after cooking.

Saby, who insists that progressive food is a far cry from fusion cuisine, says: “With unconventional dishes we experiment without any deviation from classical recipes.” The chef has been known to pair dal makhni with Parmesan cheese.

New age dishes are also doing the trick at Kainoosh, in Delhi’s posh DLF Promenade, which opened early this year. This contemporary Indian restaurant by Marut Sikka has all the right ingredients for success. From the regal décor to the carefully crafted menu, which is Indian in origin but contemporary with a touch of funkiness.

Oyster served with coconut sauce and curry leaf, says Sikka, is one of his most outlandish dishes that’s proving to be a hot favourite. Or you could try the seared tandoori salmon that’s marinated in dill and mustard.

The hallmark of Sikka’s dishes is the intelligent use of Indian spices. A classic example is the popular soft shell crab done in mild asafoetida batter and curry leaf. If these are from the contemporary section, there’s the classical section with some Sikka twists.

For instance, a red snapper musallam is a melt-in-the-mouth fillet of red snapper that’s draped in a nutty masala with a hint of coconut and spiced with nutmeg and slowly roasted.

More recently, Hemant Oberoi of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace has launched what he calls the Midnight Supper Mart at Shamiana, the all-day dining restaurant. Fancy dosa wraps will come with scrambled eggs and sausages, while tortilla wraps with kebabs, dhokla pizza or even stuffed khandvi rolls take the menu into an entirely different league.

New players are following in the footsteps of India’s best known chefs to serve some unusual fare. Look at L’angoor a two-month-old restaurant in Gurgaon. The restaurant has roped in chef Hitesh Gupta — freshly back from New York — to work his magic.

Blue summer crab cakes, herb yogurt, marinated potato barrels stuffed with cottage cheese and scallops served on a bed of corn-mush and pomegranates are some dishes Gupta is becoming famous for amongst Delhi’s foodies.

For the last 15 years, Busaba’s Nikhil Chib has been successfully selling his version of the Burmese khow suey made from a recipe handed down by his grandmother who grew up in the country. He also visits the country often.

So what makes his khow suey different? Well, he uses seasonal vegetables, keeps the gravy thick and dishes it out with a bowl of rice or noodles. And his Thai curry pastes are prepared fresh as he’s completely against ready-to-use materials.

To keep up the pace, the chefs need inspiration, which a lot of them derive by travelling frequently. Saby for instance, makes it a point to travel twice or thrice every year for at least 15 days. If he is not attending a food summit in Singapore, he could be visiting prominent French champagne houses. “It’s crucial to travel and educate myself on the origins of dishes,” says Saby.

Since 1995, Chib’s made some 17 trips to Thailand. And Oberoi is a globetrotter who’s constantly on the move. “I am out at least six months a year,” he says.

Sikka turns every trip abroad into a gastronomic odyssey. During an Indian food festival in Kazakhstan he took trips to the local markets to understand the spices, food and local flavours. “I always try to eat street food and I’ve found some very interesting dishes that way,” he says.

It’s this quest for something new that takes him to all the quaint bylanes of a city. “Only then can I come back with something new,” says Sikka.

And more importantly, have something new to offer diners.

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