A kansa thali embellished with eight little katoris sits on our marble-topped table. The thali is empty only until we tell the captain in charge of our table that we’re ready to eat. Immediately, he uses his hands to wave a code to the waiters and within seconds our mini thali, meant especially for starters, is filled with chutneys, samosa and khandvi. We munch on the appetisers, expecting the next course to be thrust on us just as quickly.
But even though an assembly of waiters hovers around the restaurant, no one rushes us further. And that’s the major difference between Rajdhani’s 37 other outlets and its Lower Parel-based Rasovara. The fine dining restaurant, which opened its doors on October 26, claims to be the first ever luxuryThali eatery.
A notch higher
Aji Nair, VP, F&B Division, Mirah Hospitality, which owns Rajdhani and Rasovara, says the decision to set up a fine dining outlet has been long in the making. Since it was first set up in the 1980s, the restaurant has served as a canteen, where patrons are served piping hot food at a tremendously fast pace. “The waiters didn’t like it if your plate was empty. They immediately asked whether the next course could be served,” reminisces Beena Chaddha, a regular at Rajdhani, over a meal at Rasovara.
“The idea of setting up this luxury restaurant was primarily to introduce a slower-paced thali concept, which would allow patrons to lounge through their meal,” explains Nair, who admits to having brainstormed with his team for several years before they finally set up Rasovara. To offer patrons a memorable fine-dine experience, he would have to up the ante in other ways too.
And so at Rasovara you are served on a larger oval-shaped kansa (a combination of bronze, copper and tin) thali, as opposed to the regular steel thali. From three to four vegetables, you are now served five. Starters are served on a smaller plate that is cleared after the first course. A cold or hot towel, depending on the weather, is brought to you before you start your meal. A little card on the table reveals your “captain” or waiter who will take care of you through the meal.
Needless to say, the waiters’ uniforms as well as their table manners have been given a makeover. “We handpicked the finest staff from Rajdhani outlets across India and trained them rigorously for months to provide our customers service true to kings,” says Nair. “If we provide a better dining experience, people don’t mind paying a little more.” The thali at Rasovara costs Rs 449 and Rs 549 for lunch and dinner respectively. And as Nair suspected, Rajdhani loyalist Chaddha doesn’t mind the hike.
Setting is everything
For Mughlai restaurant Zaffran, synonymous with late night binges at Crawford Market, increasing the prices isn’t top priority. A little over a year ago, the Ice Hospitality trio of Param Gandhi, Munib Birya and Chetan Sethi set up a fine dining restaurant in Malad, under the same name. An outlet in Thane, Ghatkopar and most recently in Todi Mills at Lower Parel followed in quick succession. A sixth outlet, at Kandivli, is scheduled to open within the next three to four weeks.
Even though patrons, such as 24 year-old Kumel Amiruddin “don’t mind paying more for their quality food” their prices remained the same. The restaurant already had a great reputation for the food they served; the partners felt it was time to improve the ambience.
Sethi, in charge of both design and food, decided to give the restaurant a contemporary Mughal feel. “I wanted patrons to feel like they are sitting in an old mahal. That’s why the walls have subtle arches — which are very common in Mughal architecture,” says Sethi. Their Todi Mills outlet has large domes over their booths “imitating the dome at the Taj Mahal.” Nair, who also wanted to elevate the ambience when he set up Rasovara, made sure the restaurant had the finest upholstery, lighting and paintings. They even used Korean marble for their tabletops.
A matter of class
Nair felt that there was a chunk of his patronage who weren’t comfortable travelling to Crawford Market, where Rajdhani has a popular outlet. “We wanted to cater to our high-profile clientele and members of the elite class,” reveals Nair. “While everyone loves to eat an Indian thali, we found that not everyone was happy about visiting the existing outlets.” Rasovara was the perfect solution to the dilemma.
Gandhi, however, disagrees. “It took about a year for people to set aside their attitude about location. Zaffran was set up in 2003 in an old building at Crawford Market. People realised that our quality of food and standard of hygiene was worth it. Patrons came in from elite areas like Warden Road and Peddar Road too,” he says.
But Birya, who is in charge of HR and operations, did realise the importance of a well-trained staff. “While setting up the Malad restaurant, we hired Alex Pereira as the general manager. His five-star experience during his stint at Zodiac Grill at the Taj Hotel was a great boon to us,” he says.
When Dubai-based firm, Orchid Hospitality wanted to set up Soy in India, it had a different challenge on its plate. They weren’t sure the Indian palate was ready for the modern South East Asian fare Soy would serve. “We decided to start small, just to see what people wanted and whether our food suited the Indian palate. In 2008, we set up Soy Express at the DLF Promenade Shopping Centre in New Delhi,” reveals Nitin Luthra, director, Orchid Hospitality.
A second outlet was opened in 2010 at a mall in Saket. The roaring success of both outlets encouraged Orchid to set up its first full-fledged sit down restaurant in India. “On October 18, we launched our two-level restaurant at Khan Market,” says Luthra. Khan Market, originally a retail market complex, now also hosts Delhi’s most popular bars and restaurants.
In a bid to offer the most authentic experience to patrons, equipment for the kitchen has been shipped all the way from Hong Kong — something that wasn’t possible in the case of the express outlets. “We have a Chinese cooking range which works on high pressure. It cooks the vegetables in less than two minutes, giving the food an authentic flavour,” says Luthra.
Ingredients are extremely important to the flavour of the foods too, asserts Luthra. “We import lotus flour, Thai and Chinese herbs, pickled vegetables, soya and oyster sauce and special ginger at our fine dining outlet,” he says.
Andheri-based South East Asian restaurant Nom Nom, which is all set to open a larger outlet in Bandra on January 15, also insists on using the best ingredients for their food. Owner Hitesh Keswani, who is expecting a more high-profile clientele at the Bandra branch, is excited about introducing premium dishes to the menu. “We are certain that people in Bandra will be keen to try the crab, lobster, squid and tiger prawns,” says Keswani.
“Patrons want to experience different foods and are particular about the service they receive at restaurants,” believes food blogger Anisha Bangera. She is more likely to take her parents to Rasovara as opposed to Rajdhani, Bangera adds.
It is only natural then, that these restaurants make every effort to up the ante. In the future perhaps, family restaurants may even give way to fine dining, the middle class way.
The finer details of fine dining
Technically, a fine dining restaurant is one that serves the finest food, and provides top notch service in the perfect setting. The waiters, for instance, are expected to escort you to your seats or show you to the restroom. The upholstery, tablecloths, cutlery, seating and lighting, is to be of the best quality. A fine dining restaurant is the highest priced, as opposed to a fast food or casual dining restaurant. “In India, however, there is a very thin line between fine dining and casual dining,” says Nitin Luthra, director, Orchid Hospitality. Food blogger Anisha Bangera explains, “There is usually a dress code that applies to a fine dining restaurant. You can’t exactly walk in in your shorts. But in India, it doesn’t really matter. No one is going to turn you away for not dressing formally. Unless it is at a five-star hotel.”