In 2010, computer-engineer-turned-food-writer Mangal Dalal hitched a ride from Nariman Point with Nachiket Shetye, who had just returned from New York with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Shetye had chased it with stints as line chef at Nobu, Per Se and Penang, and opened EAST Pan Asian in Mumbai.
Mangal Dalal and Nachiket Shetye’s Restaurant Week now includes 105 host restaurants across five cities. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Sharing Dalal’s withdrawal symptom of returning, Shetye said he was able to eat at swish NY eateries, thanks to Restaurant Week, which launched in the Big Apple in 1999. “I used the opportunity to try out fancy food at subsidised costs. On regular days, friends would refuse to go to a fine dining restaurant. I liked the idea of the experience — dressing up and enjoy a glamorous meal,” says Shetye.
In September 2010, they launched Restaurant Week India, missing the first in Asia tag by two months to Restaurant Week Singapore. This year, the pair celebrates its fifth anniversary, stretching the event to 10 days and two weekends (September 11 to 20 across Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai), while adding Kolkata to its list of metros.
1st Course: Soups at Jyran, Sofitel, BKC
Paya yakni, a garlic-flavoured lamb trotter soup
All of six feet three inches, Mangal Dalal is dressed in a light pink shirt and black trousers. He quickly slides into a sofa, carefully placing his Wayfarers on the table. He gives in to the steward’s suggestion and tries the refreshing shikanji.
Within a few minutes, Shetye walks in, apologises for the delay and curses a nakabandi at Worli in the same breath. Mangal orders paya yakni; a garlic-flavoured lamb trotter soup, and tamatar ka shorba; broth tempered with coriander and cumin.
It was the dawn of Twitter when the two collaborated. Foodies were proclaiming their judgment on food they’d tried, based on pricing. “When we asked people about how they liked the menu at a particular restaurant, the answer would have to do with how expensive it was. We decided to take the pricing out of the equation and introduce them to food at eateries they reserved only for special occasions,” explains Dalal. When they debuted in Mumbai, they had seven restaurants on board. In the first year, they recorded 632 reservations and over 1,100 footfalls. “We had no intention of doing this full time back then,” Dalal smiles.
Then came the fun bit of meeting restaurant owners, convincing them to come onboard and curating the Week’s menu. “We’d make the confirmation calls ourselves, use it as an opportunity to dine out, seven days, seven restaurants. We’d have people calling us to offer feedback. The overwhelming response encouraged us to curate it biannually, in March and September.”
In the second year, they expanded to other cities. “The eventual dream is to book entire restaurants for RWI,” says a confident Shetye.
Dalal pieces the lamb off the bone and fills his spoon. “Nice and light. Usually, you need to pass out after having paya, but this is unlikely to get you groggy,” he declares.
“You have four more courses to go. You sure will pass out,” Shetye laughs. 2nd course: Anti-Pasta at Botticino, Trident, BKC
2nd course: Anti-Pasta at Botticino, Trident, BKC
Red wine poached pear served with caramalised walnut and gorgonzola cream
Our destination is a few blocks away, so we decide to walk the stretch. Up a flight of creamy white stairs, we settle into our seats. While Dalal orders poached eggs with parmesan fonduta, Shetye sticks to pan-seared goat cheese salad from the RWI signature option, which allows patrons to upgrade their appetiser or main course at an extra fee. I settle for red wine poached pear served with caramalised walnut and gorgonzola cream.
The conversation at a table of food enthusiasts often steers off track; the chatter is about how north India has the hots for quail eggs, and their hope to see a vegetarian restaurant open that serves no potato and paneer.
In the first year, the two worked out of coffee shops. “We were working with fine dining restaurants but could not afford to eat there regularly. Once, we went to a restaurant on invitation to try out their menu for RWI and were presented with a R25,000 bill. We had to explain to the manager that we didn’t need to pay. After much confusion, it was sorted,” says Shetye.
“Despite a mediocre online reservation tool, we managed to sell out. We’d get calls for assistance, someone’s browser was not working, someone couldn’t see the availability. A lady even threatened to go to the police because all seats for a Saturday night reservation were sold out,” says Dalal. Five years on, the two have their hands full with work at their consultancy firm, which launched in 2012. They cover food events, restaurant consulting, talent management, product development and research. That Dalal has a degree from Le Corndon Bleu and interned at Noma in Copenhagen helps. “As a food writer, I was aware of customer needs, but after learning how to cook, I gained newfound respect for chefs and restaurateurs. I still don’t know how they scale a fish!” “Gutting a fish is therapeutic,” says Shetye, placing his fork and knife on a now empty plate.
3rd course: Appetisers and small eats, Yauatcha, BKC
Spinach roll with prawns and water chestnuts
We reach the mecca of dimsums and sashimi in the middle of lunch service at 2 pm. Here, we order one of each — vegetable crystal dumpling, vegetable chui chow dumpling, crispy asparagus, pumpkin and corn roll, baked chicken puff and chicken wrapped in pakchoi.
Over jasmine tea, they talk about their passionate customers. “Indians take their food very seriously. If they don’t like a restaurant, we get frantic calls suggesting that we knock that eatery off our list, and if they have a good time, they gush about it. We still get mails inquiring, ‘will the food be unlimited?’” says Dalal.
The 105 restaurants now on board are happy to welcome a newer audience, who they hope will continue to return once the Week is over. Last year, RWI across four cities booked about 1,600 reservations with 11,450 covers. “With more projects on our plate, it gets hectic. Imagine checking 105 menus,” Shetye says in mock complaint.
4th course: Mains at Celini, Santacruz West
Spaghetti in tomato sauce with chicken
We saunter in at 3 pm. It’s spaghetti in tomato sauce with chicken for Dalal, mixed greens with poached pears for Shetye, and warm mushroom potato cake with goat cheese and balsamic reduction for me. They tell us about how India eats. “In Mumbai, eateries want to play it safe. Instead of Japanese or Chinese, they’ll offer ‘Pan-Asian’. Also, regional cuisine has taken a backseat. Why doesn't any restaurant serve food from across Maharashtra?” says Shetye.
But Mumbai tops their voting list. “If time and money is no objection, Mumbai has the best food scene. Its customers know their stuff, and are open to new tastes. But if something doesn’t work, they won’t give you a second chance,” says Dalal, adding that Bangalore is the toughest to please, since it’s a price sensitive city. “They have some good mid-tier eateries, so they are spoilt for choice. Chennai, on the other hand, has a diverse mix of Spanish, Russian and Korean and Japanese eateries, but no great north Indian food options.”
Last course: Desserts at East, Hotel Sahara Star, Vile Parle
Thai custard tart with marinated fruits
Two hours behind schedule, and with a food coma setting in, we reach our last destination. But, as Dalal puts it, “You don’t need an appetite for dessert.” Out of the six options on the RWI menu, we order dark chocolate cremeaux with sweet tamarind; Thai custard tart with marinated fruits and Oriental cake with chocolate, water chestnuts and sesame.
While all three look dapper, we fail to find the tamarind in the cake. The Oriental cake has a hint of moong dal and is delicious. We polish off the desserts in silence. “Technically, a person can’t book a table for more than four people,” Shetye breaks the quiet. “We want it to be intimate; guests should appreciate their meals. It is not a ‘deal offer’, it is an introduction to good food. If four people go for a meal, they get to try up to 10 dishes. Based on this, they can decide whether they like the place,” he adds.