C Y Gopinath: Unexpect the expected
A new breed of young Turks is breaking rules in MumbaiÃ¢ÂÂs kitchens - ignoring predictions that theyÃ¢ÂÂll shut down in a year
An avocado cream cheese presentation
I had been warned that dinner would be melodramatic. Expect a Bollywood-like production, only more flamboyant, I'd been cautioned. The food is the show, eating is incidental. We were sitting in a teppanyaki square around the kitchen, the chefs in the centre. In the background were, um, contraptions instant freeze dryers, centrifuges, vacuum sealers, liquid nitrogen, blow torches, spherifiers. The tools of a new food science.
The virtuoso: a young Punjabi man called Gaggan.
The city: Bangkok.
The mystifying menu consisted of 25 emojis, no words. I was served two white blobs on a spoon, both popped into my mouth in one gulp. There, the agar-agar wrapping broke, releasing in several gastronomical flourishes - the complete experience of eating a roadside papri-chaat. Then came a red-and white streaked ball, erupting into chocolate on first bite, followed a parsec later by the complex flavours of a pani-puri.
The world clearly has room for this envelope-pushing Indian cuisine. Gaggan's has been #1 in Asia's Top 50 restaurants for three years running. So - question: why do they say it's suicide to open a restaurant in Mumbai - especially if it's devoted to molecular excellence?
Location: Mumbai. The chef covers the table with a silicone mat. He squeegees three perfect circles of strawberry, orange and caramel sauces. Then he creates the planets, each a berry with a sprinkling of cocoa powder as stardust. This solar system's centerpiece, the sun, is made of soya dust, cheesecake, ice cream and blueberry compote. All cooled on the spot to -200°C with a liquid nitrogen blast, and sold for Rs 2,500 as The Big Bang Theory, a dessert for two, at Farrokh Khambata's Joss Restaurant.
Joss is a Mumbai restaurant that actually survived. Many more have died, having fun till the last gasp.
Their names are full of mischief, irreverent - Effingut Brewerkz, Hoppipola, Ustaadi and Doolally Taproom. Sounding cool is everything. But what should you expect in a restaurant called Theory?
Unexpect the expected. Don't pass out when you see turmeric in a single malt with soda and orange bitters; or a fig compote with cream of onions; a jalebi cheesecake with saffron espuma; ice-cream tacos; or vodka pani-puris.
India's food industry is set to grow from Rs 3,37,500 crore last year to Rs 5,52,000 crore by 2021. Everyone is pigging out. They want international, classy, mind-boggling and audacious food.
Yet, statistically, over half of Mumbai's exciting restaurants will down shutters within 18 months, sandbagged by crippling rents, taxes and levies, over-optimistic projections, insufficient investor backing - and way too much competition.
Food, apparently, has nothing to do with it.
So I find myself applauding silently when I see one of today's young Turks pushing the envelope with food, going molecular, against the odds. They're frontier minds, for whom an epic fail is a call to hit the ground again running - harder and faster.
One of them is Avik Chatterjee, 25, the inventive mind behind Mumbai restaurant POH, in Kamala Mills. He exemplifies the impatient, disruptive spirit of these food industry warriors, ready to go where their fathers might have thought twice.
Avik, with undergraduate looks and energy, started a late-night fast food delivery service called Mad Bites because he saw a niche. Both restaurants closed after two years - but he was just getting warmed up. When I was 25, I could not start a car, let alone a restaurant.
"These young food warriors are raising the bar," says restaurateur AD Singh. His Olive chain remains an unshakeable icon on the Indian foodscape, along with Akerkar's Indigo and Anjan Chatterjee's Mainland China. But, everyone senses something new is brewing up.
"Today's casual diners want international food with an Indian twist, done in small plates," says Mahesh Mathai, who recently shuttered his Blue Frog, crippled by rising rent.
Avik's Hoppipola took bars to a new level and now is a 15-strong chain of super-bars. At POH, where he partners with the equally unfettered chef Vikramjit Roy, food and drinks are immaculately curated with Zen-like detail. POH's bar is reminiscent of a Yaodian Chinese pharmacy, with real Chinese herbs that will actually be used in your brew.
Like Gaggan in Bangkok, chefs like Roy stand apart in their willingness to try the untried. When you serve corn fritters in a Mexican mole sauce flavored with Japanese miso, or poach apples with sichuan pepper and parmesan with walnut ice cream, you're ready to go to the next thing if this does not work. It takes many crazy trials for one stunning success.
Mathai believes "people don't come twice for the decor". It has to be great food at a great price.
The Aviks and Vikramjits might disagree. Today's diners want an experience they've never had before.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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