India on a platter

Updated: Nov 18, 2019, 08:53 IST | Suman Mahfuz Quazi | Mumbai

After eight months of R&D, the Manu Chandra and Dheeraj Verma nosedive into regional Indian food, amalgamating culinary aesthetes to present an unabashedly cuisine-agnostic menu for their gastro-pub chain

Indian odyssey platter. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Indian odyssey platter. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Picture this: a mezze platter served on a bell metal plate. But wait, there's a twist. On pan-Indian gastro-pub chain Monkey Bar's new menu, it's being positioned as the Indian odyssey platter (Rs 390). The baba ghanoush becomes a Bengali-style baingan bharta; the hummus, a Rajasthani kaddu preparation; there's a shalgam ka achaar from Punjab that has been mixed with Kalimpong cheese for a kick; and the lavash has become kori rotti, whereas instead of pita, there's an assortment of Indian chakna — wafer-thin appalam, crunchy and colourful fryums, and light-as-air fafda.

This complex mix of flavours serenading the culinary harmonies from all of India alludes to the larger philosophy behind the massive do-over, where menus across Monkey Bar's outlets will be changed to incorporate 41 new dishes and eight fresh cocktails. The underlying logic binding all of the menu's offerings — be it revitalising drinks like the Tomesh collins (Rs 390), a citrusy gin-based concoction that incorporates lime murabba, and sip me tender (Rs 390), a deceptively heady mix of rum, coconut and anardana churan, or robust and delicious dishes like the buff gundruk fried rice (Rs 355) served with edamame, tender meat and carrots tossed in a piquant paste of fermented radish leaves (from the Northeast) — is making regional Indian food fun.

FoodMutta puff

Chef-partner Manu Chandra echoes this when he says, "The idea has always been to celebrate our India-ness in quirky forms by taking influences from across the country and putting them in easy formats because it was conducive to the ecosystem we had — a chilled-out neighbourhood space." But if regional food was always the focus, what has changed?

If you don't scratch the surface, it might be hard to tell, and perhaps not even dawn on a regular customer who couldn't care less for culinary jargon. But a fair amount of exploring, and the learning from those discoveries have significantly helped shape this menu, which reflects decisiveness. It's almost like this — if making regional Indian food "cool" was at the forefront for the restaurant eight years ago, today, it's about using what's already cool, and then, applying culinary knowledge of flavour pairings and structure to existing concepts.

FoodKasundi chicken

Which is why you will find dishes like the mutta puff (Rs 250), a local treat available ubiquitously in the South in hole-in-the-wall, corner-shop bakeries. It's a great accompaniment to strong, full-bodied cocktails (like a whisky-based one perhaps) — a snacky treat made with spiced hard-boiled eggs ensconced within a flaky puff pastry, or the prawn ghee roast bao (Rs 360) with a supple cover and a Kundapur-style filling brimming with flavours.

Dheeraj Verma and Manu ChandraDheeraj Verma and Manu Chandra

It's a more concerted effort at re-imagining local Indian cuisine, possible only to pull off if you know enough about it. So, a fair amount of research has gone into this exercise, which the Mumbai outpost's head chef Dheeraj Verma confirms when he reveals that revising the menu has taken eight long months. "Our perspective has evolved, so the menu this time is more defined. Before, it wasn't this drilled down. For example, the old one had a lot of Indian dishes, but there was also a large portion of pan-Asian and western food. We had things like mac n cheese croquets alongside butter chicken khichdi, but there was no clear definition that it projected. This time, it's 50 per cent Indian straight up, with a mix of Asian and western offerings," Verma explains.

Gundruk fried rice Gundruk fried rice 

This comes through in the well thought-out, experimental and unabashedly cuisine-agnostic offerings, but what we still fail to understand is why, what we largely (and loosely) understand as "modern Indian food" seeks to apply western formats to Indian flavours. Why do you need to sell a thepla as a taco, or kori rotti as lavash, when it could very well be just what it is. Slightly paradoxical, no? Is this all gimmicky? It could be for a foodie-purist. Do restaurants do this because it's easier to sell a tomato pachadi only when it's on a taco to someone who likes G&T? That does make sense. But what's in it for someone who's purely looking to eat, drink and make merry without wracking their brains about the evolution or bastardisation of Indian cuisine? Good food?

Sip me tender Sip me tender 

At Monkey Bar, Linking Road, Bandra West.
Time 12 pm to 1.30 am
Call 26005215

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