The hunt for South Indian fine dining across Mumbai

Apr 05, 2014, 11:45 IST | Ruchika Kher

With respect to fine dine restaurants, South Indian food seems to have missed the bus what with barely a handful of such options available in the city, compared to North Indian, coastal and even global fare. Ruchika Kher stirs the pot for a few answers

All of us might be in love with Kings Circle icon, Café Madras’ idlis or with dosa options at Versova’s Banana Leaf, but when it comes to experiencing the same aromas and flavours of this vast cuisine, in a fine dine experience, options are scarce. Let’s face it — the city is inundated with fine dine restaurants that dish out robust Punjabi fare, heady pan-Asian cuisine and Spanish spreads, too, but South Indian food seems more or less restricted to humbler establishments. The other option is restaurants inside five and seven-star hotels.

A lavish South Indian spread at Dakshin Coastal

Nothing beyond dosas
Vijay Malhotra, Executive Chef, ITC Maratha, that houses fine dine South Indian restaurant, Dakshin Coastal, paints the real picture for us: “The local mindset still thinks of South Indian cuisine hovering around idli, dosa, sambhar and vada, and nothing beyond. Therefore, probably, the entrepreneurs here are less adventurous in testing their hands at running a fine dine South Indian restaurant.” He adds that lack of knowledge about the cuisine is a major component of this trend.

Café Madras remains a favourite for South Indian food at pocket-friendly prices. Pic/Suresh KK

However, this lack of awareness isn’t just a trait of patrons, and can be credited to the playing-safe attitude of restaurateurs as well, according to food blogger Anushruti RK, who runs the blog, “South Indian food is quite varied in nature. Each of the four South Indian states have a number of regional variations in terms of the styles of cooking, use of spices, etc. Unfortunately, Mumbai’s restaurateurs haven’t represented this diversity. They like to stick to popular staples. Nobody wants to take a chance by introducing unknown dishes on the menu,” she elaborates.

Banana Leaf, that serves as a bridge between an Udupi and a fine dine restaurant, is one of the few stand-alone city eateries to offer Mumbaikars an authentic South Indian experience

No pinching pockets
A fine dine restaurant works only when customers are willing to pay good money for a lavish spread. But with South Indian food, most people aren’t open to the idea, reveals celebrity chef Kunal Kapur. He breaks it down for us, and elucidates that the money cows in current times are youngsters in the 25-40 age bracket, who travel a lot around the world, and thus are exposed to various cuisines. “When they return, they want the same tastes on their palates and are willing to pay for it. Hence, cuisines like South Indian food face a beating because people are not willing to pay a substantial amount for those dishes,” he informs.

Chef Kapur adds that this is not just the case with South Indian food; other regional cuisines also face the brunt of this situation. “Why do you think Mumbai, being the heart of Maharashtra, hardly offers any fine dine Marathi restaurants?” he questions.

Meldan Dcunha, owner of Bandra’s Soul Fry and The Local at Fort, circles the lack of appeal in South Indian food as an important reason for its absence from the fine dine spectrum. “South Indian cuisine is basically home-styled food, and it does not fit in the fine dine set-up. On the other hand, North Indian cuisine with its kebabs and tandoors adapts very well to the wine drinking and suave atmosphere reflected in a fine dining experience. South Indian food lacks that appeal,” he specifies.

Dinesh Nayak, general manager of the Versova branch of Banana Leaf, a well-known South Indian restaurant chain in the city that is frequented by people from all walks of life, endorses Dcunha’s stance and highlights that while people have no problem spending a bit more on International cuisines, bars and even North Indian dishes, South Indian food loses out in that race. “South Indian food works in a set-up like ours where we don’t charge people a lot and give them value-for-money. It might not work well in an expensive fine dine space,” he reasons.

There's a lack of authenticity too...
Most food experts also believe that the city is losing out on the authenticity aspect of South Indian food. John Mathai, manager of the popular South Indian eatery in Andheri, Radha Krishna Hotel, believes, “One of the main reasons for this, is the lack of experience and mixed cultures. North Indians are offering South Indian food at their restaurants without having proper knowledge about it.”

Chef Ananda Solomon of The Konkan Café, Vivanta by Taj — President, explains, “There’s been a drastic change in Mumbai’s food and beverage culture over the past few years. Mumbai is a melting pot of myriad cultures, and its cosmopolitan nature might be one of the reasons why it is difficult to find authentic and unaltered cuisines in the city.”

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