Last month, I was in Coimbatore, the gateway to the Nilgiris, not for making a beeline to the Isha Yoga Centre, as so many Dilliwallas have been doing over summer, but to check out a new hotel and restaurant empire in the making.
Dvara, just outside Coimbatore, is a boutique resort built around the idea of South Indian homes from Chettinad. It’s been set up by VM Hospitality, a holding company owned by the Directors of auto-components major Pricol, Vikram Mohan, and his brother Uday Balaji. While one of the brothers is a food buff, the other is a history buff, and together they have gone about researching regional South Indian art and architecture, as well as cuisines, to give shape to their ambitious venture. The plan is to open almost eight boutique resorts across peninsular India—each with a specific theme dedicated to the history of the respective regions—and a smattering of restaurants that seriously delve into food from different communities and micro regions of the four Southern states.
Coimbatore, where Pricol is headquartered, is the incubation centre for this restaurant and hospitality business. As I spoke with Uday Balaji, who heads operations for VM Hospitality, one thing became clear: instead of just pumping in private investment and outsourcing the job to consultants, the brothers are taking baby steps into the unknown and often treacherous business of food but getting an awful lot of research in place.
Their flagship restaurant brand Savya Rasa, specialising in South Indian fine dining, is now ready for a national roll-out. The first outlet had come up in Pune and the brothers are scouting for locations in Mumbai and Delhi to take it forward. Savya Rasa is ambitious- the restaurant does not deal with the clichés of South Indian food as we know it. Instead, it offers a more nuanced take on micro cuisines from Kongunadu, Chettinad, Malabar, Nasrani, Mangalore, Mysore, and Nellore. Home cooks from these regions, and cooks from small restaurants and messes all over the regions, have been hired to take care of the authenticity of each of these micro cuisines. Supply chains to get the correct local ingredients from the represented areas have been built painstakingly, so that if you are eating ghee roast from Mangalore, it is indeed with the correct chillies et al, and not some bastardised version concocted by a chef, who is clearly oblivious of the context. I found the attention to detail remarkable; but there’s a larger point to be made with this kind of a restaurant. While it may be easier for a big corporate like Pricol to have the wherewithal to walk this route, well researched Indian cuisines within restaurants are now awaiting their turn under the sun, and restaurateurs need to be increasingly cognisant of this obvious niche in the market.
It’s a trend to look out for in the next few months, as restaurant-goers get increasingly tired of indiscriminate “modern” Indian fare being served up in cookie-cutter cafes and bars by chefs who are less than capable, and without either ability, or clarity of thought. Anyone who frequents such all-pervasive establishments, knows modern Indian is in a crisis of sorts. What was fresh and quirky even three years ago, has been reduced to a genre that now thrives on
copycat dishes and clichés, relying on form alone rather than substance.
Less than competent chefs without a basic understanding of Indian cuisines, and without having put in enough rigour into researching traditions, ingredients, and cooking methods, are found taking recourse to gimmicks of molecular gastronomy and plating tricks to woo customers- ideas get blatantly copied! This kind of dilution is resulting in an indifferent audience that is not moved by the product or food, but by price points alone. A new bar selling marginally cheap pulled kathal taco, with cheaper alcohol, attracts diners because there’s been no upping of the game elsewhere. When it loomed up on our horizons around 2009, modern Indian was of course, a break from the kind of stodgy restaurant food most Indians expected to eat at their butter chicken-kebab-dal makhni regular restaurants. This genre was already well-established in New York and London, but it had failed to take off in India, where sporadic attempts had been made by London-chefs like Vineet Bhatia (who opened Mushq at The Manor, exactly where Indian Accent is today).
Even though the Indian market was different, our palates were used to bolder flavours and perhaps the failure also had something to do with the fact that everyone in India had access to far superior Indian food than any restaurant could ever cook. Meanwhile, Indian restaurant food in India worked very differently because of it being restaurant created, not exactly the type available in homes, and yet maintaining a subtle familiarity to its tropes- dal makhani, rogan josh. As younger Indians sought to break away from this tyranny and look for something “cooler”, the question was- what would replace it? Indian spices and flavour combinations (something that London-style restaurants had not been able to crack), and the second was that it fancified street eats. Galouti kebab came with foie gras; pani puri with test tubes of different waters- street food was becoming gourmet.
It was a fresh and well-executed idea in India; yet Indian Accent’s food took time to catch on. Meanwhile, in 2011, a restaurant called V Spot Café had opened in Saket, which offered a similar casual and quirky take on broad Indian flavours. It plated up the likes of butter chicken risotto and sundaram chicken tikka with robust South Indian spicing. Not too many people know that this was chef Manu Chandra’s first stab at the kind of food Monkey Bar would do (with more research and detailing) just a year later. It opened the floodgates for modern Indian cuisines.
Café-ised street flavours have been dominating the Indian dining scene ever since then. The quickest way to succeed as a bar/restaurant five years down the line is to still serve some kind of pop-street flavours, with a touch of molecular gastronomy, plated in ways that now seem all too familiar. And while talented chefs still make a difference by researching lesser known regional dishes, or playing around with seasonal ingredients, the idea of “modern” Indian needs an overhaul.
How does one break away from this? One way to up the game would be to do what The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai has been doing very successfully for the last two years: no fuss plates, and firmly anchored in home food. Another way could be to do casual restaurants that tell the cultural story of a particular Indian cuisine- what we have at a SodaBottleOpenerwala or a Lady Baga.
In a country as varied as India, well researched regional concepts that are still casual and broad-based enough for a diverse audience are quite possible. Then, there is the route that fledgling spaces like Savya Rasa are taking—to go traditional with micro cuisines that are unexplored in other cities and gradually expose the audience to nuances that they may not have known earlier. This sort of “authentic” dining is doing well in other spaces. Pop-up dinners and websites curating meal experiences around regional, community-focussed, and micro cuisines too are doing quite well, also small “studios”, where you need to book in advance for a meal.
In Bangalore, the Bangalore Oota Company that focuses exclusively on Gowda and Mangalorean food, and offers customised pre-booked meals in a two-room rented house, has been steadily garnering a huge base of fans.
This is hearty, wholesome food that was traditionally cooked within homes in our country- food that most diners immediately recognise as “soulful”. It is my belief that in the months to come, this is what the best Indian restaurants will also get defined by.