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I hope that the Sethis are not a flash in the pan

As you probably know, if you are a reader of Rude Food, I am not necessarily a huge fan of most London Indian restaurants.

While there are outstanding chefs in London, the upmarket London restaurant scene strikes me as being hollow, rootless and smug.

 

It is dominated by chefs from Indian five-star hotels who have brought the sensibility of the overdecorated, soulless hotel restaurants with them. They want people to order wine (which helps pay the rent) so they Frenchify the presentation of their food, muck around with Indian flavours and create restaurants for people who don’t really like restaurants: cold spaces with no laughter and no sense of place.

 

   Too many of them are now located within a square mile of each other in Mayfair and you have the sense that they want to go absurdly upmarket to show that they are not embarrassed about serving curry.

 

   As more and more upmarket places open, I often wonder about the new generation of British-Indians. The best Italian-American restaurants in the US were originally opened by the children of Italian immigrants to America. (And now by their grandchildren.) These were restaurateurs who had been brought up in America, understood the country and yet, had never lost touch with their Italian roots.

 

   There must, surely, be Indians who have grown up in the UK, understand the country and know what would work in London. I wondered: where were these people? And why weren’t they opening modern Indian restaurants?

 

   Five years ago, I went to Gymkhana and I thought I had my answer. The restaurant was opened by a family called the Sethis (two brothers, one sister) and looked as though the inspiration came from the Delhi Gymkhana or the Delhi Golf Club, and yet seemed completely suited to London. It had none of the overdesigned coldness of other upmarket Indian restaurants and the food was much much better than anything you could find nearby, in Curzon Street or Berkeley Square.

 

   The critics lavished Gymkhana with praise (Fay Maschler, Giles Coren and many others give it their top ratings) and it was almost impossible to get a table. (I got one after three tries and wrote about it here.) I knew a little about the Sethis. I knew that they had opened Trishna in London (at first in collaboration with the tourist haunt in Mumbai and then, as an independent operation) and that they ran Bubbledogs, an unusual restaurant that served champagne with hot dogs (not hamburgers, even though burgers were the boom food of the time) with a small place at the back called Kitchen Table, which did Michelin-starred European food.

 

   I watched open-mouthed as they went from success to success. They opened the Taiwanese-inspired Bao, which had queues around the block. Then came Hoppers, a runaway success for Sri Lankan-inspired food. Then, a second Bao and a second Hoppers. They invested in great chefs and backed their restaurants. James Lowe is their partner in the Michelin-starred Lyle’s. (I wrote about the restaurant a couple of years ago.) The team behind Bao opened Xu. The Sethis backed the Spanish chef Nieves Barragan to open the highly-rated Sabor. Then came Brigadiers, an upmarket but casual Indian restaurant in the new Bloomberg building in the City of London.

 

   Along the way, the Sethis have picked up many awards. Their restaurants have more Michelin stars than any other restaurant group in London: two stars for Kitchen Table and one each for Lyle’s, Sabor, Trishna and Gymkhana. Lyle’s is 38 on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (it is the second highest British restaurant on the list).

 

"Perhaps there will now be more British Indians who will enter the restaurant business and show the world that when we have the guts to think out of the box, Indians can be great restaurateurs."

   Over the years, many people have told me about Karam Sethi, the founder of the team. His uncle, Chetan Seth the Delhi-based bon vivant, who is a friend of mine, offered to introduce us when Karam had just opened Trishna and Bubbledogs. But somehow, it never worked out. When we did finally connect, it was on Twitter of all places and we agreed to meet for lunch at Brigadiers.

 

   The night before that, I went to Hoppers, his Sri Lankan restaurant and was blown away. The original Hoppers is a tiny place in Soho and does not take bookings so I went to the larger version on Wigmore Street, which is spread over two floors.

 

   Karam later told me that he had got the idea for Hoppers from a Sri Lankan friend. But what struck me about the menu was that it explored the continuum between the food of Kerala and the food of Sri Lanka. (With a few Tamil influences from North Sri Lanka thrown in.) The chef Renjith Sarathchandran is a Malayali and his grasp of the food of Kerala is impressive. A prawn curry (packed with prawns at £9: a steal for that area) was outstanding. There were masala beef fry, chilli squid and other terrific dishes, but the star of the show was what must be one of the all-time great dishes of modern Indian cooking, a bone marrow varuval. It is a made-up dish but it was so good that I would go back to Hoppers just to eat that one dish. There were two of us, we ate half the menu and it came to the equivalent of ?7,000. I couldn’t have eaten this much food with these ingredients in Delhi at those prices.

 

   I met Karam for lunch the next day at Brigadiers, a large jam-packed restaurant with one of the more unusual Indian menus I have seen. We nibbled on chicken chaat served on a slice of crisp chicken skin, went on to try a sensational Wagyu Kathi Roll, a beef chuck and bone marrow keema with a chilli cheese kulcha, a kid goat shoulder with lachcha paratha, and what was for me the standout dish, simple chaat masala aloos with a chilli-garlic ketchup.

 

   He had grown up in Finchley, Karam said, the son of an accountant, and went to school at Haberdashers’, a public school near North London. The family had no catering background but they went to a lot of good restaurants and travelled. Every year, Karam would spend time in Delhi with his relatives, in Defence Colony and Greater Kailash.

 

   He decided to get into the food business early on, spent a year training at Delhi’s ITC Maurya and then worked with Zuma in London. A friend put him in touch with the owner of Mumbai’s Trishna and that was how the first Indian restaurant happened. After some experimentation with chefs, he ended up taking over the kitchen himself and developed his own style of approaching Indian food.

 

   He also had a sense, having grown up in the UK, of what a new generation of diners (millennial is the usual term but many of Karam’s guests were older) wanted: unusual places, unusual flavours, no rip-offs with the wine and no overfancy, poncy presentations. Almost everything he has done in the Indian food space since then, flows from that basic understanding.

 

   Many of his restaurants (the first Hoppers, the first Bao) don’t take bookings but once you are in, you are never uncomfortable or feel rushed. There is always a sense of hospitality. I can’t judge Brigadiers because I went with Karam but at Hoppers, the manager, Savio from Mumbai, ran the room expertly, making every guest feel welcome.

 

   Karam says that the group’s success has a lot to do with his siblings: Jyotin, a former investment banker who actually runs the business, and his sister Sunaina, who is an expert sommelier. It is the combination, he says, that makes it all work.

 

   He attributes many of the Sethi family’s triumphs to the chefs they have backed and says they are always looking for talented chefs across cuisines. I told him that I liked his Indian restaurants because they did not have the cold blandness of five star hotel restaurants. He responded that the group has tried to create rooms that have a character of their own and seem warm and comfortable.

 

   It is hard now to think of the Sethis as outsiders, given that they are the most admired restaurant group in London today. But that is what they were when they started out: people with no catering background who opened restaurants that they believed captured the spirit of times they lived in; places they would want to go to themselves.

 

   I hope that the Sethis are not a flash in the pan.

 

   Perhaps there will now be more British Indians who will enter the restaurant business and show the world that when we have the guts to think out of the box, Indians can be great restaurateurs.
 

 

Posted On: 13 Oct 2018 03:55 PM
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