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Bengaluru is still a foodie capital

Way, way back in the 1980s and the early 1990s, I used to think of Bengaluru as the food capital of India.

There weren’t that many deluxe hotels as there are today but those that had opened did have excellent food. The Southern Comfort coffee shop at the Taj Residency (it now has some silly new name) broke new ground by putting appams, Chicken 65 and the like on its menu.

 

Also at that hotel, the Jockey Club served wonderful European food, including a memorable Spinach Souffle. At the West End, the poolside kebab stall was brilliant. And Paradise Island, a vast open-air Pan Asian restaurant, built in the Thai style, broke with orthodoxy by dispensing with air-conditioning and letting the wind waft over the guests.

 

   And then there were the standalones. Breakfast at the legendary MTR where you had to queue if you did not get there early enough; Koshy’s, a great Bengaluru institution; spicy Andhra biryani at Amaravathi Authentic Andhra Restaurant, where they sold even hotter Andhra pickles outside; Sunday lunch, out in the country, at The Farmhouse. And so much more.

 

   Elements of that Bengaluru still exist, though most of the hotel restaurants I remember have closed and been replaced by vastly inferior new places. Only Karavalli, with its home-style coastal menu and its superstar chef Naren Thimmaiah remains as terrific as it always was. (Technically Karavalli is part of the Taj-run Gateway; but in effect, most people treat it as a standalone.)

 

   In most other respects, Bengaluru has changed beyond recognition. There are lots of deluxe hotels now, the traffic jams are epic and it is the call drop capital of India. And while new restaurants keep opening, I haven’t tried that many.

 

   So when I spent five days in Bengaluru – over two trips – in the last fortnight, I was not expecting to eat anything great or wonderful. But as it turned out, Bengaluru surprised me with the quality of its food.

 

   My first trip started, inauspiciously, with the long drive to Whitefield, which is to Bengaluru what Gurugram would be to Delhi if Gurugram was two hours from the airport. Rush-hour traffic in Bengaluru rivals that of Bangkok and it did not help that the roads were dug up in Whitefield.

 

   The Sheraton Grand Bengaluru Whitefield Hotel and Convention Centre sounded like just another Sheraton, but (despite a rather dull lobby) it turned out to be a luxury hotel run to luxury standards. It is one sign of how far F&B standards have travelled in India that a business hotel in Whitefield will now serve handmade, high-quality artisanal chocolates with unusual flavours, that the kitchens are full of Pacojet and Sous-vide machines (no comment on the Sous-vide) and that, at breakfast time, they turned out (from room service) hot medu wadas, Mysore dosas and idlis from a kitchen right on the floor where I was staying.

 

   From Whitefield, it was back to Bengaluru and the ITC Gardenia, where I usually stay. Many people had suggested The Smoke Co. (silly, confusing name – no, it has nothing to do with The Smokehouse chain) in Indiranagar.

 

   So I went there for dinner and was slightly bemused by the concept. The room looks like a bar that can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. And the menu is less smoke and more mirrors, cutting a vast and largely illogical swathe through the world from New Orleans to Kohima.

 

"It is a reflection of Bengaluru's significance as a food destination that two of the city’s top chefs – Naren Thimmaiah and Manu Chandra – are also among the country’s best chefs."

   That said, the food was to die for. And I would go back again and again. The restaurant is clearly a labour of love for its owner, so everything is made fresh on the premises from hand-cut potato fries to the tomato ketchup to the ham.

 

   It sounds a little crazy – I have no idea how they will ever make money with this model – but is also admirable. In an age where everything comes from a packet or a bottle and where people are lynched over their food habits, you have to admire a guy who lovingly makes his own bresaola.

 

   I ate nearly half the menu: an Ethiopian-style tartare, a platter of outstanding charcuterie, pulled pork, great sausages, bone marrow, char siu chicken wings and a take on authentic Southern fried chicken. The Naga Beef, which is one of their signature dishes, will blow the roof of your mouth off and needs a few tweaks to the accompaniments, but is worthy of the accolades it has garnered.

 

   I liked the charcuterie so much that I bought lots of it to take back to Delhi. This is a restaurant that must soon be on every list of India’s Top 10 Restaurants. (And guys, you don’t really have to make your own ketchup though I am really impressed that you do.)

 

   It is a reflection of Bengaluru's significance as a food destination that two of the city’s top chefs – Naren Thimmaiah and Manu Chandra – are also among the country’s best chefs. I didn’t get to go to Karavalli this time but I was glad that a friend, who is a regular at Manu’s Olive, took me there for dinner.

 

   Manu’s food is always good but that night, perhaps because he knows my host well, he did a special menu and cooked himself. The food had the typical Manu finesse: classical techniques with local ingredients and just the odd twist to remind you that this was a great chef at work; a man who followed no recipes but just cooked from the inner recesses of his finely-wound brain.

 

   The butter-poached lobster, a classic dish, was given a new zing with the use of ghee from Manu’s own Begum Victoria project. (More about that later.) The Cochin Mackerel was smoked and cured and served with curry leaf gnudi. The Naati chicken was done as a confit. The tender local lamb shoulder had been gently braised and the accompaniments had the distinctive flavour of roasted shallots. The slow-cooked Pork Belly was, as is always the case with Manu, perfectly cooked but its most distinctive characteristic was the broth it came with, scented with chorizo and packed with sweet little clams.

 

   After dinner, we had some of Manu’s Begum Victoria cheeses, a new passion of his. He follows the process from beginning to end – from cow to cheese – and the results are on the plate. It is hard to believe that cheese of this caliber can be made in India.

 

   I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Manu is a genius. I don’t always like everything he does (the Delhi Fatty Bao did not work for me), but I love so many of his concepts (Toast & Tonic, Ek Bar, Monkey Bar etc.) that I respect him hugely as a restaurateur. Judged purely as a chef though, he has few equals. (And beneath that I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude, he is also a very kind and decent person, which is sometimes hard to reconcile with his super success at a young age.)

 

   When I travel, I usually eat room service and do my eating out at restaurants that are not in my hotel. There are some exceptions. In Bengaluru, I eat at the sushi counter at Edo at the Gardenia and order the sashimi omakase. But this means I rarely try the Gardenia’s other restaurants. This time, I tried two. At the Cubbon Pavilion, I had such great dahi puri that I ended up eating three plates. (Yeah, I know. It is strange to go South for chaat but I had a sudden craving.)

 

   But it was the other Gardenia restaurant that was the real revelation. I don’t usually go to ITC’s Bukhara and Dum Pukht replicas in other cities, arguing that I can always go to the Delhi originals. On my last day in Bengaluru, I made an exception and ate at K&K, ITC’s third North Indian brand. Even for someone like me, who knows the Bukhara/Dum Pukht menus well, the food was a revelation. The biryani was as good as anything Delhi can do and the Chicken Khurchan (from the Delhi Bukhara repertoire) was wonderful.

 

   So yes, Bengaluru is still a foodie capital. It has restaurants where they make their own ketchups. It has genius chefs like Manu. And even at the hotels, you can always eat well.

 

   I am going back to try more restaurants!

 

 

Posted On: 16 Mar 2019 04:45 PM
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