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The Return of Hemant Oberoi

For years and years I have annoyed people in Mumbai by saying that the European food in Delhi is far superior.

But, judging by my last three visits, I now have to concede that, at least in suburban Mumbai, there has been a huge resurgence of interesting Western cuisine.

 

Let’s start with the biggie: Hemant Oberoi. You know Hemant, of course. Anybody with any interest in food does. He became the executive chef of the Mumbai Taj in 1986 (I think) and opened the Zodiac Grill, Wasabi, Souk, and many restaurants all over India, of which the most famous is probably Varq at the Taj Mansingh. Along the way, he rose to be the food supremo of Taj’s luxury hotels, outlasted two managements, and ultimately fell out with the third.

 

   Because he is a larger-than-life personality (with talent that is as intense as the best black truffles and an ego the size of the largest T-bone steak), Hemant has won many fans (the Mumbai social A-list, for instance) and, it has to be said, some enemies. I’ve had an up-and-down critical relationship with him for over 30 years, though we have always been friends at a personal level. I felt (and he strongly disagreed) that, by the end of his time at the Taj, he had spread himself too thin and that too many of his protégés were mediocre chefs who rose to great heights only by clinging on to his coat tails.

 

   I also felt that because Hemant travelled so much, he neglected many of his more established restaurants, leaving them to unworthy subordinates.

 

   When the Zodiac Grill closed, I wrote that it was the right decision because the restaurant was past its sell-by date. Hemant was hurt and sent me a long and anguished mail about how I had insulted the thousands of people who worked at the Mumbai Taj. (I had also written that the hotel was no longer up to scratch; pretty much the consensus view today, but startling when I first said it.)

 

   Hemant retired from the Taj and seemed to have vanished. Then, I heard he had taken over an existing restaurant in Singapore, and turned it into a huge success under his name. Next, he opened a place in San Diego. Eventually, a couple of weeks ago, I got a text from Hemant: “Hi Vir, I have opened a small restaurant in Mumbai just yesterday. It’s a very low-key soft opening. Please do visit whenever you are in Mumbai.”

 

   When Hemant Oberoi calls, you don’t say no. So, on my next trip to Mumbai, I dropped my bags off at the BKC Trident and rushed off to Hemant’s “small restaurant”, which is a few minutes away from the Trident.

 

   Of course, in the weeks since it had opened, all the old regulars had turned up (Sachin Tendulkar, Harsh Goenka, Karan Johar, Kishore Chhabria, Amitabh Bachchan and nearly every South Mumbai millionaire you can name), but Hemant had also managed to draw in the younger film crowd.

 

   Though the new restaurant has a New York-style décor rather than the clubby feel of the original Zodiac, it is hard not to think back to the buzz and excitement that accompanied the opening of the Zodiac.

 

   But there are important differences between the new place and the Zodiac Grill. The ambience is casual. The waiters are younger. And Hemant himself was behind the range on the night I went. The menu is hard to describe but it is essentially Hemant Oberoi’s greatest hits: the Whitefish Carpaccio from Wasabi (plus the Black Cod Miso), the Cheese Soufflé from Zodiac (and the Onion Croissants) and so on.

 

   What makes it different though is that Hemanth added Peruvian touches to the flavours (Peru is Hemant’s current obsession).

 

   I loved it all.

 

   I was especially taken with the lamb, a classic French-style shank, given a twist with Peruvian chilli. The snails, the soufflé, the duck liver and many other dishes were top notch. I went into the kitchen and discovered one reason for the difference in the style of food between the Zodiac and the new place. The team is young, fresh, multi-gender and less wedded to old concepts of food. His pastry chef, in particular, is someone to watch for in the future.

 

  "I have always believed that if Le Cirque was on the ground floor of the Mumbai Leela, it would be full every night. Even so, I was surprised to see how well it was doing on a Thursday night."

   For anyone who has heard of the reputation of the great Hemant Oberoi and wants to know what it is based on, this restaurant is for you. This is a culinary master, at the height of his powers, cooking himself, without the backing of the massive Taj group, and running a far better restaurant than anything his old hotel can manage these days.

 

   The night after my dinner at Hemant’s, I went to a special event that the BKC Trident hosted for Oberoi group regulars and American Express high-rollers.

 

   It is hard to know where to slot Trident hotels. In theory, they are the basic five-star hotels while the Oberois are the deluxe hotels. Except that Biki Oberoi is not content with doing anything that is merely basic so, in effect, many of the Tridents (Gurgaon, Mumbai, Udaipur etc.) are just Oberoi hotels with slightly smaller rooms.

 

   The BKC Trident, for example has the luxury levels of the top Oberoi hotels though yes, the rooms are a little smaller. For many years, it was run to a high standard of excellence by Visheshwar Raj Singh, who has now been replaced by David Mathews, formerly of the Gurgaon Oberoi. Along with outstanding chefs –Ashish Bhasinand Vikas Vibhuti, among many others – this team produces what is among the best food in the Oberoi group.

 

   It is wrong to judge a hotel on the basis of a party but the cuisine was truly exceptional: duck that had been aged so that all its meaty flavours came to the fore, pasta packed with truffle cream and surrounded by slices of fresh summer truffle, a dessert that matched chocolate with Roquefort cheese and more. I was left gasping at the ambition and sophistication of it all.

 

   The principal chef for dinner at the Trident that day was Siva (Sivakumar Gopalkrishnan), who had once worked in Le Cirque in New York. I thought of him and his food when I went to the Mumbai Le Cirque. Sadly, the restaurant is located on the Club Floor of the Leela Palace in a room that has been the graveyard of good Italian restaurants, Fiorella and Stella, for instance.

 

   I have always believed that if Le Cirque was on the ground floor of the Mumbai Leela, it would be full every night. Even so, I was surprised to see how well it was doing on a Thursday night. Much of this has to do with the front-of-the-house expertly managed by Jimmy Writer and a French-Italian sommelier.

 

   But most of the credit goes to the outstanding Tuscan chef Lorenzo Severini.

 

   I tried many dishes, including a Crab Parmentier and a Tuscan seafood soup, and the food standards were up to global levels. Except for the Delhi Le Cirque (which figures, I guess), there is no restaurant in the capital doing Italian food with this much finesse.

 

   My final terrific meal in Mumbai was at Stax. The Hyatt Regency, near the airport, has been a sort of stepchild, never getting the attention that the gleaming Grand Hyatt, which is only 10 minutes away, receives. But ever since the go-getting Hardip Marwah has taken over as general manager, the Regency has finally begun to register its presence.

 

   One beneficiary has been Stax, the Italian restaurant. Because the Regency has a large coffee shop with a terrific buffet, there is not much reason to go to Stax and so, it has slid out of public memory.

 

   But Hardip is determined to revive it. I went to a party (hosted with the Italian trade commission) to launch the new menu and was impressed by the quality of the food. Even the Italians were thrilled by the risottos made on mobile stations and the excellent seafood, including scallops wrapped with pancetta.

 

   Stax was designed as a nightclub, I imagine, so it is a high concept, multi-storey restaurant. When you enter, you wonder if it is a spaceship and whether you might take off. But the funkiness adds something to the experience.

 

   Compared to the Grand Hyatt, the Regency is a medium-budget operation (no expat chefs). But thanks to Hardip, who runs it like a grand hotel, that difference is well-concealed.

 

   So, does suburban Mumbai have better European food than Delhi?

 

   Maybe; maybe not.

 

   But it certainly beats the hell out of South Mumbai!

 

 

Posted On: 17 Jun 2017 05:00 PM
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