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A restaurant meal must be a cheerful and joyous experience

Why do people go to restaurants?

For the food obviously. But what else? Ambience? Michelin- star snobbery?

 

All of those things, to varying degrees, I would imagine. And they are valid and rational reasons to go out. Norbert Kostner, who was for many years the Executive Chef of Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental hotel in its glory days used to tell his staff, “Nobody comes here only for nutrition. They come for the experience. You must make the meal seem special”.

 

   These days, alas, we are encouraged to treat restaurant-eating as an act of worship. All too often, you see the phrase “temple of gastronomy” in restaurant publicity. And at many multiple Michelin-starred restaurants, there is a kind of hush that surrounds the place, as though diners have been afforded the unique privilege of partaking of the work of a genius chef.

 

   At other places, chefs engage in what I call the look-what-a-clever-boy-I-am school of cooking. This takes two forms, both perversions of the work of two genuinely talented and influential chefs.

 

   When Ferran Adria started the molecular gastronomy revolution two decades ago, he introduced new elements to modern cuisine. One was science. Adria used chemicals and techniques to enhance flavours and play with form. But he also introduced humour. Many of his great dishes were not just triumphs of technique, they were also witty.

 

   The famous El Bulli olive is one instance. It looked like an olive but when you put it in your mouth, it exploded into the most olivey liquid essence of olive. Adria had used science to take olive juices and construct a virtual olive. While it was a technological marvel, it was also a kind of joke. You giggled foolishly when you realised that you had been tricked: it wasn’t a real olive at all.

 

   While Adria’s legacies are substantial and empowering, he is also responsible for the thousands of talentless chefs who now turn everything into spheres, sprinkle “soil” (some freeze-dried ingredient) on their plates, put a foam on top of every dish and envelop their food in smoke.

 

   When Adria did it, the food was tasty. Now, nobody cares about taste. You are just supposed to take photos or videos of the dish and put them on Instagram. And the chefs prance around, with smug looks on their faces, encouraging you to tell them how clever they have been.

 

   It is all rather like a magic show staged by 10th standard students who have watched too much Penn & Teller on YouTube.

 

   The second school of the oh-what-a-clever-boy-am-I cuisine is the legacy of Rene Redzepi of Noma. Redzepi is one of the great chefs of this century and he has made us look again at the ingredients that go into our food. A couple of years ago when he did a celebrated pop-up in Australia, he transformed local ingredients. Abalone, a seafood delicacy that is popular mostly in East Asia, was turned into a Schnitzel (a breaded cutlet). Delicate snow crab meat was flavoured with juices that came from fermenting kangaroo meat. (Think of an Australian version of Thai fish sauce.)

 

   Noma is small and almost impossible to book so hardly anyone has eaten there. But Redzepi’s influence on other chefs has been enormous, at least partly because his kitchen accepts so many stagiers. A ‘stage’ is a kitchen term for a short unpaid internship and Noma has allowed hundreds of chefs from all over the world to do short stages there.

 

   Nine times out of 10, when a chef tells you he worked at Noma, he will not have been a member of the kitchen brigade but will have done a short stage. In fact, I sometimes wonder if more people have done stages at Noma than have actually eaten there.

 

   Redzepi’s legacy has been perverted over the years by chefs who cook strange, joyless food, brag about their ingredients and their foraging and force you to eat their tasting menus. None of the stagiers have anything like Redzepi’s talent so you usually get rubbish food at ridiculously high prices served in solemn surroundings by halfwits who take themselves too seriously, fawned over by dimwit ‘critics’ who don’t really understand the food but believe, because the Noma name is thrown around, that they have to pretend to enjoy it.

 

 "Speaking as somebody who is tired of fancy over-priced places with their tasting menus and their joyless food, all I can hope is that publicity-hungry chefs realise that we go to restaurants to be happy."

   Rarely, if ever, have I enjoyed ‘a Noma-influenced meal’ and I have always resented the suggestion that because the food emphasises unusual (i.e. boring) ingredients, we are duty-bound to enjoy it and to treat the chef as a brave explorer of the unknown.

 

   Many of Adria’s heirs are brilliant. Some of Redzepi’s influences can be hugely rewarding. In Bangkok, for instance, Gaggan Anand started out applying some of Adria’s concepts to Indian food and created a revolution. (Gaggan has since found his own voice and the Adria influences are less obvious.) Right opposite Gaggan is Gaa, run by Garima Arora, who actually worked at Noma (as distinct from being a stagier) and is rated extremely highly by Redzepi. (He once told me that she was an “extraordinarily intelligent chef”.) Gaa has Noma influences but these are reflected in Garima’s own style, not through mindless imitation.

 

   I am now so fed up of chefs who take themselves seriously that I long to just have fun while I eat. At Gaggan’s Lab, for instance, the chef plays rock music and many evenings end in drunken sing-alongs. None of this detracts from the brilliance of the food: Gaggan has just been voted as Asia’s top restaurant for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. But it tells us that the chef is confident enough to recognise that a restaurant meal must be a cheerful and joyous experience.

 

   My favourite places are restaurants where the meal is not just great but it is also fun. The successes that stand the test of time are cheerful places like Bukhara where they discourage you from using cutlery and encourage you to tear off hunks of naan and raan with your bare hands. At Mumbai’s original Gajalee, the pleasure comes from coaxing the flesh out of the crab while the gravy trickles down your chin. At Sodabottleopenerwalla, one of my favourite mini-chains, the whole ambience is based on fun and jokes.

 

   My current favourite restaurant in Mumbai is O Pedro. This aims to do for Goan food what The Bombay Canteen, from the same owners, did for the food of Mumbai. It is a cheerful, happy restaurant, hidden beneath one of the glass towers in BKC.

 

   I went again last week and as much as I loved the happy vibe and the service, it was the food that really blew me away.

 

   There were three of us and we ate like pigs. We started with chicharones, a big word for delicious pork scratchings. (I ordered another portion: they were that good.) Then came ‘tacos’ made from rice flour bhakris and filled with Goan sausage. A basket of garlic chips, (like wafers but deliciously soft in the centre) came with three butters: balchao butter, pork and rosemary butter and Chorise (Goan sausage) butter. There were delicate shrimps sautéed in garlic and large prawns slit open and filled with masala. There was a largely authentic pork sorpotel (not fully authentic because the dish normally has pork blood; thank God they left it out!). A pulao of bacon and chorise (yes! more chorise) was a classic and a vegetarian pea curry (‘watana rassa’) was good too.

 

   We ended with excellent desserts, of which the standout was the Portuguese egg tart which was so authentic that we could have been in Lisbon. While I polished off the tarts, the others ate doughnuts, almond cake and home-made cinnamon ice cream.

 

   This huge feast, in the centre of Mumbai’s glittering new commercial district, with outstanding service, came in at under Rs. 6,000 for three people before tax and service. (We ordered wine which pushed the final bill beyond 6,000 but you don’t really need to drink wine with this kind of food.)

 

   O Pedro was packed, as it is every night and I could understand why. Already The Bombay Canteen is emerging as Mumbai’s answer to Indian Accent and even the great Manish Mehrotra says that Thomas Zacharias, the chef who oversees both restaurants, is the man to watch. (The O Pedro chef is Hussain Shahzad and the egg tarts were the work of Heena Punwani.)

 

   I have written about The Bombay Canteen before. Its key founding figure, Floyd Cardoz, is easily one of the best Indian chefs in the world. Floyd does not like the pomp and pretension of fancy restaurants. His focus is flavour. And at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro, he has proved that some of the best food in Mumbai can be found at happy places.

 

   Speaking as somebody who is tired of fancy over-priced places with their tasting menus and their joyless food, all I can hope is that publicity-hungry chefs realise that we go to restaurants to be happy.

 

   And not to pay court to their egos.
 

 

Posted On: 14 Apr 2018 06:11 PM
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