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The return of Ananda Solomon and other stories

For years and years, it was one of Mumbai’s top restaurants.

Every night The Thai Pavilion at the President Hotel was jam-packed. Nearly every famous person in Mumbai could be spotted there. Over the years I saw everyone from Ratan Tata to Dimple Kapadia enjoying the delicious Thai food.

 

The success of the restaurant was down to just one man: Ananda Solomon. Even after he became one of the Taj group’s corporate chefs, in overall charge of scores of hotels, you would find Ananda at the range, personally cooking such dishes as his signature Scallops with Yellow Chilli, Thai-style Foie Gras and Duck with greens, for hungry guests.

 

   The Thai Pavilion (it is still running) was the first really successful Thai restaurant in India and guests were always shocked to discover that the chef was an Indian because the flavours were so authentically Thai.

 

   Long before Thai food became globally fashionable, the Taj sent Ananda to learn the cuisine at the Shangri La in Bangkok. He loved the food but realised that five-star hotel food (based on so-called Thai Royal Cuisine) was not the real food of Bangkok. So he went back to Thailand and apprenticed himself to a street food vendor in a small soi off busy Sukhumvit Road to understand the food of the streets. To the everlasting credit of the Taj it has always been willing to spend money on sending chefs abroad to learn new cuisines and Ananda’s success reflects that.

 

   Ananda spent several weeks in Bangkok cooking on the streets and by the time he came back, he had even gathered a working knowledge of the Thai language. His menu at the Thai Pavilion was a mixture of fancy and street and it was an instant success.

 

   Ananda kept going back to Thailand and coming back with new dishes even though I thought he focused too much of the fish-heavy cuisine of Southern Thailand. (Though he had such staples as Laarb and Som Tam, which are Northern in origin, on the menu.) But Mumbai loved everything he cooked.

 

   Eventually, he changed the whole format of the menu, charging one price for all starters, another for all mains. Consequently The Thai Pavilion became the cheapest five-star speciality restaurant in Mumbai and much of the crowd consisted of families who came because the restaurant was such good value.

 

   A few years ago, Ananda retired from the Taj and vanished. All kinds of rumours followed: he worked for a new hotel in Goa, he was going to run the kitchen at a high-end membership club; he was cooking in Phuket; and so on. But as nobody ever saw Ananda, his friends were unable to establish what the truth was.

 

   Then, a couple of months ago he resurfaced near Mumbai’s Sahar Airport. One day he called me to say that he was opening a Thai restaurant at The Orb, a mall attached to the JW Marriott Airport hotel. It would be called Thai Naam by Ananda.

 

   The restaurant is now open to customers (though a formal launch is still to be scheduled). I went for dinner, straight from the airport, the last time I was in Mumbai and was pleasantly surprised to find that the new place was large (nearly 100 covers) plush (the same designer as the Konkan Cafe at the President), and had a huge state-of-the-art kitchen packed out with mostly young Malayali chefs (“they understand how to use coconut,” Ananda told me).

 

"Sujan is a relatively reticent person so he is not well-known to the world at large but within the chef community, he is respected and liked."

   The food was vintage Ananda, as good as the old Thai Pavilion had been, except that the prices were even lower than today’s Thai Pavilion menu. The ingredient are better (the duck liver now comes from France, not New Zealand as it used to in Ananda’s Thai Pavilion days) and I imagine that his food cost is much higher than it used to be at the President.

 

   All the old favourites are there and while some of the old regulars might find the new location inconvenient, (though Sachin Tendulkar had been there the night before I went), Ananda will draw on a huge client base from Bandra and from the many five star hotels in the Sahar area, none of which has a decent East Asian restaurant.

 

   It’s nice to see the old master back on form.

 

   Sujan Sarkar doesn’t have Ananda’s legendary status but he is among the most successful Indian chefs in the world: more creditable because he has conquered America, which is not easy for an Indian. He runs Rooh in San Francisco, which is super-successful. There’s another restaurant in Chicago and a more informal place in New York City.

 

   Some months ago, he finally opened Rooh in India. The restaurant is in a lovely location in Mehrauli in Delhi and the food is probably more typical of Sujan’s style than any of his places abroad.

 

   Sujan is an European chef by training, has opened many restaurants in India (some with AD Singh) and at the Delhi Rooh he has managed to merge Indian flavours with Western techniques and even to incorporate luxury ingredients like black truffles and caviar (his is from a sustainable caviar farm in California). I don’t think there is anyone in India cooking food quite like this.

 

   Sujan is a relatively reticent person so he is not well-known to the world at large but within the chef community, he is respected and liked. I went to Rooh after two of the giants of Indian cuisine, Suvir Saran and Atul Kochar, both said good things about the food. I took Gautam Anand, formerly of ITC, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian food is matched only by his contempt for those who screw around with it. And even Gautam loved the food.

 

   This is a restaurant to watch; we will be hearing a lot more about Sujan and Rooh in the months and years ahead.

 

   I try not to eat European food in India because it is rarely very good. In Delhi I would make an exception for The Orient Express, which is the ultimate celebration restaurant and for the current avatar of Le Cirque where the food is very good. In Mumbai, there’s Vetro which is firing on all cylinders these days.

 

   But these are expensive places and till now Mumbai and Delhi have had nobody like Manu Chandra in Bengaluru who can turn out great food at non five-star prices. But with the opening of Americano in Mumbai, that has finally changed.

 

   Americano is run by Alex Sanchez who I remember from his days at The Table. Alex took a break after leaving The Table and spent a lot of time in Italy. He has come back, totally refreshed and his current cuisine is extraordinary. I have written about his food in detail elsewhere (in The Taste, my column in Hindustantimes.com) so I will just say two things: he makes the best pizzas in India. And if I had an evening free in Mumbai, Americano is the one restaurant I would go to.

 

   And finally, something completely different. I was very sad when Lahori Gate, the excellent North Indian restaurant in Delhi’s Mehr Chand Market closed down after hassles about property laws. The good news is that it has re-opened in Gurgaon and that the food is even better than I remember it being in the old location.

 

   It is a bit more inconvenient for me than Mehr Chand Market used to be so I prefer take-out (which they are happy to do). I have had an outstanding mutton biryani, great dals, a superb korma and wonderful haleem from there over the last fortnight.

 

   Part of the reason for the excellence of the food is that this is home-style cuisine. The recipes come from Begum Imtiaz Akbar and are recreated by her daughter Gazala. All they need to do now is to open a delivery-only kitchen near their old location!

 

 

Posted On: 14 Mar 2020 11:45 AM
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