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The Indian hospitality scene is bouncing back

Anyone who thinks that the Indian hospitality scene is stagnant or that Covid has stalled innovation, needs to think again.

Over the last fortnight, I have had three very good experiences at new places in three different parts of India.


Let’s start with Delhi. All of us know of the Taj group’s great contributions to Indian food. Over the years, the Taj has opened several Indian restaurants, some of which were very good when they were launched, but are now approaching their sell-by dates.


   I wondered when the Taj management—which has successfully turned around the financial fortunes of the group—would start to shake-up the restaurants. That process now seems to have begun, largely because Puneet Chhatwal, the group’s CEO, is taking a personal interest in the conception of new restaurants. What’s more, he is trying new approaches.


   Masala Art at Delhi’s Taj Palace was very good when it opened, but there has been talk of replacing it with something more contemporary for at least a decade. When Chhatwal turned his attention to it, he had the bright idea of calling on Taj alumni.


   Rajesh Bharadwaj used to be manager of Delhi’s House of Ming before he went off to America and found fame and fortune as owner of New York’s Junoon. Chhatwal asked him if he would help (in collaboration with Taj chefs and managers) to think of a new concept for the Taj’s Indian food.


   Bharadwaj, who retains an affection for his old company, took on the challenge, tapped other Taj alumni (such as restaurateur Prasanjit Singh) and worked with Chhatwal to create Loya, a new kind of North Indian restaurant.


   The first Loya is at the Taj Palace, and when I made a low-profile visit soon after it opened, I liked the restaurant at once and thought the food was a real breakthrough for the Taj.


   Many of the dishes have been inspired by the flavours of small towns and out-of-the-way places and taste significantly different from anything the Taj has done before. A kachori with a topping of chaat was inspired by a similar dish from the streets of Delhi, while the channa with keema (for me, the standout dish) came from a small town in Punjab. The chef, Gaggan Sikka, has also created new dishes of his own including an unusual mutton with walnuts. And, of course, there are dishes that Junoon fans will recognise: pork ribs, mirch chicken tikkas and more.


   I imagine that the Taj will want to replicate the success of the first Loya at other hotels. Rumour has it that the West End in Bengaluru is next. And, I guess that both Masala restaurants in Mumbai will also become Loyas. It’s a great initiative and for long-time fans of the Taj (like me), it is an indication that after a decade of ignoring food, the group is finally moving to open world class restaurants again.


   The Taj created Rajasthan as a global destination in the 1970s. Since then, many other chains have set up luxury hotels there, chiefly the Oberois, who now run three of the best hotels in the state. But it is good to see more and more players open in Rajasthan.


   Six Senses, a respected global chain, has arrived in India with a much talked-about property near Sawai Madhopur (Jaipur is the nearest airport) called Fort Barwara. This is where Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif got married so naturally, it became famous overnight.


"When I was last in Bengaluru, I tried to get into FarmLore, a restaurant that everyone praised but few people had been to."

   As a chain, Six Senses is of Indian origin. (Well, sort of.) It was set up by Sonu Shivdasani as a vehicle to take the concepts he had developed at his Soneva resorts in the Maldives around the world. It has always had some stunning properties (I once shot a TV programme at the Six Senses Ya Noi, located on a beautiful island near Phuket in Thailand.) After Sonu divested it from his group, Six Senses has had mixed fortunes and assorted owners. It has now found a secure home as part of IHG (the group that owns Intercontinental and Holiday Inn), which seems to be finally making a play in the luxury sector.


   I am not sure what the Six Senses concept is now, but, judging by my stay at Fort Barwara, it aims to provide a luxury experience while retaining some of Sonu’s ideas about localisation, sustainability, helping the community etc.


   There is much to recommend at Fort Barwara, including its location, a crumbling, centuries-old fort. The historical parts of the property have been lovingly restored and there are some dramatic experiences. The spa, (a Six Senses speciality since the very beginning) is located in a beautiful, historical part of the hotel and if Instagram is your thing, you are never more than a few minutes away from a spectacular spot where you can post from.


   It’s run by very nice people. Marius Ackermann is an extremely gifted chef (and hopefully he will soon do his own menu, eliminating all the nacho-taco nonsense he has inherited), while Frans Westraadt, the Namibian General Manager, has a real feel for the outdoors and for Rajasthan. You will keep hearing about the hotel because its Director of Sales and Marketing is Rajat Gera, who, after his years with the Leela and Cox and Kings, knows how to make hotels famous.


   Which leaves the third terrific experience I have had over the last few weeks. I am currently engaged in a project to rate restaurants all over India. So, when I was last in Bengaluru, I tried to get into FarmLore, a restaurant that everyone praised but few people had been to. I couldn’t get a table so I booked on the net for another date a month later and last week I flew to Bengaluru only to eat at FarmLore.


   It was worth it.


   There is a lot of hype around FarmLore. Because it is located on a farm which is about 40 minutes from central Bengaluru, people talk about it being a farm-to-table experience. Others talk about the ‘Lore’ in the name and say that the food is about stories.


   Frankly, I have no time for farm-to-table or ‘every-dish-tells-a-story’ hype. I judge a restaurant on basic criteria. Is the food delicious? Does it spread joy and make customers happy? Is the space warm and welcoming? Is the service efficient? And—this is the difficult one—does the food show originality and character?


   Not for me those temples of gastronomy where the chef thinks he is a genius, tells you how he foraged your food this morning and fermented his ingredients for months. I go to have a good meal and a good time. Not to massage some chef’s ego.


   So, you will understand why I approached FarmLore with some trepidation. In fact, I was completely wrong to be nervous. The food was fabulous by any standards. The restaurant echoed with laughter. The chefs were humble and solicitous.  And I did not, for a moment, regret that I had flown so far just for a single dinner.


   FarmLore is the joint creation of Kaushik Raju who runs hotels, educational institutions etc. and has an overwhelming passion for food, and the talented and creative Ebenezer Johnson, who first came to public attention as chef at Kuala Lumpur’s Nadodi. They are assisted by three others: Head Chef Mythrayie Iyer, Avinnash Vishaal and Hemanth Mandappa (who looks after the farm). They cook lunch and dinner for only 18 covers, five days a week. There are virtually no servers and the chefs bring the food to the table themselves.


   And the food is outstanding. I loved a duck (from Kerala) with a kokum sauce and delicate potato dumplings, Bannur lamb with a horse gram millet sauce, mushrooms cooked over mango wood, barramundi in a haldi sauce and a crab and cheese ‘pate’ served alongside homemade bread with an anchovy garum (fish sauce).


   Everything was cooked over a wood fire. There were no sous-vide machines and no fancy technology. This was old-fashioned cooking taken to the next level.


   It is hard to get in. But if you do get a table, go. This is one of India’s best and most interesting restaurants.


   I know that I will be back.



Posted On: 11 Nov 2022 11:35 AM
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