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It’s good to see Indian food and hospitality making a mark in New York

One reason why New York feels like the capital of the world is that no matter where you are from, there will be a place for you.

No Indian arriving in the city will feel out of place or awkward. There is enough that is familiar and reassuring.


As I watched the Indian presence in the city grow, I used to wonder how long it would be before Indians achieved the sort of prominence that they have in say, London or Singapore. I got my answer last week when I went back to New York after six years or so.


   It has now happened.


   Some of it has to do with the financial community which now includes many prominent Indians. But you also find Indians in top positions everywhere, from the media to local politics to major corporations.


   How, I wondered, would this impact food and hospitality? New York has not been short of Indian restaurants. As far back as the 1970s, the Taj group ran the upmarket Raga restaurant. Sant Chatwal opened Bombay Palace in 1979. Neither restaurant broke out of the ‘ethnic restaurant’ slot (or served interesting food) and eventually the Taj closed the loss-making Raga.


   It was the same with hotels. The Oberois tried to run the Barbizon Plaza but retreated in the face of hostility from long-stay residents of the property. The Taj, always keen to make a mark in New York, bought the three-star Lexington Hotel in 1981 and ran it successfully for nearly two decades without making any impact at all on the city’s hotel scene.


   When it gave up the Lexington and tried to go right up the other end of the market by acquiring the stately Carlyle hotel, its offer was rebuffed. (This was a period when India had still to earn the respect of the world’s hoteliers. When the Taj tried to buy the Orient Express chain, the company issued a statement suggesting that Indian ownership did not go with its luxury image.)


   But now, Indians have breached that barrier too. The Taj eventually took over the lease of The Pierre, one of New York’s grand hotels. But even that arrangement was dogged by uncertainty. The Pierre is controlled by a residential cooperative (the hotel has apartments as well as rooms) which can make life difficult for hotel operators. The Four Seasons, which ran it before the Taj, never made any money from the property, was uncomfortable with the cooperative and finally gave up the hotel.


   I’ve stayed at The Pierre several times since the Taj took it over and I often wondered: were the Tatas sold a pup? Would it ever make money? I was relieved to find, this time, that not only was the hotel run (mostly by non-Indians) to the highest standards of luxury but that the Taj had restored the original character of the hotel and maintained its timeless elegance. (There was a phase in the middle when there was a misguided attempt to over-Indianise the lobby; you don’t muck around with a New York icon.)


   The best part: The Pierre now makes money for the Taj; something it has not done for any hotel group in decades! I had lunch with Karambir Kang, who looks after North America for the Taj and marvelled at how successfully he and his team have managed to run it classily but shrewdly. They have kept the old Pierre trademarks like the elevator operators and the classic look of the suites but service standards were higher than I remember them ever being.


"It is a measure of how seriously India is taken now that they attracted a crowd of serious food and wine journalists who would have laughed at the notion of a premium whisky from India a few years ago."

   When it comes to food, New York has suddenly begun to accord a new respect to Indian food and Indian restaurateurs. Everybody knows by now that Roni Mazumdar, Chef Chintan Pandya and their Unapologetic Foods group run the city’s hottest restaurants. But you have to go to New York to see just how successful they really are.


   I didn’t eat at Dhamaka, their flagship but I ate at Semma, which is very much the restaurant of the moment. It has three stars (out of a probable top score of four) from the New York Times and a Michelin star. It can take weeks to get a table but fortunately I knew Roni and Chintan from their India tour a month ago so they got me in.


   I went with my old friend Ramu Damodaran, a foodie who can be difficult to please. The food at Semma, unlike much South Indian food in the US where Malayalis call the shots is based on Tamil village cuisine. Vijaya Kumar, the chef, grew up in a village near Madurai and has tried to include dishes that his mother made: from a stew of snails to a dish of goat intestines (I ate the snails. The intestines: no chance).


   While Ramu was sceptical initially (yes, he is a Malayali), by the end (especially when we had eaten Vijaya’s flavourful oxtail), he conceded that the food was actually very good. It was also very different: it is the food of poor villagers who forage for snails and eat the parts of the animal that rich people would throw away.


   I did go to Dhamaka but it was for a party. Godawan is the artisanal Rajasthani malt whisky launched by Diageo. They make it in small batches but the response has been so good that they are now taking it around the world including, of course, New York.


   It is a measure of how seriously India is taken now that they attracted a crowd of serious food and wine journalists who would have laughed at the notion of a premium whisky from India a few years ago.


   Chintan Pandya created a menu of pass-around snacks (none of which, as far as I can tell, is on the current Dhamaka menu) which the Godawan bartender paired with a series of innovative cocktails.


   I know the whisky well, so I was not surprised by the ‘oh wow’ responses that it received from the American guests but it was also fun to see how much extra Godawan was consumed because people wanted to try every one of Chintan’s snacks — and therefore the cocktail each snack was paired with.


   Dhamaka doesn’t usually do private events. I had the sense that many people had been drawn by the opportunity to eat Chintan’s food. Once they got in, they were stunned by how good the whisky was.


   I wondered if any of this would have been possible only five years ago. Would these fancy New York people have gathered to try an Indian whisky? Five years ago, Godawan would have had to throw the party in a hotel’s banquet space.


   New York remains the capital of the world. And it is good to see Indian food, drink and hospitality making their mark in the world’s toughest market.




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Posted On: 19 May 2023 11:40 AM
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