In the last few days, I had two very nice meals at fancy restaurants, and they were both ethnic with twists. The first was Punjab Grill in the new Palladium Mall in Mumbai, where I was at the opening (and therefore sampled more of the starters than any of the main courses) and the other was South Indies in Bangalore, which I’ve been to before but never till recently had a full meal.
Punjab Grill’s driving force is Zorawar Kalra, a powerhouse of a man outstandingly passionate about his food (which is always a good sign – never believe the glob about the best halwais not eating their own sweets). Among the punjabi dishes he fed me was an incredible bhutte-ki-kabab (yes, in the middle of chickens and lambs, I’m praising a veg kabab) and a wonderfully unusual seekh, reminiscent more of Lucknow than tandoori, but distinctly punjabi nevertheless. Of course there were fusion flourishes – who in Punjab ever heard of scallop? The best innovation of the day, of course, were the paan shots – liquid paan hiding a potent shot of vodka under it – very addictive and very dangerous.
South Indies was the other side of the country. Its not exactly new - at least a few years under its belt – but though I’d been there a few times for various things I’d never had a full meal there. This time I went to the South Indies on Infantry Road – a brand new outlet hidden on top of the rather oddly named Chevron Hotel (no relation to the oil giant, I’m sure). A very pleasant venue populated by some very friendly waiters fed us a great southern vegetarian buffet – no fusion twists at lunch, only the classical stuff well executed especially to our Mumbai palates. Fancy south Indian is particularly rare outside ITC’s Dakshin chain – a good dosa or rice plate usually means sweaty bodies and long lines - so this was a very happy experience.
It is unfortunate that the best Indian food is found on the streets. Not because I’m unhappy about going down and dirty, but because my theory is that food cannot progress unless patronised by excess. The best street vendor perfects his offerings by making the same thing again and again for decades, but he tends to stick to the tried and true. He cannot afford experiment, and he certainly cannot afford expensive ingredients to experiment with (like scallops, for instance). Street food evolves but this is incremental evolution – improvements on old favourites – rather than totally new dishes, techniques or ingredients that add to the repertoire as a whole.
Most cuisine revolutions evolved out of jaded royals or rich merchants, a hundred years ago that was anyway the only choice for funding food experiments. Today democracy has taken royals out of the equation and replaced rich merchants with bankers, consultants and IT millionaires. Both Indian-Chinese and Tandoori-Punjabi – that so dominate both restaurants and streets today - were created in famous, fashionable restaurants (China Garden and Moti Mahal respectively, I’m told). I’m sure a lot of people will find it ridiculous, but today some fancy restaurants in London and New York actually make better Indian food than most places in India. Obsessive technique paired with obsession about the ingredients – the perfect cut of meat or the exact kind of rice – has elevated some restaurants to heights beyond its land of origin.
Lets hope this trend of truly regional restaurants charging top dollar and catering to jaded urban palates are going to drive the next evolution of desi food at home.