DELHI, at last, is taking its food seriously. Till recently, the Punjabi palate was quite at peace with the ubiquitous Tandoori chicken. And though we havent heard the last squawk yet, the capital seems to have suddenly developed a voracious appetite for an experience thats decidedly differentthe global gourmet taste. Consider this: in the last six months, of the eight new eating places that have opened, only Qutab Mulakat serves the standard Delhi fare. The rest are all refreshingly different.
"Cuisine shows on TV have made people more aware. Theres also a bigger middle-income group. India is being globalised," says Andy Varma, who started his foodie career in Mussoorie, moved on to Dukes Place in Delhi, then to Sticky Fingers and more recently to the Academy Book Cafe (ABC). And that theory of globalisation hits you hard as you wait the mandatory 40 minutes for a table at the recently opened Thank God Its Friday (TGIF). The decor is very, very American; so is the food. The crowd is hip and the bar which will soon serve alcohol is by far the best place to park oneself. The barman introduces himself, is pleasant, with quite a few tricks up his sleeve a la Tom Cruise. On offer is Tex-Mex (Fajitas, Chimichanga), pizzas, burgers, salads, pastas, slush drinks and shakes. Says fortysomething Preeti Sharma: "The food is exactly the way its in America."
Right next-door is the other American exportMcDonald. A short distance away in Shantiniketan is Pizza Hut. Cut to Hauz Khas Village where restaurants are a dime a dozen. But in all that clutter is Curry on the Roof which dares to be different and serves Chettinad cuisine. Compliments Manpreet Singh who orders frequently from her office in Panchsheel Park: "Their Crab Masala is to die for." With little fish painted on the walls, wrought-iron furniture and thatched roofing, the place creates the perfect setting for that cuisine. That it has managed to attract large crowds despite no advertising speaks volumes about the market for such new-age restaurants which are doing thriving business.
The reason for this boom: Five star hotels with a small target segment and a 30 per cent sales tax to boot prove very expensive for an evening out. A smaller unit avoids not only the tax but has fewer overheads. For instance, a restaurant with 30 covers needs Rs 15-20 lakh (excluding the rent) to set up. Add another lakh as running cost. The place will guarantee a minimum of 20 per cent profit. And its a glamorous business. Says Varma: "Its a profitable business where anyone can make money. All you need is a good manager and a good accountant."
A factor that spurred Uma Singh to open a Gujarati restaurant, Farsaan. Singh, who also has a furniture business, caters to the citys vegetarian clientele. The decor, in sharp contrast to the food it serves, is very cafe-like with wrought-iron chairs and blue tablecloths. Says Singh: "We tried to create an upmarket look for the vegetarian to hang out in." Farsaan serves a standard thali for lunch and dinner, but with a difference. "Gujarati cuisine has a million dishes. In order to do justice to the food, we change the dishes in the thali for every meal."
If change at every meal is Farsaans USP, then at Ella, the cafe inspired by jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, designer J.J. Vallaya ensures that the menu changes every monthfrom Italian to Greek to Frenchfrom Soupa Avgh-olemeno, a rice-based Greek soup to Tabuleh, a cracked wheat salad, or better still, pate. For Vallaya, the decision to pursue both food and fashion is logical. Says he: "Its a global phenomenon where fashion houses have an in-house cafe." Delhi has it all. And now its also the only city in the country to boast a Spanish restaurant. At the Park Hotel, Las Meninas is more expensive (a meal for two costs approximately Rs 1,200). But for the discerning gourmet, theres one compensationeverything is cooked in olive oil.
The party doesnt stop here. Bina Ram-ani, who set up Bistro at the Hauz Khas Village, is all set to open a restaurant at the Qutab with daughter Malini. Says Malini: "Itll be a Sunday jazz sort of a place." Bon apetit to that.