September 2004 | Sudipta Basu

Upper crust

At the Taj group, India's cultural diversity and changing times is best reflected in its multi-speciality cuisine offerings. And the proof lies in its ever evolving taste and texture

The curry train has travelled many destinations; it has spread its indigenous flavours, mingled with local cuisines and acquired innovative touches. Quite simply, food, like societal mores, is susceptible to the winds of change. This cultural relativism is best reflected in the Taj group's multi and speciality cuisine offerings.

Are you being served?
The Taj group has dished up many firsts. The Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, introduced Szechwan cuisine at the Golden Dragon in 1973, when Chinese food was merely associated with Cantonese fare. Tanjore, a 24-hour coffee shop, was the first stop for multi-regional cuisines, predominantly Maharashtrian and Parsi, besides an exhaustive north Indian fare.

The 80s saw the smart set sampling European food at Ménage à Trois, where chefs from all over the world exhibited their expertise. The restaurant successfully ran for seven years, when it gave way to an innovative Cal-Indian (Californian-Indian) fusion. Some of the surprises on offer were roasted corn soup with turmeric popcorn, Caesar salad with paneer tikka and chilli consommé.

Zodiac Grill, the Taj's fine dining restaurant, has registered a steady stream of loyal clientele on its rosters over the last 15 years. The restaurant has prided itself on its display of myriad food and wine pairings. Popular with the crème de la crème guests are the Malbec Terrazas, Mendoza, 2002, recommended as an accompaniment to New Zealand lamb rack; Chardonnay Oxford Landing, South Australia, 2000, to Cajun Pomfret; and Meriot Danzante, Fescobaldi Mondavi, 2001, to whole duck foie gras. Connoisseurs recommend the Camembert Dariole, a creamy Kahlua mousse, as a signature sign out.

The sour aroma of the overpowering Parmesan wafted out of Trattoria’s kitchen at the Taj President nearly 20 years ago. Since then "Tratts" has been a sunny getaway for the young and old alike. Order a pepperoni pizza with a heavy drizzle of mozzarella, or a creamy whole-wheat pasta, or simply while away your time on a lazy afternoon at a corner table over a cup of frothy cappuccino. No one will interrupt your reverie.

Chef Ananda Solomon
Kitchen secrets
Innovation at Taj President, Mumbai, was benchmarked over a decade ago. It was then decided to position the hotel as a gourmet destination. Consequently, in 1993 the hotel decided to showcase a leading world cuisine culture. A survey carried out in 1991, revealed an emerging pan-Indian penchant for Mexican, Lebanese and Thai food. Thai was the chosen fare, because of India’s geographical proximity to Thailand. Chef Ananda Solomon, who specialises in French food, then conducted research into the heritage of Thai food by going back to its roots. His two-year study of the local herbs, sauces, vegetables, and the changing trends and nuances of the cuisine came to fruition in the Thai Pavilion.

"Innovation must be done in a structured and systematic manner. One has to consider a cuisine’s history and plan its lifespan to accrue emotional binding. There is a huge market but competition is strong; it is important to position yourself in a niche segment and ensure that you never dilute your standards," says Mr Solomon. "A speciality restaurant should offer a complete meal experience and speak the culinary language." So far, the restaurant has put out over 3000 dishes. It continues to be a favourite dining-out option of the gourmet, just as the native Thai heads here for home food.

In 1999, the hotel sought to provide an option of affordable Indian food, which resulted in Konkan Café. Here, the chef aspired to tickle Indian taste buds, otherwise benumbed by greasy tandoori food, with coastal fare. Konkan Café dishes out delicacies from along the Konkan coast, which stretches from Mumbai, Vasai and Alibag to Sindhudurg, Goa, Karwar and Mangalore. Butter chicken and reshmi kebab were traded for peppered karwari mutton, steamed fish in turmeric leaves, basale gassi and vindaloo.

Mr Solomon attributes the boom in the popularity of the regional food to the shift in tourist interest from the north to the south. "Consequently, people discovered and experimented with a wide platter of healthy culinary specialties," he says. The chef proved this at the '23 1/2 Days of Bollywood' at Selfridges, London, three years ago, where he showcased west and south Indian cuisine. His challenge was to combat the curry flavours popularised by Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants in London with a new Indian fare. He let the aroma of the spices of Konkan Café float across the 64-cover Premier restaurant at the Selfridges. A 20-pound four-course meal comprised rasam (served in small wine glasses) for starters, followed by a mix of dry and wet vegetable dishes, a choice of chicken, lamb and sea food, appams and unpolished rice, and finally payasam and pancakes in coconut milk for dessert. "The west finally got a taste of healthy Indian food," reminisces Mr Solomon.

At Selfridges, Mr Solomon reaped the harvest of the intense labour of setting up the Cafe. He combed the West coast, gathering authentic household recipes, learning the spices and understanding the fine distinction in roots, nuts and fruits from disparate patches in the region. "We knocked around this belt to learn the subtlety with which masalas are ground and stored, the range of vegetarian dishes cooked in tamarind or coconut base or marinated in palm vinegar. People from the smallest of villages parted with their secret recipes," he says.

Konkan Café has an earthy look, with rough wooden furnishings. The doors of the restaurant were pulled down from an old haveli in the Konkan region and relocated. The food is served in copperware. The open kitchen offers a view of appams, idiappams and pots of stew simmering over the stoves. The guests are free to walk up to the chefs, indulge in small talk about the legacy of food, and swap recipes.

Mr Solomon likes to hold food promotions to spread awareness of cuisine cultures. Housewives and traditional families are welcome to impart knowledge from their kitchens. He feels that they are the best to tutor the balance and harmony of traditional food. The restaurant has held Kolhapuri, Parsi, Bohri and Koli food festivals. "The clientele is sharp. They expect food to be presented stylishly. It is necessary to reinvent food presentation, re-look strategies and the delivery pattern to make the restaurant a unique place for people to visit," says Solomon.

Masala Craft
The Masala chain of restaurants in the Taj group ladles out innovative Indian food. Masala, a contemporary signature brand, opened the Masala Art at Taj Delhi two years ago, followed by Masala Kraft over a year ago at the Taj Mumbai and Masala Bay at the Lands End in Bandstand. This is the culmination of chef Hemant Oberoi’s eight-year-old dream of a new way of representing north Indian food.

The cuisine steers clear of bukhara and dum pukht traditions. The restaurant has brushed aside butter, cream and cashew-based gravies, and has made smart use of extra virgin olive oil. Sample the fare: bhatti ka murg, chicken marinated in aromatic spices, and grilled on glowing embers to impart a smoky flavour; squid pepper fry, squid rings tossed with southern spices and served with a dash of robust peppercorns; or khushk raan, a whole leg of lamb smeared with yoghurt and a blend of spices, pot roasted, braised and grilled in a tandoor.

Oberoi travelled across Punjab Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Ambala and Chandigarh to retrace and revive old cuisines for Masala Kraft. "Tandoori chicken and sheesh kebabs are not on the menu. We wanted to break the myth that Indian food is heavy and oily," informs Mr Oberoi. "In fact, the open kitchens in the restaurants provoke guests to regulate oil and spice levels in the food on request."

The food heritage brought from the past includes the humble aata chicken and paperwali macchchi. The former is borrowed from the chulhas of the farming community: marinated chicken wrapped in salted dough and left to cook in its own juices overnight in a gradually cooling charcoal chulha. It formed a complete meal for the farmer who carried it to the field; he broke the outer crust of roti accompanied with the delicately cooked meat. Paperwali machchi is fish fillets drizzled with freshly ground peppercorns enveloped in parchment paper and grilled in an open pit. Apart from this, the roti trolley rolls out hot phulkas for guests, just as the daal trolley wheels around five different kinds of pulses, and presents an opportunity for non-Indians to learn about its sheer variety.

The gourmet dabba service displays the fast-paced culture of Mumbai. The restaurant serves Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Bohri and Parsi tiffins. Lunch goers order their choice and serve themselves a quick lunch. "Food is an experience, which is enhanced when it is well-garnished and is smartly presented," says Mr Oberoi of his recent endeavour. "The Masala brand is a blend of ancient Indian food culture mingling with the new."

Souk, the east-Asian restaurant was launched over a year ago, bringing in authentic dishes from Oman, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Morocco. The restaurant offers a niche chef’s table for four, called Casablanca. Guests check into the kitchen, eat out of Versace crockery and premium crystal glassware, as the personalised chef whips up a delicate fare. A meal experience for two sets you back by Rs10,000.

In the outer restaurant, the guests can take their pick from grills, mezzes, entrees and the chef’s special recommendations. Try for taste: Lahm bamia, an Egyptian lamb stew with okra, Samak masguf, whole fish marinated with Lebanese spices and baked, or the Omani lobster salah, grilled Omani lobster in a piquant sauce.

Next on the cards is Wasabi, a sushi restaurant at the hotel. Mr Oberoi has positioned the cuisine as Asian sushi, which means there is authentic sushi for the connoisseur, but tempered and treated sushi for the uninitiated.

Mr Oberoi nurtures a dream of opening Masala restaurants in at least six international cities. He makes a beginning soon, as he prepares to share a kitchen table with some of the celebrated international chefs, like Tommy Wong, Charlie Trotters, Michelle Nishan and Nobu, at a Rockefeller Foundation dinner in New York. He will carry the Masala image and whip up home grown delicacies for diners who will pay a whopping $1,500 for a meal experience.

At the Taj, food is not a fad. Unwittingly, the group is penning its food heritage and preserving food memories for future generations.

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Five-star favourite: Recently voted the best business hotel in Asia, Taj Lands End epitomises the class and quality that is intrinsic to every Taj group property