THE SPECIAL care taken in restaurants today as regards food plating reminds one of how far we have come from food being just a necessity for survival. This past week, I happened to visit two restaurants in New Delhi: Monkey Bar, a trendy free-standing bar and restaurant frequented by the young, and the more sedate Mister Chai at Shangri-La Hotel, a meeting place for those conducting business. Both showed an eye for food plating. Monkey Bar, owned and run by chef Manu Chandra, has always taken food beyond what one can expect. And now, Mister Chai, in the hands of Parmeet Singh, the new GM of Shangri-La, has also been transformed into a culinary hub.
These two restaurants stand out for me because it’s not incumbent for them—as regards their mandate—to take food plating seriously. Yet attempts are made—be it the chicken 65 at Monkey Bar or the vada pao (complete with the injectable imli chutney) at Mister Chai—to elevate everyday street fare to gourmet level.
The history of food presentation can be traced back to European dining and the flamboyant Catherine de Medici, a famed hostess of her time from a wealthy Florentine family. She introduced grandiose innovations like entertainment during dining and more functional considerations like the fork. But the art of plating and its detailing came a few centuries later with chef Marie-Antoine Careme, who worked in Napolean’s kitchen and was said to have an interest in architecture. This interest led to food presentations that took the shape of famed buildings and natural occurrences like waterfalls.
In our cultural ethos, too, there has been a great emphasis on food. We even have a goddess for food, Annapurna, who grants grains to her devotees. And who can forget Lord Krishna’s enduring love for butter? In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna even articulates the ‘RSVP’ etiquette when offered a grand banquet by Duryodhan. He politely declines, informing him that one must accept food only if hungry or feels love for the person extending the hospitality. On this occasion, he chose instead to dine with Vidura.
Returning to the present, I remember that at my hospitality school, too, emphasis was placed on food presentation. We used to ‘forage’ for accoutrements that could be put on the plate.
Today, food presentation is an art in itself, which balances out the many aesthetic aspects of food, as well as flavour palates. Singh of Shangri-La tells me that guests now savour food with their eyes as well. The vada pao that’s served at Mister Chai presented them with two options. One was to serve it the authentic way, as on the streets of Mumbai. The other was to introduce a twist and make it more quirky. They chose the latter.
Chandra is all about the bonafide dining experience even if Monkey Bar mostly pulls in the drinking crowd. He wanted to remake the concept of ‘pub food’ and take it beyond chilli chicken and chicken tikka. So the chicken 65 dish that caught my attention brings in a touch of south India with the accompanying idlis. Chandra is particularly fond of the presentation of the Butterchicken Khichdi, an Indian turn, he says, on the risotto inspired by the Kayasth saying, “Khichdi ke paanch yaar—papad, ghee, kachumbar, dahi aur achaar”. All of them audaciously make it to the plate at this trendy restaurant, presenting a quirky yet comforting vision.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad