Swaad. Michelin-star chef Vineet Bhatia mentions this multiple times during our conversation. And aptly so, because his latest offering, Dhilli, is swaad on a plate. Having opened his second outpost in India at the Oberoi, New Delhi, chef Bhatia says he chose Delhi as a theme to say thank you to the city he owed everything to.
It took him a year reviving culinary memories of the city as he sampled food from the nooks and corners of the capital, picking inspiration from vendors and bylanes even. “I was at Nizammudin one evening and there was this guy selling halwa with makhane and tutti fruti from a big paraat along with parathas. I was salivating looking at that and wanted those flavours in my menu. We ate across the city, marvelling how Rajouri Garden is now a foodie paradise; finding all kinds of chicken, mutton and fish achaars in CR Park; the various meats in Jama Masjid…”
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The result is a menu that delivers nostalgia to the hilt but with adequate surprise of innovation. Like the famous gobhi samosa of Chawri Bazaar gets converted into a samosa-choley chaat board with small, delicate samosas. The dahi bhalla from Chandni Chowk becomes chatak chenna chaat—spongy chenna dunked in yogurt parfait, with a bhalla ice cream completing the flavour profile and a yogurt bark adding that Michelin-star touch. Nalli comes with an added luxury of morels; the makki ki roti is cleverly turned into nacho-like crisps complementing a mustard oil flavoured tandoori gobhi and the routine rajma chawal metamorphosises into a crisp rice tikki on a bed of rajma topped with papad chura and a drizzle of aam ka achaar oil to complete the flavour profile. The ubiquitous butter chicken comes not dunked in gravy, but on a grill enveloped in the same sweet sauce. Some daring combinations look surprising on the menu, like baingan bharta with mustard chicken, and peas kachori with kadhi, but somehow work on the palate. As chef Bhatia says, “The dishes look and feel different, but close your eyes and the flavours are intact.”
Indian cuisine abroad
While cooking for the ‘khaandani’ people of Delhi is another matter, what about the perception of Indian cuisine abroad, where still it is not considered refined or haute, with reluctance to shell out top dollar for what is considered just curry and naan?
“When I went to London in 1993, Bangladeshi cuisine passed off as Indian food, but there is a complete mindset change now. In places like Tokyo, New York and Dubai, today you will see Indian restaurants of high calibre. Several Indian chefs have Michelin stars and are being acknow-ledged. But foam guns and gels are not food. The lagan and kadahis are what make Indian food. So you can modernise the food to whatever extent, but you have to cook it in a traditional manner. You can’t sous vide a kebab. It might look good on Instagram, but the swaad goes away. Jab tak bhatti pe khana nahin bhunega, lagan pe khana kurchoge nahin, swaad nahin aayega. Beautiful food is a requirement yes, but swaad is a 110% requirement. We can’t compromise on that.”
Fine dining doesn’t mean fancy or fussy
At a time when fine dining is being hotly debated across the globe, triggered mainly by Noma’s closure, Bhatia has a rather matter-of-fact response to it.
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“There is a sense of charm and nostalgia about fine and luxury dining. But these days people are trying to do fine dining with a lot of overheads on it. You have kitchens like production lines. But fine dining is not about that. It’s about the love and care and attention to detail that you put into the food. Not everything has to be avant garde, not everything has to be ultra modern. Something like nalli korma is enjoyed by people irrespective of whether it is served in a high-end restaurant or a roadside eatery. It feeds the soul, it feeds your palate and feeds your mind. That kind of dish can fit into both fine dining and a roadside place. So, fine dining will never go out of fashion. There will be a lighter approach to it that is more relaxed, which is where chefs like me come in. The trick is to let your teams relax, look after your guests and that’s what matters,” chef Bhatia adds.