Every November, Karavalli, the award-winning coastal cuisine at Gateway Hotel, Bangalore, stages Aquafest, an annual celebration of seafood. I’ve been going every year now for several years and was there the other night, to taste the off-the-regular-menu dishes and to catch up with the hotel’s Executive Chef Naren Thimmaiah.
While much effort goes into creating the Aquafest menu – this time including seafood cutlets, coconut-rich squid thoran and spicy crab ghee roast – Chef Thimmaiah tells me food festivals and promotions today are now really about brand-building. There was, of course, a time when restaurants, especially those in five-star hotels, peppered the calendar with food festivals as a way of offering guests variety and off-menu dining experiences. But now, with the multitude of choices available all around, thanks to the burgeoning number of restaurants, the food promo has become a marketing activity than a culinary initiative.
But heavy duty marketing is not what brings the crowds into Karavalli. On the evening I was there, the restaurant was close to full with regulars, families, out-of-towners and expats. It’s this sort of custom that has kept Karavalli in business for 25 years, while once-popular restaurants even within the Taj group have shut shop, the Zodiac Grill at Taj Mahal, Mumbai, being the most recent.
Karavalli has got many things right. To begin with, it’s built on a simple, yet clear concept: bring the traditional home cooking of the west coast of India to a restaurant setting and serve it in style. The core of the menu has remained the same all these years and there has been no succumbing to the temptation to tweak, get quirky or ‘progressive’ with an ethnic Indian cuisine. This need to be different and surprising I see spreading like a rash amongst new restaurants where callow chefs run the kitchens. Karavalli’s unchanging nature is also thanks to the steadying presence of Chef Thimmaiah who has been at its helm for well over two decades.
He and his team stay on track without making any compromises on the quality of ingredients or in the cooking techniques. The fish and seafood is of superior quality, the spices are freshly ground and they are concerned about provenance, sourcing the best chillies, coconuts and jaggery from where they are grown or produced. They care as much about the chutneys that are served with complimentary nibbles as they do about the Karimeen Pollichathu.
Guests come here – and the restaurant possibly attracts more diners than any other five-star place in town – for comfort and familiarity. They know that the Aleppey fish curry and appams will taste the same on every visit, that the meal will please and satisfy and that the staff will be warm and friendly.
The Karavalli lesson is that success isn’t about dazzling the crowd with exotica or extravagant cooking. It’s merely about doing the simple things well and all the time. Clearly, that’s easier said than done or we’d have lots more restaurants celebrating silver jubilees.