Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The big case for small menus

As a restaurant critic, I’ve always favoured restaurants with small menus. I found my reasons for this bias reinforced during my recent interaction with MasterChef judge, chef and restaurateur George Calombaris. His top-rated Melbourne restaurant, The Press Club, lists just 12 dishes on the menu and guests can turn these into 4-, 6- or 9-course meals. At the other end of the market, he has the Jimmy Grants chain which serves just Souvlaki, Salad and a few sweets.
Narrowing down the range of their offerings is something many of our traditional food businesses do really well. Take, for instance, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar in Basavangudi, which has just four dishes on its hugely popular menu, or Tamil Nadu’s favourite Murugan Idli Shop which thrives by selling idlis and, at the most, dosas.
It’s the casual dining and so-called fine dining restaurants that seem unable to give customers the pleasures only a small, highly specialized menu can offer. So, we have Andhra restaurants serving hakka noodles and sweet corn chicken soup; even chefs who set out to deliver gourmet class can rarely settle for a menu that has less than several dozen dishes.
The concept of small menus can work for both customers and restaurateurs. For the diner it means an assurance of freshness; long menus mean many dishes that are cooked ahead and stored. When a kitchen cooks fewer dishes, these can be prepared with greater care and attention to detail and the dining experience is enhanced.
For the kitchen team, it certainly means less stress. The chef and his assistants need to master fewer dishes and have a better chance of perfecting them. Inventories are smaller and restaurateurs can pay for better quality ingredients. Serving staff, too, can have a better understanding of, say, 60 dishes, rather than trying to remember what goes into 120 menu items.
And still, even the smartest chefs and restaurateurs are wary of cutting down the number of dishes on their menus. They worry that it will evoke that constant complaint of ‘Not enough choice’. The worry is justified, for Indian customers do indeed want to see huge menus and find satisfaction in the notion that they are spoilt for choice. They don’t seem to grasp that restaurants that attempt too many things, do not get most of them right.
 Clearly, we are still some time away from diners patronizing restaurants with small, specialized menus. Meanwhile, I’d love to see at least a few adventurous restaurateurs have the confidence to present small menus, backed by the belief that they are putting out their very best.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Exclusive interview with George Calombaris of Masterchef Australia

Draw from your culture, don’t set out to be the next Blumenthal or Redzepi, says MasterChef judge George Calombaris

Announce that you’re off to meet George Calombaris and you’re suddenly in an enviable position. In his role of MasterChef judge he’s become a celebrity, particularly in India, but he is primarily – by his own admission -- a chef and restaurateur. George was in Bangalore over the Independence Day weekend to present a taste of his highly acclaimed Melbourne Restaurant, The Press Club, and I got to chat with him at a tasting session here.
Chef or TV star, I ask him? ‘I’ll always be close to my kitchens,’ he says. George’s restaurant collection currently includes the swank Press Club, The Press Club Projects – which creates exclusive dining experiences on request – Gazi, which is a more approachable, affordable restaurant, the Hellenic Club, Mastic Café and Jimmy Grants, the fourth branch of which opens this month, serving souvlaki, salads and sweets in a casual setting.
All the menus find their origins in the chef’s Greek roots and he pushes them to the next level with his imagination and skill. Especially at The Press Club, the food is ultra-modern, but George abhors the term ‘molecular gastronomy’. ‘It’s a made-up word that means nothing,’ he says, adding that he’s all for experimenting and pushing boundaries in the kitchen. The master of such experiments is, of course, Heston Blumenthal and the two are friends. In fact, when George conjured up a rendition that resembled a clothes line with chips and crisps hanging from it, as if in a lawn, he wanted to infuse the presentation with the smell of cut grass. ‘We tried and failed several times, when Heston suggested using a rotting banana whose components give off the same smell. It’s about understanding those elements,’ George says.
It’s all about the food for this passionate chef. ‘As a restaurateur, I’m lucky that I have a great team that looks after the stuff I don’t particularly like doing,’ he says. So, George can continue to work on elevating the meal experiences he creates, sometimes borrowing an ingredient from another cuisine, at others, using a revolutionary new technique. While the imagination can run wild in George’s kitchens there is no compromising on the basics. ‘It’s about the freshest produce and the best ingredients,’ he says. That insistence was on display when, at the cooking demo-cum-tasting session, he swapped the salmon for Indian sea bass in a dish, because the former didn’t make the quality cut. He also used naan as the souvlaki wrap and made the observation that ‘You have to respect where you are’.
For George, it’s about celebrating the very essence of local culture and its culinary traditions. ‘India has such a wealth of cuisines and such a rich food heritage. That’s what young chefs should be drawing on, rather than aspiring to be the next Blumenthal or Rene Redzepi,’ he says with conviction. ‘On my visits to Delhi, I’ve seen these street stalls that do just one thing, say, jalebis, and do it so well,’ he says.
He’s a firm believer that specialization is important. At the Press Club, for instance, you wouldn’t see more than a dozen dishes on the menu. ‘It has to be that way if you want to deliver quality,’ he says. ‘It’s 12 dishes, 34 diners and 20 staff.’ I tell him that in most restaurants here anything less than 100 dishes on the menu would evoke howls of ‘no choice.’ ‘You come to my restaurant to be in my hands, right?’ asks George. Clearly, the Indian diner has some way to go before he appreciates that sort of specialization and the quality it can deliver.
Besides the food, George’s restaurants are known for their superb service and earn high ratings on customer review sites. ‘I’m not particular about whether they drape the napkin correctly over their arm or pour the water from the left. I enable them only to create a warm, fuzzy feeling for the customers who walk into my restaurants. My staff is my family, I love these guys,’ he says.
His faith in his staff doesn’t mean he’s not watching every move. Can he never stop looking at his phone? ‘Have you been talking to Matt Preston?’ he laughs. ‘Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, just a very controlling person.’
Among the things he controls is what he feeds his guests, himself and his family. Is it true that when his 4-year-old son James goes to birthday parties at fastfood restaurants he’s given a packed meal?’
‘Would you give a child drugs and alcohol? Junk food – processed, over-refined, bleached  -- is just as bad,’ George says. ‘People have religions, mine is food and I will not have it desecrated.’

Interview & Post by Priya Bala

Friday, August 7, 2015

9 Of Mumbai’s best burgers: The most delicious takes on this fave food

9 Of Mumbai’s best burgers: The most delicious takes on this fave food

The burger is enjoying a revival. No longer an assembly line product you grab and go, the meat-in-a-bun meal has taken on a distinct gourmet attitude. Here’s our guide to the must-eat burgers of Mumbai.

This Colaba restaurant serves burgers that bear no resemblance to what the fastfood chains dish out. Try the In ‘n’ Out style Burger made up of brioche, beef patty, cucumber pickle, tomato, onions, cheese and ‘animal sauce’, which is a house speciality. You’d be lucky to finish it without sauce running down the front of your shirt.

Indigo Deli
Possibly among the priciest burgers in these parts, Indigo Deli’s creations also rank amongst the best. Indigo Deli’s Pulled Pork BBQ Burger is a big hit. For a deliciously different burger, order the Blackened Salmon Burger which has gourmets drooling about it.

Monkey Bar
The recently-opened Monkey Bar has been getting rave reviews for its food. Among the top orders is the Mobar Burger of two meat patties, American cheese and bacon in a delicious black bun.

Hard Rock Café
Hard Rock Café promises robust, American-style burgers and delivers just that. There’s the 10 Ounce Burger which will send beef lovers to meaty heaven. HRC also does burgers with a twist such as California, Tex-Mex and Mediterranean.

212 Café
This café at BKC stakes a claim for handmade burgers. Vegetarians, who often have to settle for boring veg patties, get lucky here with the flavour-packed Shroom Burger which uses Portobello mushrooms.

Café Sundance
Hearty, hit-the-spot burgers are a Sundance speciality with the classic Tenderloin Burger topping the charts. Try also the Fish ‘n’ Chips Burger which has a nice mustard kick. If you’ve got a gargantuan appetite for burgers go for the Sundance Sasquatch with nearly 600 gms of tenderloin, crisp bacon, egg, guacamole and cheese. They dare you to finish one by yourself.

Jamjar Diner
Regulars flock to this Versova diner for the Juicy Lucy, one of the stars of the burger menu. Check out also the Chicken Honey Mustard and Bacon Burger with Chipotle mayo giving it a nice zing.

Café Zoe
Meat, cheese and warm bun combine wonderfully in Cafe Zoe’s Tenderloin Cheese Burger. There’s also the recent addition of a Turkey Burger which is guilt-free, relatively speaking, that is.

The Nutcracker
The cozy café has quite a reputation for its comfort food. Check out here the Blackbean Burger. A great pick for vegetarians, it comes with caramelized onions and garlic mayo.

Compiled, written & posted by Priya Bala