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'Modern' Indian cuisine

Fusion is a bad word

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HOT PLATES: Mozzarella samosas (top) and Jaituni Malai Paneer at Delhi's Varq (middle); Lifafa Paneer at Mumbai restaurant Ziya (above)


The menu is unexpected, and features such surprises as apricot chutney, naan scented with truffle oil, khichdi with coriander and kishmish. The portions, when they arrive, are designed per person. The presentation is exquisite, with a swirl of sauce on the side to rival the snootiest of French restaurants. And you are seduced before spoon meets mouth. The chefs have their own words for it. Modern Indian cuisine. Evolved Indian cuisine. A journey through India. But one thing it is not is 'fusion'.

"You have to be very careful, " cautions Chef Vineet Bhatia, "how to approach the food in terms of ingredients. I don't do sushi with chicken tikka. But you can do a mock sushi made out of basmati rice, and flavour it with saffron, haldi and dhaniya. But I would not use ingredients not native to India. You can mix pomfret from Maharashtra, moilee sauce from Kerala, and rice from North India. There's so much choice and variety in India, you don't need to go outside. "

Bhatia is the brains behind Ziya, the eight-monthold restaurant on the first floor of Mumbai's Oberoi Hotel. He has already tested out his menu, to wide acclaim, in his flagship London restaurant Rasoi and its twin, Rasoi Geneva. He is the second UK-based chef - after Gordon Ramsay - to have Michelinstarred eateries in two countries.

Bhatia compares preparing a plate to haute couture. "The food I cook is modern evolved Indian, " he says. "What is presented, how it is presented - it's all creative and innovative. It's authentic in taste, but with a mêlange of spices. We design a plate. And often the plate inspires us to do a dish. "

At Ziya, the dêcor is understated and elegant, a quiet backdrop against which the drama of beautifully prepared food is enacted. The waiters are knowledgeable about the menu, blending into the background when not needed, and emerging from the woodwork when glasses are empty.

A counterpoint is Dêvi in the posh Flatiron neighbourhood of Manhattan. One almost expects nautch girls to start dancing midway through the meal. Everything else about the unpretentious Indian restaurant gives the impression of being at a royal feast in a resplendent Jaipur haveli - carved wooden doors, brightly coloured curtains and wide silver metal plates studded with tiny balls around the rim.

Dêvi started as a joint venture between chefs Suvir Saran (who enjoys romancing recipes out of people he meets and wants to leave behind a legacy of recipes when he dies) and Hemant Mathur who, smiling and plump, looks exactly how you think a chef should look, and once was the personal chef to Sir James Goldsmith, the ex father-in-law of cricketer Imran Khan. Mathur has since left Dêvi to open Tulsi next month in Manhattan.

What Saran - who designed the menu - set out to do with the eatery was to break away from the "recent immigrant mentality" of putting everything on a single menu. That bewilders guests, he says, especially those who are not familiar with the food. Plus, he adds, it breeds mediocrity in the restaurant and stereotypical ordering by the customer. He wants to show everyone that Indian food has a lot to offer besides chicken tikka masala and dal makhani, (which is why, mischievously, Dêvi only offers such dishes as expensively priced side dishes to discourage guests from ordering them. ) His menu was designed to be spare - they don't overwhelm with options, but they do change part of the menu every four months.

The chefs at Dêvi know how not to overwhelm the palate with excessive seasonings. So vegetables are firm rather than overcooked and mushy, and spices complement rather than overwhelm. Also delightful is the pairing of traditional foods with unexpected sauces. The breast of chicken is stuffed with lamb and spinach, unusual in itself;placed upon tomato chutney with a hint of chilli, it is stunning. The medley of flavours enhances the taste of the clay tandoor, which lingers in the meat. The halibut is moored on a portion of kaddu ki subzi (butternut squash) in a sea of tangy rasam - a perfect example of how the cuisines of north and south India could be wedded in culinary bliss. The fish is garnished with Dêvi's divinely crispy signature kararee bhindi. The critics obviously approve: Dêvi received a coveted Michelin star in 2007 and 2008 - the only Indian eatery in New York to have one.

You can find modern Indian cuisine all over the world now. Not very far from Dêvi, the (unfairly) much more famous Tabla, unapologetically fusion, serves up duck samosas and tandoori calamari. (After 12 years, Tabla is closing its doors this December. ) In 2008, the Taj Mahal Hotel Group opened Varq, Chef Hemant Oberoi's brainchild, at Mansingh Road in the Capital. Highlights include the repackaging of street food, dishes such as Calicut prawns with asparagus, bhartha three ways (with brinjal, tomato and pumpkin) and a tea list, curated by a tea sommelier.

Further east, Singapore boasts a critically acclaimed, award-winning Indian restaurant, Song of India, where Maharashtra's Chef Milind Sovani practices his art. It is widely hailed as the top Indian restaurant in the island nation.

Set in an old British colonial bungalow, Song of India is decorated tastefully in neutral colours. "I want to take Indian food a few notches above the so-called 'fine cuisines', like French, " he says. "Indian cuisine has been misrepresented and misunderstood as oily, spicy, heavy and rich. I am trying to change this image and make it trendy and modern. "

Unlike Bhatia, Sovani is willing to incorporate non-Indian elements into his cuisine. So his menu features tandoor-smoked, mustard-enhanced Tasmanian salmon with a lime herbed crust, pan-seared French foie gras delicately spiced with star anise masala, and panna cotta with a hint of cardamom. But he insists that he does "authentic Indian cuisine with a modern touch" and that "the cooking technique and spices used are all Indian".

He adds, "The selection of dishes is such that the emphasis is not on fiery, spicy dishes but more fragrant and flavourful dishes, where the taste of the ingredients stands out on its own. The food has to look stunningly beautiful and create that 'wow' factor even before tasting it. "

All the restaurants clearly accomplish that goal, as evidenced by glowing reviews and satisfied customers. Despite spanning three continents and a varied audience, these chefs have managed pitch-perfect menus, impressive wine pairings, even nimbu paaniinspired cocktails. They may tweak their dishes slightly to accommodate the different palates of an American or Singaporean guest, but the essence remains the same.

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