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Stepping up to the plate
Passing that bowl of cream-laden dal makhani and butter chicken around the table is now passê. Old silver platters filled with crimsoncoloured chicken tikkas and fuchsia-coloured sirka (vinegared) onions have been replaced with pre-plated black marble slabs dotted with foie gras-stuffed galawat served along with a strawberry-andgreen-chilli chutney. Perfectly moulded mounds of chicken biryani - which look nothing like the greasy biryani that comes out of a brass balti - are served with individual portions of crunchy okra raita.
If experiments with flavours was the focus earlier, the buzz now is all about how you actually serve that daal and roti. Or, in other words, it's all about plating. Plating is how a chef translates for you his/her vision of food into a dining experience.
Manish Mehrotra, the chef at New Delhi's Indian Accent, recently voted one of the places you must eat at before you die, has turned the whole concept of plating Indian food on its head. Food at Indian Accent seduces the senses of sight and smell just as much as it entices the tongue. Baked Amritsari machhi in masala butter with whitebait (tiny fish) papad comes wrapped in the ubiquitous banana leaf but is shaped like a tiny parcel held together with a small wooden clip. One of the most divine and talked-about desserts here is the jaggery-andbanana sticky cake that comes with a dollop of ginger ice-cream and Phantom sugar 'cigarettes', that sepia candy a certain generation loved in childhood.
"First we eat with our eyes, " says Mehrotra, who's quickly become the hottest chef in town for his daring approach to ingredients and recipes. "No one will touch even the best dish if it doesn't look good and doesn't smell great. Aesthetics can play a huge role in how one consumes food. "
Mayank Tiwari, who spent a few years in the Capital handling the kitchen at Smoke House Grill before moving to work with AD Singh of Olive fame, feels that if there's an emotional connect, a minimalist approach can work very well. "Food always has a story to tell, so if the storyteller is doing his job well the guest will always appreciate the outcome, " says the chef who shuttles between Mumbai and Pune.
Sometimes the look of the food can trigger a memory, like it does in the case of the Phantom cigarette. Mehrotra regularly comes across requests for packets of these white pink-tipped sugar treats. "Most diners want to take a packet home to show to their kids, " he says of the confectionary that he specially sources.
Although traditional Indian food presents limitations while plating because of its gravies and the fact that it lacks colour, according to Chef Marut Sikka the tradition of sharing food is one that has immense potential for plating. The perfect example of plating Indian food is the thali, which looks appetising and appealing, and encourages sharing. "We are not a restaurant country where presentation is given a lot of importance. It's difficult to plate eight different looking pieces of chicken. Though places like Varq and Indian Accent have done very well with the pre-plating concept, " he says. Gaggan in Bangkok, Sikka feels, is a little over-the-top.
The food consultant, who runs three very successful restaurants in the Capital, feels that steps like using one cut of meat or a beautiful receptacle can elevate an ordinary-looking dish to something extraordinary. "But making a dish pretty can't work if it isn't tasty, " he points out.
One of the quibbles about eating pre-plated food is: does it justify the high costs? The potato sphere chaat with white pea ragda at Indian Accent, for instance, costs Rs 521. 70 paise with taxes. For five pieces of potato, that's a lot of money. "Anybody would think I'm overcharging. But at places like Indian Accent, you get quality ingredients. People have to realise that quality is more than quantity, " says the chef, who worked at Tamarai in London before Indian Accent, in his defence. He agrees that at times the pricing is a tightrope walk. "That's definitely our biggest challenge. "
Sikka, on his part, feels that the diners at a fine dining place aren't just paying for the food. "What you pay for is the ambience, the vibe, the feeling of being looked after. It's all about the experience and not just what you eat that night, " he
says. In Sikka's restaurant, an average meal for two can easily cost upwards of Rs 2, 000.
Even though fine dining restaurants like Indian Accent, Kainoosh, Ziya and Punjab Grill might do away with the finely chopped dhania and cream garnish, mid-level eateries like the ones that dot New Delhi's Pandara Road or even the nationally famous Moti Mahal are in no hurry to follow suit. "Whenever we've attempted to make any such changes, customers have complained, " says Ashwani Shroff, managing partner for three Moti Mahal outlets at Malcha Marg, Punjabi Bagh and Defence Colony and six overseas venues. "We're a family restaurant where people want the same taste and same look every time they come. If they don't get their sirkewaale pyaaz, they call me to complain. "
Moti Mahal is planning to open a new property where the food and presentation will be more Indian Accent but is unwilling to offer more details. "Old wine in a new bottle, " sums up Shroff with a chuckle.
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