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The cafê-ification of India
Seasonal, local ingredients, daily menus on blackboards, laidback meals, quirky desserts… meet the talented young chefs and entrepreneurs who are adding spice to the country’s food scene.
In a country notorious for the absence of its public spaces - even to protest - the explosion of the cafê culture has been welcome. It promotes a sense of community, of being part of an energetic, cosmopolitan existence, of working or whiling away hours in the midst of scores of similarly engrossed people. And then, of course, there's the food.
TS Eliot may or may not have been talking about cafês and all that they connoted when he spoke of measuring out our lives in coffee spoons. But the cafê as an institution is no longer a foreign concept to us. And it goes far beyond sipping on that mandatory coffee. In fact, if restaurateurs in India are betting on one concept to proliferate even more in the next few years, it is this.
Take a look around and you will find everything from family-style restaurants to trattorias, pizzerias, delis, diners, bars, bistros and all the in-betweens busy rebranding themselves as "cafês". The food served inside could be anything from pop-Chinese to gourmet burgers and dim sum, from simplified French to exoticised Italian, tandoorised grills to Med dips and homemade desserts. As a category, it is hardly set in stone and the definition is,
at best, ambiguous.
Yet, almost all of us know how to recognise a legit cafê when we see it - and we are not just talking about the coffee-and-not-much else chains. Instead, as more and more of what I dub as the "gastro cafês" (on the lines of the British "gastro pubs" ) open up - quirky, reflecting the palates and personalities of their chefs, casual, offering anything from breakfast to high tea, wine to dinner plus free Wifi - a cross-section of appreciative audience is lapping it all up: foodies but also those who merely want to "hang out", work the laptop, date, meet prospective employers, employees, write that book, whatever...
It's equally true that some of the best, most honest and creative food in the country today is to be found not in restaurants and hotels but standalone cafês. Places like Diva Cafê, Chez Nini - the small French place in Delhi's Meherchand Maket, the chain of Cafê Noir helmed by Bangalore's ex-Leela chef Jean Michel Jasserand or Chennai's Amethyst are sought-after destinations for good reason. For instance, both Chez Nini and Cafê Noir offer French-style bites but without the pomposity of what would have intimidated many potential diners earlier. You can bite into homemade quiche, fantastic breads and desserts, confit of duck legs or simply a bowl of hearty soup. Ingredients are fresh, menus change frequently and the places are obviously chef-led. Ritu Dalmia's Diva Cafê does pretty much the same with fantastic salads, grills and the best Red Velvet Cake ever in a menu that is so much more than "Italian".
There are also some other fabulous new cafês that have just opened. All are run by young entrepreneurs/ chefs/ chef-entrepreneurs, who say all they wanted was to create casual spaces with fun yet wholesome food. Here's a pick of five most interesting ones.
Espresso Grill | Delhi
Thirty three-yearold journalist Mugdha Kalra is hardly your quintessential restaurateur. Neither are her mother (an IVF specialist) and sister (a designer). Yet, the trio pooled their savings to open Espresso Grill, a new venture on Baba Kharak Singh Marg that serves everything from Son-in-law Eggs to possibly the best pita bread in town. Kalra is, of course, a foodie but the urge to open a cafê was equally born out of a need she felt for spaces in the Capital, where people could just wander in, without bothering to dress up, for a coffee or a drink, to discuss books, blogs or anything else. "I used to see such spaces abroad but not in India, " Kalra points out. Her cafê is all that and more. There is a section on healthy bakes, bistro-style comfort eats that include a delightful cauliflower soup apt for Delhi winter, steaks, risottos and seafood platters.
Bagel Cafê | Delhi
Dutch girl Lalita de Goederen's Indian success story has been quite enviable and perhaps its roots lie much further back in time than any of us can imagine. Lalita's India connect began even before her birth - in the 1960s, when her father, an Indophile, discovered classical music in Benares. He consciously named his daughter Lalita. In 2007, quitting her Amsterdam-based consultancy work, de Goederen, who had just got married then, shifted base to Delhi. This was where everything was happening, business was booming and the business of food too. But she found the bakery situation quite lacking. There was hardly any good bread available and de Goederen, whose first idea was to set up a general cafê, decided to focus on bagels, the Jewish bread that few in India recognised and most confused with doughnuts. The small cafê broke even in record time and in 2011 de Goederen opened her fourth cafê. But bagels aside (there are quite a few toppings you can try), don't miss out on the stroopwafel, the Dutch pancake with syrup in between, with your coffee. It is addictive.
The Pantry | Mumbai
There's no dearth of trendy new restaurants in Mumbai - whether or not they qualify as legit cafês is another thing. The Pantry at Kala Ghoda is one of the most exciting, quaint new offerings in the genre. Pankil Shah, one of the three owners, studied economics but decided to jump into the hospitality business as he was convinced that what Mumbai and India needed were neighbourhood spaces, quite like those in any self-respecting metro around the world, where people could relax over wholesome, good quality and relatively inexpensive food and drink. Any one who has watched Friends can hardly disagree with the appeal of this concept: the cafê-as-yourliving room has a charm that's hard to miss. The Pantry is Pankil's third such "neighbourhood" project. "Earlier we just had the Baristas or Cafê Coffee Days where there is only coffee and hardly any freshlycooked bites, and the proper restaurants, " he points out. But at The Pantry, you could wander in in shorts, as a group of men (or women) without worrying about stag entries and cover charges and have freshly-baked quiches, tarts, healthy lasagna (without cheese), hearty lamb stew et al. The accent is on seasonal menus and locally sourced ingredients - including some fairly palatable cheese from Puducherry.
The Cupcake Company |
The Cupcake Company has stores in Chennai but the place to go to is the brand new cafê in Bangalore. It's a charming 15-seater - with coffees, lemonades and almost 18 flavours of cupcakes but no savouries. And the woman behind India's only cupcake cafê is 26-yearold Shitija Nahata. A marketing professional with companies including airlines and hotel chains, Shitija always baked as a hobby, inspired perhaps by her mother, who is also a fabulous cook. But what she counts equally as big influences on her are foreign TV chefs and cookbook authors. "Nigella (Lawson, the British domestic goddess), I will admit, has been an influence. I read many of her books, " she says. Shitija started gifting her creations to friends and family but as the recipes got perfected, she started supplying to other cafês, and finally her husband decided to invest in a small business. She opened her first store in October 2011 in Chennai. And she hasn't looked back since. Even in a country where few people know what a cupcake (versus a muffin) really is, there have been enough takers. Though the flavours keep changing, the biggest seller is the red velvet cupcake that you should really have.
Red Fork | Bangalore
Xerxes Bodhanwala was in Class XI when he found his calling. A week-boarder, he called his mother one afternoon and declared that he had finally decided his future: to be a chef. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and with work experience from top Aussie restaurants tucked under his belt today, Xerxes, all of 23 is perhaps's Bangalore youngest chef-restaurateur. He started Red Fork last year, a charming 30-seater cafê serving bistro-style meals that has quickly won the respect of foodies. In the process, he has redefined the Parsi restaurant (Daddy's Deli) that his parents used to run in the same premises for years. But no one is complaining. With gorgoeous breakfasts - Spanish omlettes, waffles and, yes, Parsi egg items - and innovative blackboard specials that change everyday (spaghetti with fennel, pork belly, lamb stew), the cafê that includes a pretty garden sit out is high on quality and sufficiently laidback to relax.
...And the gastro pub
If cafês serving serious food are the rage in the metros, Bangalore saw the appearance of India's first gastro pub recently. Called Monkey Bar, the place is chef-driven (Olive's chef Manu Chandra turns entreprenuer with this one in yet another example of chefs taking over the business) and has a quirky menu. Anything from Thai curry inspired pasta to thick Nutella pancakes can be your meal for the day if not the burgers (we finally get our own gourmet burgers that chefs across the world have been feeding chic diners for a year or two). The drinks go so much beyond traditional pub fare as well - an aam panna caprioska, anyone? Like the gastro cafê, the gastro pub is an institution-in-the-making.
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