I remember visiting Chef Vanika Choudhary’s Noon for the first time last year. The ingredient-driven restaurant in Mumbai is an upscale dining space with a focus on seasonal, indigenous produce from Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir. When I first looked at the menu, the dishes fascinated me, but their prices (beginning at ₹600 for a single dish) rang an alarm bell in my head. My hesitation was unfounded as the server explained every beautifully-plated dish to me in detail, including the literal way to dig into it. I enjoyed an elevated experience.
No matter how much we try to be open to dining at an upscale restaurant, it’s a shared Indian mindset to always feel that the meal is something we can whip up at home. We think twice before making a reservation if the prices are a tad on the higher side. There’s so much more that goes behind bringing a dish to your table, except just raw materials and visible overheads.
“Fine dining is not just about pricing,” says Manish Mehrotra, Culinary Director of New Delhi-based Indian Accent, the restaurant that holds the spot of #19 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year. “It’s an experience that involves cuisine, service, restaurant ambience and the minutest of details. From music, housekeeping and parking to the first call for reservations and the way it is handled, to your seating and finally, your farewell from the table. It is akin to putting individual flowers to make a garland.”
Effort Of Research
Heavy R&D and understanding of what grows in different seasons are involved in the process. “At Noon, our new menu, ‘From The Hills’, is built around foraged produce from Ladakh, Maharashtra, and Jammu & Kashmir. Ancient Indian food traditions, cooking techniques and practices come into play as we create a unique dining experience for the evolved modern palate. To get hold of these ingredients, we actually travelled to those regions to spend time with different social enterprises, farmers and tribal communities. We got a first-hand understanding of the ingredients, their culinary heritage and how they respect nature, for-aged and ate with them, learned to contribute to the local economy and increase the biodiversity of these places,” Choudhary explains.
If you’re wondering why local ingredients are priced so high, Chef Varun Totlani of Mumbai’s Masque–the #16 restaurant on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023–sheds light on it.
“Using local ingredients doesn’t negate costs and overheads involved. Even if you run a restaurant on a literal farm, you’re still accounting for your land, logistics, maintenance, harvest, staffing and so on. There’s always a lot of research that goes into each menu before it launches, and sourcing any ingredient has a cost, more so when they are not as mainstream or commonly available. Our work is not just in the kitchen; a lot of it happens before you even enter the restaurant. And fine dining should feel more experiential than your average meal at a restaurant–that’s why people pay more for it because it comes down to more than just what’s on your plate. There are also overheads, marketing and other departments; we invest in collaborations with chefs from around the world, and of course, in our own team in an industry that is notorious for its pay scales,” he adds while justifying the price of two 10-course tasting menus at Masque, which is close to ₹9,000.
Kitchen To Table
Each dish undergoes several processes before it comes to your table. “Several trials, selection of right ingredients, preparing the dish, the platter in which it’s served, its pronunciation and explanation to the guest–everything is put Lifestyle together to bring you the experience that is always unique,” Chef Mehrotra says. At Indian Accent, the price of two tasting menus is close to ₹10,000.
At Noon, 150 different ferments come into play to create a 10-course tasting menu (priced at ₹3,300 per person). “We use a wide variety of ferments made from Indian indigenous produce, be it miso, different amino sauces, vinegar, meads, garums, shoyu, kefir/kombucha/kanji/fermented sodas, etc. Some of our ferments, like millet and Kashmiri red chilli miso, are two years old, though Noon is just about a year old. And that’s our commitment to the R&D process,” Choudhary shares.
Of Impeccable Service & Ambiance
Avartana at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai–which sits at #30 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list–allows you to choose from five tasting menus ranging from 5-13 courses, priced between ₹2,250-4,750. You pay for the quantity you want to eat without compromising on quality. The ambiance of the restaurant also adds to your experience. “The carpet is modern yet depicts a banana leaf, the light represents a banana flower, and the chandeliers resemble a coconut; so when the ambiance, food, service, and explanation of the kind of ingredient and cooking technique to each guest come together, it becomes a memorable experience,” Chef Nikhil Nagpal of Avartana shares.
Modern Indian fine dining restaurants take you on a culinary journey that either evokes a sense of nostalgia with familiar tastes or creates a novel experience by introducing mind-boggling flavour bombs to your palate (minus the theatrics). At a premium restaurant, you’re treated to a delectable fare with top-notch service. Every plate is a reflection of the chef’s hard work and passion. You need not fret about that Kashmir or Japan trip not working out; chefs fly down to your city and bring you their native culinary offerings. You’re learning about the ingredients of your motherland and beyond–and trust me, that price is much lesser than actually booking a flight to another destination, let alone an entire trip.
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