All right. Here’s the deal. You are asked to choose the best restaurants in India for a new Asian guide. Keep in mind that the guide will be read mainly by foreigners so you can’t go too avant garde. What would you pick?
While you work out your choices, these are the restaurants that Miele Guide, Asia’s answer to Michelin and Zagat (combined!) came up with.
Karavalli (Bangalore) l Peshawri (Chennai) l The Great Kebab Factory (Chennai) l Six-o-One (Chennai) l The Wharf Mahabalipuram (Chennai) l Lotus (Chennai) l Annalakshmi (Chennai) l Republic of Noodles (Goa) l Oh Calcutta (Calcutta) l Zen (Calcutta) l The Zodiac Grill (Bombay) l China House (Bombay) l Indigo (Bombay) l Mahesh Lunch Home (Bombay) l Trishna (Bombay) l Vetro (Bombay) l Wasabi (Bombay) l Spice Route (Delhi) l My Humble House (Delhi) l The China Kitchen (Delhi) l Bukhara (Delhi) l Dum Pukht (Delhi) l Dakshin (Delhi) l Dhaba (Delhi) l Haldiram’s (Delhi) l Moti Mahal (Delhi) l Three Sixty (Delhi) l Sevilla (Delhi)
Are these the 28 best restaurants in the six Indian cities covered by the Miele Guide? You could make the familiar criticism that many are located in hotels (actually only six of the 28 are not in hotels) but then that’s something we have to live with in India. With real estate prices being what they are (yes, still!), it is hard to find a location in India’s big cities.
You can say that the hotel chains are unequally represented. In the Chennai section, two out of the five restaurants listed are at the Park Hotel. In the Delhi section, ITC scores big time (four out of a total of 11) while the two Taj hotels get nothing and The Oberoi gets one.
And you can quibble about the individual sections. Does Haldiram’s really deserve to be on a restaurant list? On what basis is Delhi’s dire Spice Route included? If they were going to include a Dakshin then why not the one in Chennai? Is there no good food in Goa except for one noodle place? Isn’t that an insult to Urbano Rego, Goa’s greatest chef who makes authentic local cuisine? Where’s Diva on the Delhi list? How can Ananda Solomon’s excellent restaurants at the President be completely ignored? What about Sakura, India’s best Japanese restaurant? Was the guide completed before the Four Seasons opened in Bombay? Otherwise, its spectacular Cantonese and Japanese restaurants should have been included. How about Gajalee in Bombay over such tourist faves as Trishna and Mahesh?
To be entirely fair though, you could make these criticisms about any Guide. The Miele Guide adopted a complicated methodology. An Indian jury (Anoothi Vishal, Malay Desai, Nondon Bagchi, Rahul Verma, Rashmi Uday Singh and Shanali Muthalay) made initial recommendations and then voting was thrown open on the internet. As hardly anybody in India was aware of the vote (I know I wasn’t), this could hardly have yielded a great or well-educated response. Perhaps people from other Asian countries who had travelled to India sent in their choices – that would certainly explain the large number of hotel restaurants. Perhaps next year, when the Miele Guide is better known, more Indians will take part in the voting.
Leafing through the Guide, I was struck by several things.
One: Even five years ago, a guide to eating out in Asia would not have included an Indian section. Though Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do not feature, India is included. It may not be a sign of advances in Indian gastronomy but it does show that India is now too important to be ignored.
Two: India had one of the lowest ratios of Western versus Asian food of most of the Asian countries surveyed. There were just five (Zodiac Grill, Indigo, Vetro, Sevilla and just possibly Three Sixty) restaurants that served Western food. In other countries, many of the top restaurants were French or Italian. Does this mean that (a) we prefer spicier food (b) we have fewer expats eating in our restaurants (c) we have few tourists or (d) all of the above?
Three: For all this talk of Asian cuisine being the hottest thing in the world, a depressingly large number of Asia’s top restaurants were not Asian at all. Of the Guide’s Top Five Restaurants in Asia, not one was Asian. The chefs all had such names as Chris Salans (Bali), Gunther Hubrechsen (Singapore), Thomas Mayr (Singapore) and Sebastian Lepinoy (Hong Kong). The only Asian chefs (Ignatius Chan and Sufian Zain) in the Top Five did riffs on European food.
Four: The Guide was overwhelmingly Singapore-biased. (Not surprising: it comes out from Singapore). Three of the Top Five restaurants were in Singapore. Don’t get me wrong. Singapore is a gourmet paradise but there’s something strange when a single city turns out to have more great restaurants than all of Japan (or India for that matter). Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris so clearly the authors of the Miele Guide have a very different view from the Michelin inspectors.
Five: India was poorly represented in the Top Twenty. Only Bukhara made it and that too at 14, which can’t be right.
Six: Asia is in the grip of the celebrity chef. The most astonishing thing about the list of Top Twenty restaurants was the omnipresence of Joel Robuchon. According to the Miele Guide, three out of the Top Fifteen Restaurants in Asia are run by Robuchon! I could perhaps understand the inclusion of Robuchon’s Macau restaurant which serves the great man’s full menu but two of these restaurants are his pared-down Ateliers. Very odd.
Other celebrity chefs who make the Asian guide include Nobu (in Hong Kong – the 16th best restaurant in Asia, apparently), Pierre Gagnaire, the brothers Troisgros, Jean Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse.
Seven: I didn’t agree with the selections for Bangkok, the one other Asian city whose restaurant scene I know well. Two of Deepak Ohri’s restaurants are in the Guide but bizarrely, Sirocco, his flagship, is not. I like Zanotti but if it is one of Asia’s finest restaurants then I am a bean sprout. And it is truly bizarre that only two Thai restaurants make the Thai section – this in the home of one of the world’s great cuisines. Both are at hotels and while the one run by the Hyatt in Bangkok is great, it must rank as a failure to include a single restaurant where locals go to eat.
So, what does all this tell us? My conclusions are that India is significantly different from the rest of Asia in that we have more confidence in our food as a fine dining cuisine. The rest of Asia seems divided between fancy places that imitate restaurants in London, New York and Paris and the places that locals actually go to when they want to eat their own cuisines. Judging by this Guide, Asians are trying too hard to be Western and are not paying enough attention to their own cuisine.
That’s a shame. Asian food will only come of age when we respect our own traditions and admire our own chefs for building on those traditions.
Meanwhile, if you’ve done what I suggested at the beginning of the column, then you can send me your list of India’s best restaurants. Let’s see if we can do better than the Guides.