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Big, fat tables

Top tables

Luxury dining comes of age in the capital with the likes of Le Cirque and Lebua’s ambitious gourmet- Indian plans…

By Anoothi Vishal

Will you pay $ 400 per person on a meal for a single person at a super-exclusive Indian food restaurant—no, not in New York or Chicago or even London, but here in the National Capital Region? That’s a question that I have been wanting to ask the foodies of this city ever since the jaw-dropping figure was mentioned casually enough by celebrated hotelier Deepak Ohri this week, over dinner with a closely-knit bunch of the city’s food writers.

For those of you who don’t know the Bangkok-based, Lebua-CEO Ohri, his reputation is formidable. As someone who took up an ailing hotel and turned into one of the world’s best luxury hotels (amongst others, Lebua has been a recipient of the Overall Best Luxury Hotel award world wide), he is well-known enough. But what he is best regarded for perhaps are his fine dine initiatives which put Bangkok on the global food map.

Ohri’s stellar concepts at his Bangkok hotel include Sirocco, arguably the world’s highest al fresco restaurant, Mezzaluna, a stunning restaurant with modern European food menus created daily by twin-German chefs, and Breeze, a contemporary Asian diner. With their superb view, a service concept that includes treating celebrities “just like ordinary people” and, of course, brilliant food, the restaurants have redefined gourmet eating out in Asia.
Now, Ohri has set his eyes on Delhi (and, later, Mumbai). The first Lebua in India is all set to open this December, incredibly enough at Dwarka, where the group is working on turning around an existing hotel after a management contract. But if the choice of destination is surprising, what is even more amazing for me is the plan for the Indian restaurant that comprises Lebua’s first steps into this tricky territory of selling traditional Indian food to Indian people in India.

Ohri says he wants to set up the definitive Indian restaurant in the country: A super exclusive one that seats just about 35-40 people and sells them a two-and-half hour experience at a tag of roughly Rs 20,000 per head (with just water included apart from the food). And this is not to be a contemporary Indian restaurant—or so we gather, even though it is to be helmed by a well-known Michelin Starred Indian chef. The full plans are to be disclosed only three weeks hence. Used to our Moti Mahals and Dumpukhts at two ends of the spectrum in the “traditional” Indian food space, will we accept a meal—whatever the concept may be—at that price point? It’s, excuse the rather apt cliché, a million dollar question. But Ohri is confident and says that he will retire if it doesn’t succeed—even though, he agrees, that “this is like a film. It can either do very well or sink at the box office. Only the audience can decide.”
The most expensive restaurant in India till date has been Hemant Oberoi’s Souk at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, where the chef could do special meals for two and more, for about Rs 10,000 per person. Certainly, eating out has become more expensive in India—across segments—than it ever was, as even a trip to McDonald’s will tell you. But for the top five per cent of spenders on luxury in India’s growing middle-class, it is a question of perceived value. And that’s why they are splurging even when in the rest of the world over-the-top dining is distinctly out of fashion. After all, it is not unreasonable to pay sums of about Rs 3,000-5,000 per head with a nice bottle of wine at any of the top and even mid-level eateries in Delhi and Mumbai.
Despite this, there is a thought amongst India’s restaurateurs (and those elsewhere) that the market is not yet mature for some serious luxury dining. The concepts that seem to be doing the best in India are all casual. But this year and the next may just change our perceptions.
On the day when Ohri was making his ambitious announcement, Le Cirque, one of the most eagerly awaited restaurants in the country, a sister of the elite, clubby New York restaurant, opened in Delhi at the Leela Palace—the most expensive hotel in the country at the moment. (Fittingly, Ohri held his dinner in the private dining room of this restaurant.) While, you may not have to shell out Rs 20,000 per person eating here—unless you wanted to spend a couple of lakhs on a single bottle of Petrus alone from the excellent wine library at the restaurant—what Le Cirque undoubtedly does is to introduce an element of elitism and haute dining on the Indian restaurantscape.
According to the rather fascinating biography of Sirio Maccioni—the Le Cirque owner– that I have been reading, a large part of the restaurant’s fascination undoubtedly comes from the element of celebrity and social elite within its precincts. The portrait of Maccioni, an orphaned Italian boy who rose to become a legendary restaurateur, is unforgettable as he stands at his station each evening, greeting guests individually and mentally calculating where to place them in his “circus”! The restaurant takes no reservation requests for specific tables and apparently Maccioni’s decision on where to seat his guests is not based on how much money they have alone. The red room is reserved for the seriously powerful, we are told—the Trumps, Regans and other famous clients. The purple room is the most subdued and the bar is coveted. The way in which Maccioni greets his guests—with a kiss, or a handshake, has apparently been the arbitrator of social success: At least in the pre-recession years.
In Delhi, the new restaurant, does indeed have a New York air to it—even though its interiors seem far less animated than what I have been reading about. But what Le Cirque, at least in its first few days, seems to have succeeded in creating—perhaps inevitably in a city like Delhi—is the aura of power. The first family, it is rumoured, has been here and on the two nights I visited, the restaurant had its share of politicians, businessmen, society.
The menu, in contrast, is startlingly simple: There are dishes specially tailored for India (including, interestingly many with more luxury ingredients than in the “classic Le Cirque” section). The food is competent without being particularly brilliant but then that is not necessarily a negative for Delhi’s classes—what with the chef in charge having to contend daily with several requests for chicken over all other meats; in appetizer, pasta, maincourse… much to his woe! The service (and the sommelier), by contrast, are amongst the best in the city.
But despite what you may make of it, what Le Cirque does and what undoubtedly Ohri’s next will do in India is introduce us to a whole new world of privileged dining— the way the country has not quite seen yet. With money and the business of luxury shifting east, it’s a trend waiting to take off.

(the article appeared in Financial Express on Sunday)

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