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The Gamechanger?

As the exclusive New York brand Megu opens its first outpost in India, will it redefine luxury dining – and service– in India?

Last week saw the opening of what is certainly going to be one of the most high-profile restaurants in the country for a while. Megu, the exclusive, New York-based contemporary-Japanese diner made its debut in Delhi in an exclusive tie up with the Leela group of hotels. And plans are now afoot to take it to Mumbai (in the next year and half or so). But what does that mean for the Indian diner? Does the launch of Megu (and others of its ilk, set to follow its steps into the bustling Indian F&B market) mean that we must now reconcile ourselves to ushering in an age that will see the Louis-Vuittonisation of eating out– where a consumer pays absurdly high prices for what is essentially just a monogram/ tag or brand?

Certainly, like its pedigreed cousins Le Cirque, Hakkasan and so forth, aspirational brands for the top one per cent of India’s middle-class consumers who supposedly spend on luxury (and luxury dining), Megu will hold a distinct charm, if not for the value it offers, for the brand name alone. When I visited on just the fourth day of its opening its doors to Delhi’s eager beavers, the main dining section and the bar were both teeming with known and unknown faces, with media, multiplex and motorcorp barons dining with families and friends within elbowing distance of one another.
But if you visit Megu merely to people-spot, site-see (we’ll come to that later) or to just indulge in the competitive society sport of paying jaw-dropping prices for a meal, you will be doing serious injustice to the restaurant and all that it seems to be heralding.

What Megu really does is to raise the bar for upscale, casual dining in this country by not just some but many notches. High-profile restaurant launches are a bit of a gamble usually because the substance rarely lives up to hype. Megu is that rare exception where it does. Luckily.
As the food starts rolling in, you realise this is theatre in motion. There is an incredible amount of detailing. Each dish is dramatically presented and not the least because there are separate, specially-crafted serving platters for almost all of the 100-plus dishes on the menu. Equally, a lot of attention has gone into sourcing often exclusive Japanese ingredients for each dish, which, though contemporarised, play around with authentic flavours.
Though this was a rather exceptional dining experience for me in that everything that I tried had a certain wow element to it, I will mention the four top-listers of my meal. The first, without doubt, had to be the yellowtail (hamachi) carpaccio seasoned with kanzuri chilli paste, the key ingredient. Kanzuri are red chillies from Nigata, one of the snowiest regions of Japan, where the chillies are put on ice beds for months to rest and mellow before being made into a fermented chilli paste.

The second was again carpaccio—waghyu beef sliced impossibly fine, put on a base of seasme-mayo and topped with micro basil leaves to offset the texture which totally elevated the level of this preparation. The third was the salmon tartare topped with a soya and wasabi jelly, which was melted on the table by the server using bincho-tan, or the white charcoal that has been used in traditional Japanese cooking. And last, but not the least, was the phenomenal Shira Ae, a vegetarian special (about half the menu is veg, in keeping with the local market) created specially for Delhi, where beautifully-sliced squash, our humblest of veggies, was put together like a flan of sorts.

The last apart, all my favourites for the night turned out to be classic Megu dishes, the same as in its other outposts round the world. But a chunk on the menu is also devoted to “India dishes” (vegetarian and those like the crispy kanzuri shrimp, likely to go down with fried-shellfish loving, splurging patrons).
There is a competent sake (including a sparkling one) menu in place (that tells you, perhaps, for the first time ever in any Japanese restaurant in the country) what exactly is it that you are drinking. And finally, all the stunners from Megu New York (that places as much importance on looks as on the food) are lead motifs here too: A giant bell, the Buddha statue (not carved in ice daily as is done in NY but made of glass neverthless) et al.
However, all these are but pieces of the jigsaw. The glue that holds these together (apparently as much in the Big Apple from the reviews that I have read) are the people running the show: the chef (Yutaka Saito), an incredibly savvy restaurant manager (Rajat Kalia), who has the gift of being chatty and informative at the same time, so rare to find in India, and above all, Aishwarya Nair, the Leela heiress, but very much a regular, working girl.
A committed foodie and a trained chef, Nair looks after F&B for the hotel group and has been personally involved with the Megu launch down to the minutest detail. As she shows off the antique kimonos used to panel the private dining room and as she enthusiastically recommends the wasabi cheesecake (fitting for someone with her own bakery brand!), I finally understand what makes this one so different from so many other soulless super expensive/exclusive ventures.

At the Indian Megu, it is Nair’s innate sense of hospitality and good-cheer that seem to have permeated into the entire service so that dining at this uber-chic restaurant is not the pompous, stiff affair that most Indians actually expect of any “five-star” experience when they are doling out such high prices for the wine and food.

One problem with brands or chains when they evolve from single chef/owner/creator-driven operations is that they lose the personal touch, charm or quirk that may have made them so successful in the first place—because, after all, eating out at the highest restaurateuring level is so much more than putting mere food on the table. (Though, I should also stress that without the latter, no amount of frills succeed. It’s a given in the business.) Megu navigates this treacherous zone with elan. For a luxury restaurant, it is an incredibly warm, young and casual space to be in. Hopefully, that will be the real gamechanger in the Indian context.

(The article appeared in Financial Express on Sunday, on Jan 22, 2012)

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