New York City Loves Manish Mehrotra, But It Gives Him A Real Run for His Paneer
IMAGINE an Indian chef going to New York City and discovering he can’t make paneer because it is against the local law! For Manish Mehrotra, the celebrity chef of Indian Accent, his journey to the Big Apple to open the first outlet of the acclaimed Modern Indian restaurant has been like a cultural refresher course. It’s been, in a way, almost like going back in time to the days when Indian Accent had just opened in Friends Colony (West) and people would go back because there was no butter chicken and maa ki dal on the menu. They would even comment caustically about the absence of lachcha pyaaz.
In New York, too, some of his early-bird American customers doubted Indian Accent’s authenticity because, of all things, saag chhole was not on the menu. Saag chhole? Hello! But stereotyping apart, and of course, the disbelief that greets the pricing of the menu (“How can a meal at an ‘curry house’ cost more than $50?!), Mehrotra has had to contend with legal quirks, such as the one that imposes a $200 fine on anyone who makes paneer. It has apparently something to do with the city’s pasteurisation bye-laws, but he can make his own ghee! He has also dealt with municipal inspectors, but what struck him was the degree of honesty in their dealings. They only insist that you follow the law to the last letter and don’t expect you to bribe or entertain them.
For a chef, though, New York can be a bounteous market to work in — the local produce that chefs can play with changes according to the seasons and then there are surprises such as the new trending ingredient called ramps, which look like scallions and combine the taste of onions and garlic. This variety of nature’s offerings, from parsnips to micro-greens, is particularly important for Mehrotra because the Indian Accent menu is 50 per cent vegetarian. Of course, he loves the fact that his larder is stocked with prime cuts of beef and foie gras (goose liver), without which his signature dish, galawat kebab with foie gras, cannot be made. Both items are banned in Delhi.
There are also ingredients Mehrotra has to fly in from India — such as Tata salt and Amul butter. Indian food, the chef insists, doesn’t taste the same without them. And then his guests just love being served Fatafat after a meal. Many of them, especially those who have lived in America for long and pine for a taste of their original homeland, turn nostalgic after having these digestive pills that are supposed to be ayurvedic formulations and were hugely popular till the 1990s.
These guests are a joy to feed, but Mehrotra is happiest when he sees ‘Indian New Yorkers’ — “they are Indian only by descent, but goras in every other way” is how he describes them — walk into his restaurant. It re-assures him that there’s a market for his cuisine beyond the Indian Diaspora.
With Vineet Bhatia opening 12 outlets serving his signature menu in cities as different as Geneva and Doha, with Atul Kochhar looking at Venice as his next destination, after Ireland, the P&O cruise ship Azura, Dubai, Mauritius and Mumbai, and Gaggan Anand getting ready to launch his third restaurant, after Gaggan and Meatlicious, that will reinvent the curry house cuisine, Indian chefs at the cutting edge of international gastronomy will have to turn to second- or even third-generation Indian immigrants to be their goodwill ambassadors. Then only will Modern India Cuisine be seen as something more than a curry-in-a-hurry experience, worth much more than a $50-a-family meal.
Talking about other chefs and their work, Mehrotra is generous in his praise for three must-visit New York City restaurants — Babu Ji (Manhattan), the busiest Indian eatery in Big Apple today; Cosme (Flatiron District), Enrique Olvera‘s Modern Mexican restaurant; and Uncle Boon (NoLita), which is getting rave reviews for getting authentic Thai flavours back on the table. The city that never sleeps also loves to dig new treats.
This article appeared in my Fortune Cookie column, which appeared on Friday, July 29, in Mail Today.
Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers