Fortune Cookie

It’s Time for Diya to be Counted Among Modern Indian Cuisine’s Top Three

Posted: June 2, 2016 at 2:26 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

SEVEN YEARS AGO, I discovered Diya, the Indian restaurant at The Leela Ambience Hotel, Gurgaon, and haven’t ceased to be a fan of it. It came up about the same time as Indian Accent and Varq, celebrity chef Hemant Oberoi‘s brainchild at The Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road, and the three together unspooled a new era in Indian food.

It was the start of an era of style combining with substance, spurred by international critics who, influenced by nouvelle cuisine, railed against Indian chefs for ignoring presentation technique and laying out what they regarded as sludge on the table. Feelings of nationalism aside, you have to admit that Indian curries, while loaded with aromatic appeal, aren’t exactly a treat for the eye.

Even the closest we have come traditionally to plating food, a thali, doesn’t make one dish stand out from the other. It is next to impossible, for instance, to distinguish a mutton dish from a chicken preparation, or one dal from the other. But thanks to nouvelle cuisine movement, the central ingredient of each dish has become the king of the plate. And each side dish finds an independent place in this universe — the thali has been appropriated, and prettified, by nouvelle cuisine’s champions and their successors.

The turnaround started with the first generation of Indian chefs — Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar, Sriram Aylur and Vikas Singh — who went to the UK to carve out their own paths of success, and invent novelties such as squid ink seafood khichdi, blue cheese naan and chocolate samosa. Hemant Oberoi, who has spent a lifetime with the Taj Group of hotels, could have followed them, but he chose instead to stay back and explore new frontiers.

He created Varq and the restaurant made his signature dishes — Varqui Crab and Scallop (peppered crab and scallop mille feuille arranged in wafer-thin filo pastry sheets) and Murgh Khatta Pyaaz served in a nest of shallow-fried lachchha potatoes — instant hits. At Indian Accent around the same time, Manish Mehrotra, just back from London after spending years dishing out Oriental cuisine both in India and the UK, gave birth to his own genre of ‘Inventive Indian’ cuisine, most memorably represented by the Foie Gras Galauti served with a hot and sweet strawberry-red chilli relish.

Diya, somehow, did not get the kind of media blitz that accompanied the birth of Varq and Indian Accent, although its brand of Modern Indian Cuisine was no less dramatically different. And like its contemporaries, the restaurant did not confuse the palate of diners — without meddling with the flavours of the originals, it presented Indian dishes in the nouvelle style. Ironically, the chef behind this culinary story, Kunal Kapur, became a celebrity not as a result of Diya but because of the forgettable MasterChef India.

In the intervening years, Zorawar Kalra, in his characteristic flamboyant style, dazzlingly reinvented his father Jiggs Kalra‘s legacy at the Masala Library, which is opening shortly at Janpath in New Delhi after acquiring an enviable fan following in Mumbai, and he was instantly acclaimed as the new gust of fresh air in Indian cuisine. His success, of course, owed a lot to the creativity of two young chefs — both former Manish Mehrotra acolytes: Himanshu Saini (who now leads the highly successful Tresind in Dubai) and Saurabh Udinia. Sommelier-turned-chef Rahul Dua‘s Cafe Lota at the National Crafts Museum, Pragati Maidan, New York-based restaurateur Saurabh Anand‘s Masala House at Sunder Nagar, and Tarun Arora‘s Niche on the Outer Circle, Connaught Place, are more recent additions to the Modern Indian Cuisine bandwagon, but they have added heft to Modern Indian Cuisine with the quality of their products.

So, how has Diya fared in all these years? It has a new chef, Harish Tiwari, and to my joy, I found out that he’s adding a new dose of creativity to the restaurant’s menu. I could feel his passion for innovation from the moment I had his Paneer Peshawari Tikka wheel, where each layer had a sliver of gongura (sorrel leaf) pickle, an Andhra delicacy. His Bhune Bhutte Ke Kebab came topped up with a cherry tomato relish that gave the otherwise humble dish a new taste dimension. His Bhindi Bemisaal and smoked Dal Dhungari made me forget the main dish (Nalli Nihari made in the Lakhnavi style) with which they came as accompaniments.

An Indian chef who can make a memorable dal and give a personality to humble vegetables wins my instant respect. It’s time we counted Diya as a flag-bearer of Modern Indian Cuisine.

This article appeared as a part of Fortune Cookie, my bi-monthly column in Mail Today, on June 2, 2016.

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