My Gurgaon Awards: Lite Bite Foods, Farzi Cafe, Michel Koopman, Ravitej Nath, Cafe Delhi Heights, Bernardo’s, Latest Recipe and Speakeasy Among the Winners in Cyber Hub City
When I announced my Gurgaon Food Awards last year, as a tribute to my good friend, Pawan ‘Indian Food Freak’ Soni (whose much-awaited Big F Awards are being held tonight at The Westin Gurgaon), I was overwhelmed by the positive response I got to my list. The memory of that fulfilling day has driven me to my computer, scratching my head to come up with the right names for the right slot. I hope you’ll agree with the awards; if you don’t, do leave a comment (a polite one!).
THE BEST thing to have happened to Gurgaon’s dining scene is Cyber Hub, which I am told has surpassed even DLF’s calculations, and we have to thank the self-effacing Anant Verma for this magnificent contribution to our daily lives. Cyber Hub has lifted Gurgaon, which used to be a pale shadow of Delhi, to the ranks of a serious food destination.
I still maintain, though, that not much is happening in Gurgaon outside the district’s food circle, which stretches from Cyber Hub to The Oberoi via the Trident, and from Le Meridien Gurgaon to The Westin, via The Leela Ambience. But there are some gems that lie scattered and I have made every effort to include them on my list, hoping that it in its own little way (and the Big F Awards on a larger scale) drive all those who have been left out to do even better.
Well, here’s my list:
Restaurateurs of the Year: Amit Burman, Rohit Aggarwal and Sharad Sachdeva (Lite Bite Foods)
This amazing trio, led by the growth-focused Amit Burman, the man behind the phenomenal success story of Real fruit juices, has transformed the way we eat at airport terminals. They have, in fact, made food an essential part of the ritual of waiting for flights. Not only that, they have given us some fine mall restaurants along the way, of which Punjab Grill under Gurpreet Singh Gehdu and Pradeep Khullar’s leadership looks most promising.
Restaurant of the Year: Zorawar Kalra’s winner of an idea, Farzi Café
Farzi Café has shown to the world the power of an idea backed by a restaurateur who marries a quirky take on food with enormous reserves of passion. The menu is a conversation starter that score perfect As with its food offerings and prices; Aman Dua’s cocktails combine innovation and good taste; the service staff is well-informed and pleasant; the chefs have youth on their side and vast reserves of talent (a dual advantage that is hard to find in the industry); and the music keeps you tapping your feet.
General Manager of the Year: Michel Koopman, The Leela Ambience Hotel
A five-star hotel’s general manager must not only be a good leader of his team, but also seen as a friend and guide by his clients and the community around him. Michel Koopman, whose tenure’s been extended by his management (that doesn’t happen very often in owner-led hotels!), has a head bubbling over with ideas, a warm and welcoming smile, and the personality of a leader. He has put together an incredible kitchen team led by Ramon Alvarez Salto, a quietly super-efficient banqueting team, and of course, the multi-talented Nidhi Verma, whomakes sure the hotel is always in the news for the right reasons (but more about PR Managers — my favourites in the industry — later!).
Five-Star Chef of the Year: Ravitej Nath, Executive Chef, The Oberoi Gurgaon
There’s something about Hyderabad Public School boys — they’re born leaders (Microsoft boss Satya Nadela being the foremost among them). Chef Ravitej Nath, carefully groomed by The Oberoi’s President, Kapil Chopra, is a chef who’s not only good at his work (I have known him since the time when he wasn’t as famous), with an intimate understanding of Indian cuisines, but also a man of ideas (as we saw in the way he gave an intellectual direction to the recent ground-breaking food festival, Lost Recipes of Mughal India) and a chef with his heart in the right place (few people know this part of him, but he’s an active champion of organic food).
Standalone Chef of the Year: Ravi Saxena, Corporate Chef, Dhaba by Claridges
I have known Chef Ravi, as I call him, for the past 15 years. I have seen him turn around San Gimignano at The Imperial with his fine understanding of Tuscan cuisine, a skill he developed without even having gone, till then, to Italy. I have seen him make The Claridges Surajkund a food destination under the unforgettable Oliver Martin, who’s now setting up Red Bull’s hospitality empire at Graz, Austria. I have also seen him transform into a creative chef at an age when most people bask in the sunshine of past glory, turning around dhaba cuisine in a manner that it starts speaking to the young, at Dhaba by Claridges. If the franchise has taken off (and how!), it is because of Chef Ravi’s sharp kitchen management skills and mastery over the idea of good food.
People’s Chef of the Year: Netra Singh Bharadwaj, Executive Chef, Café Delhi Heights
He’s one of the hardest working chefs in Delhi-NCR, who never lets his welcoming smile fade away, and he has a unique way of testing out a pre-opening kitchen team. He calls up the chef to say that he has received a booking for, say, 20 people at a particular time and then lands up in person with 35 in tow — half an hour before the scheduled time. If a kitchen team can cope with this unexpected change in timing coupled with the rise in guest numbers, it wins the chef’s immediate approval. But this is not the only reason why Chef Bharadwaj is here. He’s forever on the move doing spot checks at the chain’s growing number of outlets. This hands-on approach to work and his innate ability to make guests feel happy by interacting with each one of them personally are the reasons why he’s my choice for People’s Chef of the Year.
The Lord of Banquet Innovations: Tanveer Kwatra, Executive Chef, Le Meridien Gurgaon
He’s not only one of the most personable and articulate chefs in the business, a chef with a mind of his own who evolved in Melbourne, Australia’s premier gourmet city, Tanveer Kwatra is forever foraging for ideas. This constant endeavour of his is reflected in the banquet spreads that are laid out under his supervision. From a platter of innovative chutneys to a completely new way of serving galouti kebabs, the banquets planned by Kwatra reveal that it is his multi-talented team’s second nature to think out of the box. Kwatra leads the way by constantly incubating new ideas. And he’s not even 30.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Pablo Morales Melendrez, The Leela Ambience
From the time I first had his macaroons a year or so ago, and then the assorted desserts he is a master of, I have been an admirer of Pablo, Executive Pastry Chef of The Leela Ambience, whose sunny temper paired with the way he articulates his creativity, makes him the valuable asset that he is. Trained in Barcelona, Pablo was last in Harrods, London, so he comes with an impeccable track record. Thanks to Pablo, The Leela Group can now claim to have two of the finest pastry chefs in the country, the other being the redoubtable Avijit Ghosh, the chain’s invincibly inventive Corporate Pastry Chef.
F&B Executive of the Year: Varun Duggal, Farzi Café
If Zorawar Kalra is the brain behind Farzi Café (and Masala Library and Made in Punjab), the driver of his growth engine is the inimitable Varun Duggal. He’s personable, dapper, rooted in Indian values, yet global in his outlook, and he’s also the guy who got Costa Coffee to introduce those crinkled cups that prevent our hands from burning. The idea came to him after he had a pizza at Shanghai to inflate his spirits, which has been rained over by his boss, who demanded to know why it had taken him three months in China to find cups that did not burn fingers. Duggal has seen action in Devyani International and Lite Bite Foods, and he maintains excellent rapport with his former bosses, but now he’s up to his nose with work — spotting restaurant locations, signing deals and setting up new outlets for Massive Restaurants.
FINALLY, THE RESTAURANT LIST
I have gushed enough about the people who are making a difference to the industry. Here’s now my list of favourite restaurants in Gurgaon
Best Modern Indian Cuisine: Amaranta, The Oberoi Gurgaon
It may not be top of mind, but its uncelebrated chefs can give the venerable Manish Mehrotra a good run for his money in the seafood department.
Best North Indian Cuisine (Five Star): Diya, The Leela Ambience Gurgaon
It has not let its standards drop since I first wrote about it six years ago. Great for kebabs and it serves equally wholesome curries.
Best North Indian Cuisine (Standalone): Dhaba by Claridges, Cyber Hub, DLF Cyber City
It successfully combines good food, a young vibe, playful music and a wacky décor — just the kind of restaurant Young India swears by.
Best New Kid on the Block: Al Karam Kebab House, Super Mart 1, DLF Phase-IV
By successfully bringing Jama Masjid to Gurgaon, without losing touch with the authentic aromas and flavours of its gastronomic roots, the restaurant has won for itself a legion of admirers who can’t stop talking about the succulent kebabs and the best Dilli ki biryani outside Shahjahanabad.
Best Regional Indian Cuisine: Bernardo’s, Super Mart 1, DLF Phase-IV (Goan) and Soda Bottle Opener Wala (SBOW; Irani/Parsi).
Both are no-brainers — you can’t get more authentic than Bernardo’s and SBOW is all about the vibe and a very talented chef (Anahita Dhondy), although a part of its lustre has been taken away by Rustom’s Parsi Bhonu (steered by Kainaz Contractor and Rahul Dua of Café Lota) on the Adhchini stretch of Aurobindo Marg.
Best Standalone Café Cuisine: Café Delhi Heights, 1st Floor, Cross Point Mall, DLF Phase-IV
The full house that greets you each time you walk into an outlet of Café Delhi Heights is proof enough of the vast fan following the restaurant has. It has worked because it consistently delivers comfort food at easy-on-the-pocket prices, without stinting on quality (like Big Chill before it and Social today), and by adding a dash of humour to the restaurant experience by using artefacts studded with funny one-liners.
Best Oriental Cuisine (Five Star): Eest at The Westin Gurgaon
Sam Wong is the dim sum master and the Hindi-speaking Hiroyuki Hashimoto is the samurai of sushi, and the restaurant that brings these two talent powerhouses together, has got to be best in the business.
Best Oriental Cuisine (Standalone): Nooba, Tower 8C, DLF Cyber City
If this is the only old restaurant in the neighbourhood of the Cyber Hub that has survived the juggernaut, then there must be something really distinctive about its cuisine.For Chinese executives working in companies from their country operating out of DLF Cyber City, Nooba is their go-to canteen.
Best Italian Restaurant (Five Star): Zanotta, The Leela Ambience Gurgaon
With its energetic and talented Chilean-Italian chef, Christian Cabrera Rubio, the restaurant finally has a menu that matches up to its stylishly opulent look, courtesy of the design firm, Hirsch Bedner & Associates.
Best Italian Restaurant of the Year: 56 Ristorante Italiano, Vatika Atrium, DLF Golf Course Road
Located uniquely between two business towers, this restaurant combines a hunger-inducing menu and a companion wine list overseen by an Italian chef with friendly and efficient service and a business-like atmosphere just right for corporate lunches. It’s the best dining option on Golf Course Road.
Best Japanese Cuisine: Raifu Tei, Dia Park Premier, Sector 29
It was my choice last year and it continues on my ‘best list’. Ask any Japanese expat where he hangs out with friends and he would say ‘Raifu Tei’ without blinking. Of course, if you go to a Japanese hangout, as opposed to a horribly expensive restaurant favoured by desi moneybags, you’d start assuming all Japanese men are single and chain smokers!
Best Dim Sum: dimsumbros, Third Floor, Ambience Mall
This is one restaurant that continues to dazzle you with its array and quality of ‘little hearts’. That’s what I had written last year and I don’t have anything more to add as I salivate over the thought of having their Almond Prawn with Wasabi Mayo, Laksa Crab Dumpling and BBQ Pork Pastry for yet another time!
Best Korean Restaurant: Gung The Palace, City Centre, Behind Crowne Plaza, Sector 29
It’s been around in different avatars for some years now, but its only competition continues to be itself. The ingredients of its success are the consistency of its offering and the authenticity of the preparations. Its Beef Bulgogi will have you, like Oliver Twist, asking for more.
Best Sunday Brunch of the Year: Latest Recipe, Le Meridien Gurgaon
Its crab omelette isn’t now the only reason I am in love with Latest Recipe. From sushi and okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) to hearty Chinese soups and my favourite Sri Lankan prawn curry served with egg hoppers, the all-day-dining restaurant, in its latest avatar (it was Sen5es previously), likes to think differently and is proud of it.
Best Bar of the Year: Cocktail & Dreams Speakeasy, Part II Market, Sector-15, Gurgaon
I am not a great fan of this bar’s food, but people like me — admirers of Yangdup Lama, arguably the country’s most accomplished mixologist — gather here for cocktail nirvana. A laidback look, music of the decades when EDM hadn’t got the world into a trance, and of course, Lama’s unbeatable cocktails delivered with unfailing precision, make this humble-looking place a salve for the weary soul. Let’s drink to its long life.