Chaats are one of India's foremost contributions to the world of food. Chef Manish Mehrotra, the Indian Accent

Chef Manish Mehrotra at the Indian Accent, Delhi
The 3rd Food Super Stars meet

What lies beneath the adrenalin rush

"I feel worried when someone comes to the restaurant for the first time. They come in with such high expectations. You don't know what will satisfy them," said Nini Ling.

We were at Ling's Pavilion in Colaba, Mumbai, last Tuesday for dinner when Nini Ling expressed this concern. Nini Ling and his brother, Baba Ling, run the restaurant. Their parents, who are now no more, had come to India from China in the 1940s. They (his parents) had set up a restaurant called Nanking in Colaba. The Ling brothers opened Ling's Pavilion next door in a slightly bigger premises shortly before Nanking shut down in the mid 1970s. The family has had many loyalists over the last 70 years that they have been in the restaurant business and I am one of them. Their's is the quintessential Mumbai Dreams Story.

Nini was telling us about how he feels a bit wary of publicity, especially in the context of managing expectations of those who come to his restaurant for the first time. A sentiment which seems to be an anachronism in today's fame hungry era. 

Funnily enough, I heard Manish Mehrotra, repeat almost the very same words at his restaurant in Delhi, the Indian Accent, just a day before the Ling's dinner. Manish Mehrotra is of course one the most respected modern Indian cuisine chefs.

The great Indian tradition of hospitality

Vir Sanghvi with Manish Mehrotra

I was in Delhi that day for a Food Super Stars academy meet. Food Super Stars is a wonderful initiative chaired by veteran journalist and my favourite food writer in India, Vir Sanghvi, and is backed by Samir Sain, food enthusiast and investment banker. The aim of the project is to help lead people to the best on offer while eating out in India and, in the process, highlight the stories of the chefs and faces behind the food that we love. I am privileged to be a part part of a panel which includes a very interesting mix of food writers/ bloggers/ enthusiasts from across the country for this.

With some of my fellow Food Super Stars panel members at the Indian Accent
Pic credit: Nolan Mascarenhas

Our Food Super Stars workshop at the Lodhi Hotel last Monday ended with lunch at the Indian Accent, where we got a taste of chef Manish Mehrotra's new summer menu. A menu where he has used seasonal vegetables and fruits and in which stars the mango of course.

There was a tete a tete between Sanghvi and Manish Mehrotra at the end of lunch which gave us an idea of how this legendary chef's mind works.

One of the first things Sanghvi asked the chef was about how he feels about the way his restaurant has grown over the years and how it feels to be considered to be the most talented modern Indian chef working out of India.

'Kadhai chicken'.

A dish which urges you to taste every ingredient that goes into this classic dhaaba dish. Sweet pepper & charred coriander form the heart of the sauce which combined beautifully with the chicken to tell you what this popular dish is all about. A kadhai chicken in a dhaaba would be served in a small copper  pot with the curry almost spilling out of it. Hot rotis on the side. Two very different representations of the same desi soul.

"I feel anxious each time someone walks in to the Indian Accent," said chef Manish. "People did not know much about us when we opened at the Manor first. The place was tucked away and hard to find." (Ask me about this. I had a tough time finding it when I went there a few years back!)

To add to this, the restaurants which had opened before Indian Accent at the Manor property had all failed. The place was considered to be a bit of a graveyard of dreams till Indian Accent happened.

The turning point for Indian Accent, as Sanghvi pointed out, was when Mehrotra won the NDTV  reality show, Foodistan (where Sanghvi was one of the judges). That is when the rush to Indian Accent began, added Mehrotra. Their new location at the Lodhi, where we were that day, makes them more accessible. Mehrotra admitted that he was a bit nervous about coming to Lodhi. The stakes are higher after all.

"I know that people come in with very high expectations today and I try to ensure what we can do to live up to this. I would hate to disappoint them. I want them to leave happy"

Mehrotra added that he found the task of working out new menus to keep the freshness alive most stressful and mind-boggling. "At the end of each menu change, I tell myself, that's it! I cannot think of what to do next time. Then a few month's later I get back to the drawing board to create a new menu," he concluded with a smile.

It is said that creative people thrive on the challenge of creating something new.  It is also widely acknowledged that the Indian Accent does pathbreaking work in the world of new age Indian food. 

Now one knows why!

Mehrotra does not believe in taking it easy and sitting on his laurels. That is what keeps the restaurant going from strength to strength, winning over new hearts in the process I guess.

'New age' does not mean smoke and foam and froth in the case of the food at Indian Accent though says Mehrotra. Mehrotra dips into the basics of Indian cooking to come up with food that is enjoyable and yet has that spark of creativity that woos one. It is all about the unbridled joy of eating at this chef's table. So no pipettes or nitrogen guns feature here. He prefers to let the food do the talking.

Green jackfruit in a Konkani raw mango gashi 

I had the grilled sea bass on Goan mango curry from the non-veg menu first. While that was nicethe textural contrast of the jackfruit croquette/ kachori with the tart and vibrant mango sauce is what made the vegetarian version that I tried next more memorable and therein lies two stories which I will tell you about next. That of the chef's efforts to master vegetables in the kitchen and that of his reverence for chaats.

Fish with mango curry. 

Chef Mehrotra said that he finds cooking vegetarian food a challenge in comparison to non-vegetarian food. The produce can often wow the customer in the case of the latter he said while in the case of vegetarian food, he said that has to coax ingredients, that we often take for granted and consider mundane, to work harder to grab the diner's attention. 

Interestingly, on both occasions that I have eaten at the Indian Accent (the previous time was at their earlier location at the Manor in 2015), I have found the vegetarian dishes there to be more impressive. I feel that there is a greater play of textures in these at the Indian Accent when compared to the non-vegetarian ones. Mehrotra is obviously a man who loves a challenge! 

To give context to what I just wrote,  I am someone who prefers non-vegetarian food to vegetarian fare. Making the vegetarian food even more memorable than the meaty stuff is quite an 'achievement' on the chef's part if I could be allowed to be cheeky enough to say so.

Braised morel & apricot rice
A dish which draws on the cooking traditions of Kashmir by using morel mushrooms. The dish was steamed in banana leaves. I tried the version with sour pork and Goan choriz rice first but found the sourness a bit overwhelming there. The flavours in the vegetarian version was symphonic in contrast, multi-layered, and had me in a spell. 

I am not too fond of spicy food. I do not like dishes where the masalas smash every other aspect of the food away. I have a low tolerance level to chilli heat.  No such worries at the Indian Accent though.

Kanyakumari crab with sago beans
If you thought that I was a bit circumspect about the non-vegetarian food in the meal, let me tell you about the Kanyakumari crab with sago pongal and peanuts that we had. The intensity of the flavours of which were so memorable, the textural play of the ingredients so elegant, that I can still taste the dish as I write this. More than a week after I actually had it. Sabudana has never tasted so good to me. The ghee and pongal spices brought back memories of my pongal breakfasts at Vizag. The crab meat was delightfully sweet. 

"None of my food is spicy," said the Mehrotra. "The food that we eat at home is not always spicy is it?"

"Moreover, unlike abroad, in India we cannot tell customers that we have to eat whatever we dish out and not be flexible. That does not work here," added Mehrotra.

"Would you want to do so?" I asked.

"Not really. In India, hospitality comes first. We want our guests to be happy."

Orange gola, Jalebi rabdi pistachio, aamsas with crisp
sevia, summer berries

This pic was taken a few seconds before I wiped the dessert plate in front of me clean. This is why I stay away from desserts. Who can so no when they are so enticing? I rarely enjoy non-dark chocolate desserts these days. You would not have guessed that by seeing me work my way through these!

The chef did not hesitate even for a second before he replied to me and I was not surprised be his answer to be honest. I have met the chef on a couple of occasions in the past and he has always came across as a very humble and grounded person. 

A 'my way or the high way' sort of swagger would not sit naturally on his shoulders and that is a relief. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and when it comes to both food and life. Humility is what makes things endearing in both. 'The milk of human kindness,' as the Bard put it.

"Look at them carefully. One might be leading the next most talked about
restaurant in India," said Vir Sanghvi about the Indian Accent.

Sanghvi pointed out that some of the most accomplished young modern Indian chefs have come out of the Indian Accent and then asked how the chef he felt about this. Did he rue losing those he had invested so much in?

"I am very glad to see them do well. They can't remain under the shadow of Manish Mehrotra forever. They need to grow. I only hope that if and when people do leave Indian Accent, they do so on good terms," he replied.

To show that he truly believed in what he said, Mehrotra then praised and acknowledged he work that some of his proteges have done after they moved out of the Indian Accent. Specifically chef Saurabh Udunia and his food in Farzi Cafe, London, and chef Himanshu Saini and Tresind, Dubai. 

Mehrotra definitely came across as the sort of mentor one would be lucky to have in ones chosen field. One who excelled at his work and was most humane too. A truly wonderful nursery (to use a club football term) to be a part of.

And now for some chaat

Dahi wada with spicy chilli potato & mulberry

The dish that started off the feast last Monday. The chef said that potatoes in it (in the green chutney) were inspired by the alu chaat (kabli) of Kolkata & with that he won my heart. Not that the tel lagano (maska/ buttering up) was required. The fresh flavours of the dish were just what we needed on a scorching Delhi summer afternoon. The dish smacked of inner peace and rejuvenation and I am sure thay Poh (from Kung Fu Panda) would have loved the dahi vadas.

Sanghvi said that many Michelin restaurant chefs across the world are adding an 'Indian chaat' to their menu these days. He said that the man behind this trend is Manish Mehrotra. That Mehrotra had made chaats an integral part of his menus right from the start.

Reimagined chaats, one should add. 

Mehrotra responded by saying that in his opinion, chaats are the best contribution that India has made to the world of food. He said that this is why he has showcased chaats in the food that he has presented, whether in Delhi or in his restaurants in London and New York.

His comment made me smile in agreement. I have seen foreigners that I have taken on food walks say that chaats are what wow them the most among all the food that they try on the walks. Be it the bhel and sev puri of Mumbai or its pani puri, the papdi chaat and the gol gappe of Delhi, the phuchka and churmur of Kolkata. This is the food memory that they take behind from India when they leave is what they tell me.

A good chaatwala knows how to make every textural crunch, every drop of chutney, every burst of colour, light up the plate on your hand. Creativity is the secret sauce the makes the world of chaats so endearing.

Chaat, literally means 'to lick up' and that's what you do with the food at Indian Accent. Our lunch there last Monday had nine tasting portions and each plate was wiped clean by us. #chetepute as I say on Instagram.  

A typical Indian Accent smile

And that is when the penny dropped. I realised that it would not be wrong to conclude that the most celebrated modern Indian cuisine chef is actually a chaatwala at heart.

Something tells me that chef Manish Mehrotra will not mind my saying that!


With Samir Sain of Everstone Capital & chef Manish Mehrotra

Spot the face in the Food Super Star Academy. 
Selfies galore
The current tasting menu at The Indian Accent which was unveiled at the Food
Super Stars meet

That's us with Nini Ling at Ling's Pavilion, Mumbai, the next day.
At the end of a birthday treat from Dr Manisha Talim, who had first
introduced me to the restaurant. She and her parents were regulars at
Nanking when she was in school and they have been going to Ling's
ever since it opened. How's that for customer loyalty?!