As a food writer who travels around the world at an alarming frequency—to test out what the ever-evolving international realm of culinária has in store and one who loves his eggplant moju and dal-chawal as much as his eel donburi—there is one offer that sends a shiver down my spine. That would be the one made by friends, family, business associates and hosts suggesting that they take me out for a meal. And not just any meal. An “Indian” meal is most often what they have enthusiastically planned out for me.
Having eaten at some of the most ersatz and unauthentic places that call themselves Indian restaurants, I just can’t subject myself to terrible renditions of my favourites. Not another sweet-tinged brown-hued beef vindaloo (it’s always a fiery hot and sour pork dish, people), nor those made-in-the UK brand of culinary chimeras like balti chicken and CTM (chicken tikka masala).
Having said that, I’m really happy that I was literally coaxed and dragooned into dining at the following places on my recent post-pandemic travels. Restaurants that expertly navigate the dynamic of what constitutes modern Indian cuisine. All seen through the prism of innovative fare with flashes of tradition and authentic desi flavours shining through.
To start with Junoon on this list is risking being labelled clichéd. But who said there was anything wrong with clichés? In this case, it’s all things great. For years, this veritable Indian stronghold in the US has been wowing diners with its blend of modern and authentic cuisine with dishes like lahsooni gobi (crispy cauliflower with tomato-garlic chili chutney) and the yum eggplant chaat, right in the heart of Manhattan. Having earned a single Michelin star for its chef Vikas Khanna a few years ago, the junoon (craze) for Junoon seems far from dying down anytime soon, and rightly so.
Picking up from where he left off is Gaggan Anand with his eponymous 2.0 version of his now shuttered Gaggan Bangkok restaurant. This one is a super expensive, 14-seater chef’s table (TBH 12,000 or ₹28,091) only restaurant that shares the same two-storey premises in the Watthana area of Bangkok as Anand’s casual Indian-Mexican restaurant Ms. Maria & Mr. Singh. This iteration of the restaurant features a few expected Gaggan-isms. Yes, I’m alluding to the emoji menu which now features a whopping 22 dishes. These take the form of a few classics like the exploding in the mouth yoghurt espumas to new ones like the sandalwood-smoked quail that is anointed with an 18 spices rub and the intensely vegetal beetroot curry leaf lassi ‘cappuccino’. “Expect the unexpected!” was my credo all through my meal at Gaggan Anand and now my piece of sound advice to all those who’d like to eat here.
Fronted by the immensely talented Kolkata-born chef Ahana Dutt, the recently opened Raja in Sydney’s Potts Point neighbourhood pays vibrant obeisance to the head chef’s home country. This, with its lush palm fronted interiors that bear typically Indian colours like pink, mustard and gold. But it is the food that the ex Firedoor (also, in Sydney) chef Dutt sends out that wowed me silent. Read: bizarre sounding, but divine dishes like the nalli (bone marrow) dosa and goat riblets with habanero hot sauce among scores of others.
Far from being a pastiche (the closest French equivalent term to jugaad) of flavours and elements, this restaurant by chef Manoj Sharma has a unique menu. One that has traditional recipes from India, but using only seasonal, local French produce. Thus, you see dishes like the makhani broccoli korma eschew the traditional cauliflower and is served with a side sauce perfumed with the warm comfort and elegance of Kashmiri saffron. Or perhaps, a bite of the malai salmon marinated in maple syrup and curry yogurt? All washed down with a daiquiri made with rum infused with chai, shrub mango masala and lime juice.
Having visited Revolver most recenty from the other restaurants here, I can almost still taste the food of this modern Indian grill house on Tras Street in Singapore as I write this. Imparting that special smoky flavour to dishes like Australian barramundi fish dusted with aamchur and stuffed courgette flowers on a bed of tangy, smoky tomato chutney is chef Saurabh Udina, formerly from Farzi Cafe and Masala Library here in India. My friends and I went for the nine-course tasting menu (SGD$199 or ₹12,000) that included innovative breads like the plump tandoor baked Gruyere cheese-filled flatbread topped with coconut masala pulled pork. Ignoring the rather pricey SGD $50 ( ₹3,000) supplement for three glasses of wine, I chose the perfectly made gin-based Blush Gimlet cocktail to tie in the spirited meal at this Revolver that hit the spot.
Truth be told, it was actually Quilon that made me change my mind about eating and appreciating Indian food outside of the country. Located at the Taj’s Buckingham Gate hotel in Central London, Quilon was the first South Indian restaurant in the world to win a Michelin star, which it has retained since 2008. Serving South-west coastal Indian cuisine, it has the supremely talented chef Sriram Aylur at the helm of the kitchen. One that sends out stellar dishes like the byadgi chilli prawns and the pan seared scallops with mango tokku in a contemporary setting, with art work by artist Paresh Maity.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.