With its whitewashed walls, sea-blue doors and multi-coloured cocktails, Olive Beach usually looks like a boutique hotel transported to central Bengaluru from Greece. Against a grim industry backdrop, however, the empty interiors seemed an omen to chef Manu Chandra, who lost his uncle to the pandemic this year.
Several weeks ago, Chandra wrote on his Instagram account: “My first instinct was to close shop entirely. There is surely zero economic sense in trying to run a business that has never relied on delivery, steering clear of ludicrous aggregator-driven price wars and the inevitable sprint toward mediocrity.” Instead, with his back to the wall, Chandra decided to “throw the rule book to the flames”. Olive Beach introduced a delivery menu at the end of April and take orders via Peppo, a direct order app that takes much lower commissions than aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato. Repeat orders from regular customers were frenetic on weekends.
On 5 July, Olive Beach, Bengaluru, with its typical mix of Italian and Lebanese food, reopened amid new timings that require restaurants to close by 9pm. Anticipating that some customers may hanker for his lockdown menu as others struggle to beat the city’s infamous traffic to get to dinner in time or may not be ready to dine out because of concerns about Covid, Chandra is continuing with the delivery menu which can be accessed via Instagram on @olivebeachblr. While Olive waits to see how things pan out, a few items from the lockdown menu, such as the summer solstice salad, chicken shish taouk and mushroom ravioli, have been carried over to the dine-in offering.
It required what New Yorkers term chutzpah–supreme self-confidence–to fashion a lockdown menu into an autobiography of sorts, a portrait of the chef as a very young man in a sense. The menu has offerings from all over the world; soups from the West Village in New York, the iconic Nirula’s-styled pizza of the 1980s from New Delhi to a prawn balchao remembered with relish after discovering it on a trip to Goa with a friend at an unpretentious seafood eatery in Arambol. The pricing seemed lower than dining at the restaurant, especially when one factors in that the portions were even larger than the generous-sized plates at the restaurant. Chandra explains that many families were sharing dishes at home so he felt the need to ensure there was plenty to go around. Remarkably, Chandra’s menu took us from childhood memories of early morning visits with his father to Delhi’s Jama Masjid area to feast on succulent mutton nihari, to New York, where he studied and started his career. After graduating from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, Chandra’s foundations as a chef were built through stints at restaurants in Manhattan such as Le Bernardin, the elegant French seafood restaurant, as well as his time as part of the team who were working at the Mandarin Oriental hotel when it opened there.
Representing these eclectic influences, Chandra’s “a few of my favourite things” as he described the lockdown menu on Instagram featured an “internship Cobb salad” from an apprenticeship in midtown Manhattan. This version had all the required ingredients: little cubes of a very good local blue cheese, excellent bacon, chicken breast, avocado, baby tomatoes and lettuce. New York lunch hours were a tight, disciplined one-hour and diners wanted their first course, usually a salad, almost immediately. “Office-hour lunch was crazy. In five minutes, the restaurant would fill up with 200 people,” Chandra recalls. “We would make thousands of these a week.”
The seafood chowder was more luxuriant. It seemed to me like it had been miraculously transported from a fancy restaurant in midtown New York. Chandra has combined generous amounts of clam juice, corn and cream, while not stinting on the seafood to produce something that should go on to the menu now that the restaurant has reopened.
A few weeks ago, an aunt across town had decided we should split a lockdown Saturday lunch and had ordered a large tasting menu from Olive that included the Cobb salad and the chowder, but also shami kebabs and pandi curry. The only disappointment was the pandi curry, which had little of the tartness that it should from the kachampuli, which is a critical ingredient.
As it happens, I had been craving the shami kebabs of my Kolkata childhood so much that the previous week I had attempted to make a version from a recipe crafts doyenne Laila Tyabji had sent me from Mirch Masala, her mother Surayya Tyabji’s excellent cookbook. The recipe was fabulous but three-quarters of the way through (after cooking and grinding the mince and separately cooking the chana dal), I fled the kitchen. When the chef is a kayastha, as Chandra is, a community especially enamoured of mutton, one is in for something special–without the grindingly hard work of attempting this at home. The recipe is his grandmother’s. Chandra’s were not cocktail party-sized shamis, they were more like a burger patty.
A few days after that large lunch, I ordered again, inviting a neighbour and his wife, the “Discovering Nihari in Jama Masjid” and “Lamba’s Challenge Butter Chicken”. It was akin to flying to Delhi on a magic carpet. Chandra remembers the childhood journey early in the morning with his father, before the Metro became part of the capital’s landscape, as rather more arduous. “During Ramzan, my dad would drive us and we would park near the railway station and walk 25 minutes to the area around Karim’s,” he recalls. Awaiting them was a scene out of Salman Rushdie’s magical realism: gigantic vats of succulent mutton that had been slow-cooked through the night and was served with sheermal. Inevitably, Chandra’s version was lighter, with exceptional local mutton, dense bones, but also cooked for hours on very low heat using a griddle.
The butter chicken pipped the one at the delicious and delightfully named HaveMore in Delhi’s Pandara Road area. Chandra has used sweeter Italian tomatoes but also such generous dollops of cream and butter that when I put away the leftovers, it clung to the side of the bowl. I had also ordered what turned out to be a pizza the size of a dartboard with as many delicious targets: roast chicken, chicken sausage, sriracha sauce, Japanese ginger and tempered chillis. Dinner came to a bargain ₹2,400, not least because I had leftovers for a couple of days after.
Where this menu triumphed was in pulling off an unlikely shotgun marriage of comfort food with the techniques of haute cuisine. But Chandra may have inadvertently created problems for the restaurant as it reopened this week with its signature Mediterranean menu. Midnight’s Children, fragrant with childhood memories, also carried a warning. It featured an aunt who had cultivated an unusual “art-form: the impregnation of food with emotions”. But there was a twist: Aunt Alia “fed us the birianis of dissension and the nargisi koftas of discord”. In a more positive sense, Chandra did this with his lockdown menu, and this could mean regular customers dining in Olive will be clamouring for repeats of nihari–despite being at a restaurant that serves classic Mediterranean cuisine. “There was a euphoric response. I have dug a hole for myself,” admits Chandra. He plans to recreate some of these dishes for special bespoke dinners. Like those shows on Netflix but much more satisfying, Chandra’s trip down memory lane may have created the strangest of anomalies: nostalgia for lockdown dinners.
Rahul Jacob was a travel, food and drink editor of the Financial Times.