"Which restaurant will you pick for a date?” It’s a question Dubai-based restaurateur Jarret D’Abreo often asks friends and diners. They never choose an Indian restaurant. The food is believed to be slightly heavy, too spicy and not apt for date nights, especially in cities abroad. This gap led him to launch The Crossing in Dubai that serves regional Indian food, with menu options that are light on the tummy and palate.
Earlier this month, JW Marriott Juhu in Mumbai had a pop-up with The Crossing, with a tasting menu featuring chaat, malaiyo (foamy milk dessert from Varanasi) and ragi koozh (finger millet and rice mixed with curd). It was tasty and light—designed for dates.
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Recently, pop-ups like these and collaborations with chefs and bartenders from abroad have started cropping up more frequently in five-star hotels in cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Pune. The marked increase in the number of such events has to do with a growing appetite for newer experiences among consumers and smart strategies by hotels to draw in more diners.
Stand-alone restaurants are aggressive with their marketing and new concept launches. Hotels, perhaps, needed to catch up by offering an elevated experience beyond unlimited buffets showcasing “cuisines of India” from Kashmir to Kerala. Collaboration with names like Massimo Bottura and The St. Regis Mumbai, Asma Khan and Taj Lands End, and top bars is a sure-shot way to grab eyeballs and bring in more guests.
“We had internally discussed bringing in Marriott chefs from other countries into India. I thought, why don’t we invite stalwart chefs who will spend three days in our kitchen, and it will kill many birds with one stone,” says Khushnooma Kapadia, senior area director, marketing, South Asia, at Marriott International Inc. Apart from the opportunity to interact with chefs from around the world and gain visibility, it provides a chance for the hotel’s kitchen team to learn from the best.
“These are ticketed meals, typically on a weekend. Every single time, whether it was Heston Blumenthal, Mauro Colagreco or Massimo Bottura, the tickets would be sold out within 20 minutes,” says Kapadia, adding that “people are hungry for these experiences.”
When chefs visit India to create these experiences, they carry several ingredients. Some bring their own vessels because they are particular about the width and thickness of cooking utensils. Chef Ankur Chakraborty, co-founder of The Crossing, is “paranoid” about using the right salt: “Salt in every country behaves differently upon cooking. So I carry my own salt.”
It’s no mean work for hotels either. Here’s a peek at what goes into the making of such events at The St. Regis Mumbai: It starts with menu planning, food trials and decisions on crockery, intense training, service sequence, food tasting and beverage training, food and wine pairing, and a dry run.
Chakraborty believes the experiences will evolve into something bigger than pop-ups. “The next step will be restaurant takeovers or boutique restaurants in each hotel property as a speciality project,” he predicts.
This is happening already. The newly opened Alta Vida in Pune’s Ritz Carlton is considered to be India’s first restaurant residency, with a rotating lineup of well-known international chefs. They will each create a menu for six-eight months, training chefs to recreate the dishes.
The first edition, started in September, is by Balinese chef Ray Adriansyah of Nusantara by Locavore in Indonesia. On the menu are dishes enriched with coconut, palm jaggery and Balinese chillies. The sambals with varying degrees of heat are a must-try. Adriansyah brought kilograms of dried fish and candlenuts (similar to macadamia nuts) but to ensure a steady supply of ingredients, the Ritz Carlton has started growing ginger root, Balinese basil and chillies.
The excitement isn’t limited to the food space, however. The beverage space too has its share of guest bartenders and bar takeovers.
On a rainy October evening in Bengaluru, the RCB Bar and Cafe, located on one of the buzziest intersections—at the corner of Museum and Church streets—was taken over by Turkish flair bartenderAtilla Iskif, four-time winner of the World Flair Championship. While the rain beats a steady rhythm on the extended rooftop of the snazzy new bar, Iskif gets ready to demonstrate his flair bartending skills.
As the music thrums, Iskif throws a steel glass into the air while spinning a bottle of liquor; somehow, the glass twists in the air and lands right at the mouth of the bottle. The room breaks into applause. “Flair bartending is a performance. It’s not some circus trick—it’s a dance with its own rhythm, where the bartender follows the music and creates a complete performance while mixing a spectacular drink,” says Iskif.
While flair bartending is not huge in India, thanks to takeovers by professionals like Iskif there is growing awareness of Indian bartender skills, as well as about competitions such as those organised by the World Flair Association, the WFA Grand Slam and the WFA World Series. This is important in raising the profile of Indian bars, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of 30 Best Bars India (Achanta is also the founder of Tulleeho, a beverage education and training organisation) to rank and celebrate the country’s best bars and bartenders.
“After the pandemic, there has been an influx of Indian bars on to the Asian and world stage. There were five Indian bars in Asia’s 50 Best and Sidecar was among the top 30 in the World’s 50 Best list. Indian bars are gaining attention the world over and takeovers are a great way to get them on to the global scene,” says Achanta.
There have been several recent takeovers of Indian bars by professionals from Tell Camellia (Hong Kong), Bar Benfiddich (Japan), Baltra, Limantour and Handshake (Mexico), Jigger & Pony (Singapore) and Little Red Door (France), says Achanta. “While a guest shift is exactly that—a guest bartender takes over the bar for an evening—a takeover is much more, where a visiting team from a bar brings its whole ethos, methodology, science and skill to the host bar,” explains Achanta.
The trend of takeovers is going to be on the upswing, he predicts, as Indian bartenders travel abroad more and more to take part in competitions and participate in “reverse takeovers”—such as Sidecar’s Yangdup Lama recently doing a stint at Paradiso in the Spanish city of Barcelona, the world’s top bar according to the latest 50 Best list, and Ankush Gamre, head mixologist at Mumbai’s Masque restaurant, taking over the bar at Native in Singapore. “The F&B sector is on fire right now and it’s the best time for Indian talent to spread their wings, take on new challenges and learn from the best in the world,” says Achanta.