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Integrity dining with a splash of ‘feni’

Looking inward, exciting the West and making space for the food mavericks in 2017

Madame Rosa’s Lembranca, a charcoal-distilled oak cask-matured cashew ‘feni’, in a bottle designed by Mario Miranda. Photo: Madame Rosa
Madame Rosa’s Lembranca, a charcoal-distilled oak cask-matured cashew ‘feni’, in a bottle designed by Mario Miranda. Photo: Madame Rosa (Madame Rosa)

There’s some amount of trepidation as I write this, given that the last few annual predictions have been pretty much on the money. 2016 had its fair share of excitement, ending with the rise of the impossible restaurant in Mumbai: The tasting-menu-only, farm-to-fork, biodiversity-driven Masque, helmed by Prateek Sadhu, who cut his teeth at Le Cirque in Bengaluru and Amass in Copenhagen. The early reviews are excellent and the nod to their daring obvious, but will 2017 usher in the dawn of this internationally celebrated movement here? Will we take to tasting-menu-only places, and restaurants with small menus that change often?

One of my own, in fact, tried to break conventions: In Bengaluru, Toast & Tonic, attempts to use iterations of the best locally sourced ingredients with house-processed mustards, vinegars, oils, millets, sausages and wheat and fresh cheese atop unusual greens to give “Western dining" an altogether new feel. It’s what I would like to label integrity dining, bringing the honesty back to food—till now, for the most part, substituted with industrial-grade everything. So far, it has worked.

Looking inward will be a defining trend this year, when we put aside the extraneous influences that often dominate the cool restaurant scene, in favour of local—or, at least, locally sourced—ingredients. The new generation of chefs has taken to this idea in a substantial way, even if it’s driven in part by FOMO (fear of missing out). Overall, it’s a healthy trend.

I believe sorghum has been branded the “it" grain for 2017 by The New York Times, and we have been sitting on that trove forever. Jowar pizzas, anyone? A handful of restaurants scattered across the country are embracing this approach, and one hopes this is just the start. Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka’s minister for agriculture, is reaching out to people to make millets a cool part of the larder, and the troops he has been rounding up are evidence that they’re serious, and the movement may just be a large one soon.

One sunrise trend in 2017 will be the reinvention of Indian food in the West. While the likes of Atul Kochhar, Vineet Bhatia, Gaggan Anand and Sriram Aylur have set benchmarks in their respective fields, it’s the new products that are exciting. Chef Floyd Cardoz, a fixture on the New York dining scene, has come back with a lovely new space called Paowalla, which serves simple yet carefully thought out food without the bells and whistles of Tabla many years ago. This one is more similar to Bread Bar, a level below Tabla, and already seems to be finding mention across publications, in the top eats of 2016, in the tough market that is New York.

Across the Atlantic, Sameer Taneja with Talli Joe is doing something similar, putting zing back into the seasoned Indian restaurant market that is London. Melbourne has the exciting Tonka, headed by Adam D’Sylva, where a chicken liver parfait with honeycomb, spiced peanuts and charred pav sits comfortably on the menu with a dal makhani. This trend is getting the West excited about Indian food again.

The mojito is dead, long live the gin! I know this sounds like a plug for Toast & Tonic, but it’s not. Gin has already witnessed a tremendous resurgence in the UK, Germany and the US, and with good reason: It’s complex, delicious, lends itself to great cocktails, and is now the new darling of the micro-distilling world. A domestic label next year? One hopes so.

Maharashtra’s policy of allowing microbreweries to sell beers as kegs to other establishments may arrive in Karnataka too and this, in itself, will be a game changer. Bira91, meanwhile, continues its explosive growth trajectory, proving yet again that we have love to give beers other than Kingfisher.

Mac Vaz of Madame Rosa Distillery in Goa is attempting to reinvent the feni, making it a refined drink; he even has a version that has been barrel-aged for three years. We hope it will travel beyond Goa this year, and into a cocktail at your neighbourhood bar. The domestic wine market too has seen a string of labels that flaunt bona fides like single estate, barrel-aged reserves: Fratelli’s Sette, Grover’s Insignia, KRSMA’s Cabernet Reserve, etc., are a few examples. They are putting a much needed spin on domestic wine, and asserting themselves as winemakers who chase quality, not volumes alone.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the sudden appearance of people who are more passionate about food than most chefs I have met. They break down things in ways that few chefs ever attempt, are usually scientifically sound, and often a little mad. Aditya Raghavan’s Instagram feed is a little pictographic tour of fascinating food, fermentation and cheese, stuff we miss out on, even when it’s in our own country. Raghavan consults with several fromageries, ensuring lots of good, locally produced cheeses; a chèvre (goat cheese) is in the works too. Goa-based Sujit Sumitran is a bread-whisperer of sorts; seldom does one come across sourdoughs so lovingly nurtured yeast culture onwards. Sumitran is preaching the gospel across the country, whenever he can, so more and more bakers fall in love with the “real" bread.

Zack Denfeld, whom I met recently, rewired my brain with his approach to flavours and experiments that challenge the way we understand food. His programme at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru runs the Rare Endophyte Collectors Club under The Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, which explores how microorganisms are an inherent part of plants, and the flavours they produce. It’s a fascinating project. He has done a tasting of smog and how it changes our perception of taste—and we thought only flying in a plane did that. If Denfeld, a resident of Norway, is able to set up the lab he wants in Bengaluru, we may just have a new approach to teach the most powerful tools of the trade to the younger set.

Past the red velvet and the salted caramel and largely done with molecular methods in food, 2017 may just be the year that 2016 promised, but didn’t quite get to be. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Manu Chandra is chef-partner of Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao and Toast & Tonic, and executive chef of Olive Beach. He tweets at @chefchandra.

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