On A ROll
NAV NEET KALRA, THE entrepreneur (Dayal Opticals and many o ther enterprises) who is o ne o f the partners in To wn Hall in Khan Market, was telling me the saga o f his supersuccessful restaurant. Kalra had the lo catio n in the inner part o f Khan Market, spread o ver two flo o rs, but was no t sure what to do with it. Then, after vario us restaurant chains o ffered him vast sums in rent fo r the space, he decided to run it himself. He enlisted o ther partners, amo ng them, the o wners o f Amo ur Bistro , and Augusto Cabrera, who had been the sushi chef at Threesixty at the Delhi Obero i fo r a decade.
Augusto is the man who intro duced a who le generatio n o f Dilliwallas to sushi when Threesixty first o pened, so Kalra was sure that the quality o f the sushi-sashimi wo uld be excellent. But wo uld that be eno ugh fo r the restaurant to succeed?
The hottest food in Delhi these days, a trend no one saw coming, is sushi. Call it the butter chicken of the new generation!
The partners were no t sure, so they o pted fo r a multicuisine menu (Chinese, Italian and Go d alo ne kno ws what else) to co ver their bets.
They needn’t have wo rried. Right fro m the day To wn Hall first o pened, it has been jam-packed. And while so me peo ple do o rder the o ther stuff, the restaurant’s selling po int has been sushi. So great is the demand that no t o nly will yo u find so me o f Delhi’s mo st high-pro file fo lks eating there, many peo ple send their drivers fo r takeo ut sushi.
Kalra still can’t believe it. “Sushi has beco me the new butter chicken fo r Delhiites,” he says. “Yo u have to serve it. And everybo dy wants mo re and mo re. I wo uld never have imagined it.”
He is right, o f co urse. The ho ttest fo o d in Delhi these days is sushi. Go ne is the era when yo u had to pay eye-wateringly high prices at W asabi and Megu to eat sushi. It’s the standalo nes that are thriving because they o ffer sushi at relatively affo rdable rates.
Augusto ’s fo o d is, I recko n, ro ughly in the same league as W asabi and yet it is o ne-third the price. W hat’s mo re, he uses the same suppliers so yo u get the same quality o f fish – fro m hamachi to unagi to chuto ro – at rates that are lo wer. No r is Augusto the o nly perso n to serve high-quality sushi at affo rdable rates. At the Ambience Mall in V asant Kunj, chef Saito , who used to be at Megu, no w serves sushi at a co unter o utside the PV R Directo r’s Cut cinema (the sushi bar is o ne o f PV R o wner Ajay Bijli’s ventures) at prices that wo uldn’t buy yo u much mo re than a bo wl o f edamame at Megu.
All o f us who have been writing abo ut the Indian fo o d scene fo r o ver a decade are go bsmacked by sushi’s triumphant pro gress thro ugh the metro po litan restaurant scene. W henever F&B pro fessio nals wo uld gather in the o ld days to discuss the po ssibility o f o pening Japanese restaurants in India, the co nsensus wo uld be unifo rmly negative.
Japanese fo o d is to o bland, they wo uld say. The flavo urs are to o delicate fo r Indian palates. Besides, Indians are revo lted by the tho ught o f eating raw fish. Ho w co uld yo u even imagine that they wo uld eat sushi?
So me enterp rising ho teliers recko ned that while tradJap wo uld no t wo rk in India, N o bu-style mo dern Jap anese might succeed.The Taj nego tiated with N o bu but the nego - tiatio ns went no where because N o bu wanted a large restaurant and the Taj wo uld o nly risk a small (under 50 co vers) restaurant.Eventually, the Taj fo und Masaharu Mo rimo to who was the first executive chef o f the N ew Yo rk N o bu and o p ened Wasabi (in Bo mbay, first, and then Delhi later), which based its menu o n N o bu’s greatest hits.The N airs o f the Leela Gro up managed to land N o bu, who agreed to o p en in their ho tels.Then, he backed o ut witho ut warning and the Leela went with Megu instead.
But the Wasabi-Megu kind o f p lace was meant fo r highro llers o r p eo p le o n exp ense acco unts.What we are seeing no w, ho wever, is the demo cratisatio n o f sushi.The standalo nes do no t necessarily ap p eal to high ro llers.They o ffer the sushi exp erience to nearly everyo ne who wants it.
This raises two questio ns. O ne: why is sushi so exp ensive at so me p laces and so reaso nably p riced at many standalo nes?
It is a hard questio n to answer because much o f the same thing is true o f To kyo o r even N ew Yo rk.Yo u can go to so mewhere like Masa in N ew Yo rk and sp end $750 p er head fo r a sushi-sashimi meal.O r yo u can eat sushi fo r under $1 0 at a cheap sushi bar.
O ne answer has to do with quality.The to p p laces in To kyo o r N ew Yo rk will use better quality fish.But what really makes the difference is the quality o f the chef.The great Jap anese sushi masters have no w beco me cult hero es thanks to films like Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Yo u and Imay wo nder what it is that makes them so sp ecial.After all a p iece o f to ro sashimi is a p iece o f tuna belly no matter who cuts it.But in Jap anese cuisine, the way the chef selects the fish and cuts it is crucial.Asp irants sp end decades trying to get it right.
A difference that yo u and Ican easily tell, ho wever, is the quality o f the rice.Fo r the Jap anese, sashimi is abo ut raw fish; sushi is abo ut the rice.A Jap anese p erso n will judge the sushi o n the quality o f the rice p ellet.
Fo r sushi to be any go o d, the rice must never be co ld, as if it has just co me o ut o f the fridge.N o r sho uld it be tightly p acked to gether.It sho uld be ro o m temp erature, and the p ellet sho uld have a lo o se feel abo ut it – the trick is in getting the rice to ho ld to gether witho ut co mp ressing it to o much.
ROUND IT OFF
The sushi that most Indians like is not the nigiri w ith its raw fish but the roll. And that can be masaledar, crunchy and even vegetarian
The cheap er sushi p laces, wherever in the wo rld they may be, p ay little attentio n to the rice.They kno w that no nJap anese guests do n’t really care abo ut the quality o f the rice p ellet, so they hire cheap line co o ks to make the sushi. And even in Jap an, the cheap er p laces have been kno wn to use machines to make the rice p ellets.
So that’s o ne key reaso n why sushi can vary so much in p rice.The fish matters to o .The likes o f Saito and Augusto will no t co mp ro mise o n the quality o f the fish.But the chefs at many standalo nes do use much cheap er fish.
As fo r the “Why do Indians lo ve sushi?”, questio n, I have no real answer, just tentative guesses.
First o f all, it is imp o rtant to remember that what the Jap anese regard as sushi and what the rest o f the wo rld calls sushi are two different things.The Jap anese do have maki ro lls (tho se ro und rice things wrap p ed in sea weed with the fish o n the inside)but serio us sushi is always nigiri – a p ellet o f rice with a chunk o f raw fish o n to p o f it.
The Americans turned the maki ro ll into the dish it is to day, blo wing up its size (the Califo rnia ro ll), adding new ingredients (avo cado to mimic the fatty taste o f to ro , fo r instance) and p o p ularising the idea that sushi isn’t really abo ut raw fish – yo u can p ut what yo u like inside the ro ll fro m vaguely Jap anese ingredients (p rawn temp ura)to dishes that have no thing to do with Jap anese cuisine (sp icy chicken!).
The sushi that mo st Indians like is no t the nigiri with its raw fish but the ro ll.And that can be masaledar, crunchy and even vegetarian.It is no t sushi in the sense that the Jap anese kno w it.But it is clo se eno ugh to Jap anese fo o d in shap e and idea to p ass o ff as the real thing.
So why did we get it so wro ng when we said Indians wo uld never take to Jap anese fo o d? Well, p erhap s we didn’t get it wro ng after all.
What Indians lo ve is no t p articularly Jap anese at all.It is a rice ro ll, yes, but that is all that is Jap anese abo ut it.The flavo urs and ingredients have no thing to do with Jap an.
Because the Indian F&B industry did no t have the imaginatio n to realise that the bo o m wo uld be in sushi ro lls, no bo dy wo rked o ut that a)this kind o f sushi did no t necessarily invo lve raw fish, b)that it co uld be p ro duced cheap ly with inexp ensive ingredients and c)there wo uld be no need fo r trained sushi masters who co uld make the nigiri rice p ellet.Any child can make a maki ro ll; it requires virtually no skill.
So sushi is the favo urite fo o d o f a new metro p o litan generatio n.But it’s no t necessarily sushi as the Jap anese kno w it.As K alra says, it is this generatio n’s butter chicken.
FISHING FOR COMPLIMENTS
Sushi is the flavour of the moment in the capital. At Megu (above), good quality comes at eye-wateringly high prices, but more affordable places are starting to thrive
Delhi sushi chefs like Saito (above) and Augusto Cabrera (below ) w ill not compromise on the quality of the fish at their restaurants. But the chefs at many standalones use much cheaper fish