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Anyone seen my curry? 9 courses with Atul Kochhar

March 18, 2014

Apparently there is a restaurant in LA which has a soft box set up so that people who want to take gorgeous pics of their food can do so away from the dodgy lighting and rolling eyes of their friends at the table. This kind of “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” attitude is in contrast to some restaurants who have now banned cameras. I can understand their pain. It’s the chef equivalent of cooking supper for your family, trying to get everything nice and hot and ready to eat at the same time. You call them, nothing happens, and when they eventually appear you do that “I’ve slaved over a hot stove to make nice food for you” routine and they stare back blankly.

In chef land, you’ve been chopping up bones to make stock, simmering sauces, preparing everything in pursuit of satisfying your diners. You time your dish to the last second. Rare ingredients may have been flown in from halfway round the world, the market has been trawled for the best produce available and kept on ice, you have been perfecting this signature dish for ten years; the plates are dispatched by waiters. The hand-picked garnishes quiver on gleaming sauces, heat releases tantalising aromas, it looks like art.  Then some foodie whips out their brick of a DSLR set on auto, the other guests are blinded by the flash and the resulting image is the food equivalent of a paparazzi pic of Lindsey Lohan falling out of a nightclub.

So I’m going to get my excuse in quick; it was expected of me. Invited for a media preview of Atul Kochhar‘s nine-course degustation menu at Rang Mahal in the JW Marriot Marquis I’m wandering around camera in hand. The interior is mysterious and beautiful. I survey the scene as I sip a Mubai Mohito, breathing in the addictive earthy scent of curry leaves. The brightly lit bar shines like a suspended rectangle, gargantuan carved pillars are overlooked by deities of Brobdingnagian proportions, chefs wield huge skewers of kebabs in the open kitchen. I’m loving my mood setting pics but everything is orange.  Seated at our long table with a solitary tea light we can hardly see the food let alone photograph it.

So here’s where it gets silly. Fresh out of a workshop that weekend about smart phone photography conducted by legendary photographer and blogger Matt Armendariz, I suggest a few things. Seconds later someone is holding up an iphone with the torch function enabled, wrapped in a linen napkin.  Another is holding the menu as a reflector. The journalists at the other end of our table seem appalled and disown us. Thankfully we are a great distance from other diners (probably deliberate).   Orange grainy food pics aside, I am astonished that the lighting is so low that the colours of the foods are barely visible to the naked eye. The darkness does lend a sense of atmosphere and privacy but this is at the expense of enjoying the full sensory experience of the food. The tastes are superb and the arrangements delicate but surely visual impact is part of the dining experience (as I discovered when dining without sight).

As the dishes arrive we probe our companions for their reaction. I want to know whether my Indian friends think the tastes are balanced and authentic. Do they like it? They want to know whether the spice levels are too much for us (they aren’t). The problem with posh Indian food is that they don’t feel they want to go out and pay a lot of money for something they can cook well at home. For us, we love the inexpensive home-cooking style and are sceptical that a fancy version will improve it. I nervously mention Ashas (our favourite curry with booze option) and they approve. Phew. Quite a feat then when Atul Kochhar’s Navratan menu pleases us all – and that’s an understatement.

Akbar the Great, Mughal Emperor of India in the 16th Century, had nine advisors chosen for their artistry or intellect and known as the Navaratnas (Navratan is the Hindu world for nine jewels):

Chaat is the name for an Indian snack, usually served by street food vendors and Chowk Kee Aloo Chaat is a potato cake with yoghurt, tamarind chutney and grated radish. The first sip of Jal Jeera, a traditional drink made with lemon and cumin, makes me wrinkle my nose. It’s almost like the sharp water in a pani puri. But then it improves, the saltiness making it moreish (or maybe that’s the vodka in it). I hoover down the next course of aubergines and burrata although feel this is the most out of keeping on the menu (and suffers most from not being able to see it properly). Scallops are only really good if fished out of the sea that morning otherwise they are just a vehicle for flavours as they are here. Balanced, sweet, creamy flavours of garlic and cauliflower though and good with the floral Yalumba Viognier.

Rang Mahal

Soft flakes of sea bass smothered in a creamy turmeric and coconut curry sauce, Meen Moilley is Atul’s signature dish, and rightly so; I could eat this over again. It overshadows the next course of local prawn in a green korma sauce but the wine match of Dr Loosen Reisling is excellent.  The soft fruit and vanilla flavours of Oregon Pinot Noir aren’t the best match for the spices in the Tandoori Murgh (marinated chicken breast). The wine seems to amplify the intensity of spice on your tongue afterwards, but then the next high point arrives. Lamb braised until soft and melting topped with a crust of  coconut, crispy fried shallots and fennel matched with Sula Shiraz from India; this is clever, relevant food, flavours and texture and finally some warm, fluffy bread arrives so I can clean my plate of every last morsel.

Not all the wine matches are spot on and we are surprised that there is no sommelier. A group of men descend on the chef’s table in front of us and a whole leg of lamb is carved for them. Our courses keep coming and they pay their bill long before we’ve finished our homemade berry sorbet and plate of desserts.  This is a leisurely degustation and it’s after midnight when we get up from the table.

Atul emerges once more from the back kitchen (the open one is for certain dishes only). He’s been happy to pose for pictures but was slightly vague when I started to quiz him about the source of his ingredients. On pine nuts “we get them from the local market, they’re probably from Iran,” and when there is mention of GM crops he says “thankfully we don’t have those in India.” I cannot disguise that I’m aghast that he is not aware of the controversy over negative effect of GM crops on the land and farmers in India and the actions of the big chemical giants like Monsanto, Bayer and BASF to target Indian politicians. He is, however, interested in coming to meet local farmers at the Farmers Market (if his PR schedule allows). Postscript: I am pleased to be proved wrong here and that Atul Kochhar does have a strong and informed view on GM crops and was motivated enough by his interest in them to leave a comment to this effect. Please see below

The next morning, KP eyes the menu and announces that he’d eat everything on it; I have an excuse to return soon (dreaming of the Meen Moilley and that lamb). The grazing menu contains several of the dishes we tried and is 550 AED per head with paired wines. The full nine course Navratan menu can be ordered daily before 9pm and costs 350 AED and 650 AED paired with a wine selection.

So in conclusion Indian fine dining can be a real success in the right hands – but a small torch might come in handy!

Do you have an opinion about lighting in restaurants, taking pics of your food or Indian fine dining? Would love to hear what you think in the comments section below.

P.S.  Read a wry but ridiculously accurate look at smart phone usage in this region by Annabel Kantaria here.

Enhanced by ZemantaI was invited to dine at Rang Mahal, JW Marriot Marquis as a guest but there was no obligation to write this and my opinions are my own.
  1. March 18, 2014 8:30 am

    Hi Sally, interesting read. I totally agree with the shortcomings of shooting in a restaurant especially during night. I haven’t graduated to a dSLR yet and use P&S or smartphone for all my shoots and find it much more challenging.

    On a side note, the link of Annabel Kantaria is not working.

    • March 18, 2014 8:34 am

      Thanks Deepali – this was more than a challenge! Thanks for nod about the link – I think it is a Telegraph problem which hopefully they’ll rectify soon.

  2. March 18, 2014 10:07 am

    Great post Sally! I met Atul K. late last year, 2013 at Rang Mahal itself. He was as humble as ever and posed for images as well. It was a cooking class, so got to see and taste few of his signature dishes. The taste wasn’t as exceptional as I assumed it would be, except for the Seabass Meen Moilley – delicious and great use of ingredients to prepare the dish! The lighting in the restaurant was a task, I was forced to use my iPhone flash to capture a few images but nonetheless, a memorable meet and greet. I had a taste of the drinks on my second visit, very unique fusions I must add! My post on meeting Autl: Also, I always found it strange that the restaurant is named Rang (colour/s) Mahal as the most predominate color is mainly red!

  3. mita56 permalink
    March 18, 2014 11:04 am

    I am glad you enjoyed Atul’s food – I went when my cousin was here in August (you’ve read the post) and Atul sat with us and talked food and books and of course common friends he has with my cuz. I agree about the lighting – mood lighting is fine but I like to see what I am eating. That would be my only criticism of Rang Mahal but the food was divine!

  4. March 18, 2014 12:11 pm

    A very unique experience and interesting as well as honest article. Yes, that restaurant seems a little too dark…



  5. March 18, 2014 12:58 pm

    Al lovely great post, Sally! I love this chef deeply! His cuisine is amazing & just very fragrant too,…Lucky you! Lovely too. 😀

    • March 18, 2014 3:21 pm

      I’m in possession of the recipe for his signature dish too (evil laugh),

  6. March 18, 2014 1:19 pm

    I am probably one of those Indians who think that Indian food should be just that – Indian, hearty, good to the soul and my most pronounced opinion is that it is a convivial type of cuisine where everyone shares and digs in. So I am not sure how it would work – for me – if I got my dishes served on individual plates.
    I also wonder if Atul is really clueless about the GM crops /farming in India or was he avoiding conflict. Enjoyed your honest and open views Sally!

    • March 18, 2014 3:20 pm

      I was predisposed not to like this as I too like big bowls of comforting food to dig bread into. However, I also like experiencing a lot of tastes and in this nine course menu you got to do that- brilliantly paced and combined. It really changed my view.
      He did seem genuine in his comment about GM – I would welcome the opportunity to quiz him further (not sure he’d be so keen!!)

    • March 20, 2014 12:07 am

      Atul is far from neutral on GM crops and has subsequently left a comment to this effect.

  7. March 18, 2014 2:22 pm

    Wonderful to read about Atul’s food, he’s such a charming, helpful and down-to-earth chap.

    I’m a huge chaat fan, I like it nice and rustic, varied and easy. Fine dining restaurants do put their own twist on and that’s exciting, I don’t use radish but will give that a go.

    • March 18, 2014 3:17 pm

      I like rustic chaat too – massive fan of pani puri. These flavours were good – like an elegant nibble of chaat with all the spicy, sour, creamy and crunchy put together – especially with the sour, sharp drink. Tell me how the radish goes.

  8. ramblingtart permalink
    March 18, 2014 2:53 pm

    I am not a fan of dark eating. I confess I walked out of the Eating in the Dark restaurant I went to from sheer claustrophobia. 🙂 I love to see what I’m eating and don’t take pictures of restaurant food unless the lighting is good. It’s too disappointing otherwise. 🙂 This sounds like a fascinating place to eat – in spite of the darkness. 🙂

    • March 18, 2014 3:16 pm

      I too would rather not take pics unless they do justice to the food. That evening was almost red rag to a bull to take something as the lighting was so challenging. I wouldn’t go to those lengths usually especially not if just dining out.
      I enjoyed dining in pitch black but it was a very different and quite uncomfortable experience – one of my companions hated it.

  9. March 18, 2014 2:54 pm

    Great article, thank you 🙂

  10. Faiza permalink
    March 18, 2014 8:32 pm

    Loved your article, especially the title and your sense of humor. Despite the darkness your orange pics are still very nice. Did they really put vodka in your Jal Jeera, you certainly won’t find that on the streets of India.

    • March 19, 2014 7:29 am

      Oh yes – there was vodka and mint – very interesting indeed!

  11. March 18, 2014 10:39 pm

    I could feel that I was sitting beside you and probing you – Sally do you like the food? Do you find this spicy? Each and every point is true. It seemed exactly like the evening that had rolled out – and exactly what went out on in our minds. Honestly and beautifully written.

    • March 19, 2014 7:30 am

      Thanks Ishita – what a thoughtful comment and a pleasure to spend the evening with you.

  12. March 19, 2014 12:28 am

    What an interesting post, Sally! I’m smiling at the restaurant that set up a light box for people to take photos – I guess that was just their way of making sure their food looked good! And your mention of chaat made me moan – I adore all forms of chaat snacks! We get so used to high end chefs being so passionate about the source of their food, but obviously that’s not the case with all chefs!

    • March 19, 2014 7:32 am

      Perhaps I’m doing Atul a disservice on this front. The sea bass is specified as ‘line caught’ and the food and flavours were excellent which I don’t think possible unless you have a handle on where the produce comes from.

  13. March 19, 2014 1:08 pm

    Really hate when restaurants are so dark that I can’t even see the colours and textures on the plate properly with my naked eye. The visual is a huge part of the experience for me, so dark restaurants tend to be marked down even if the food tastes great. That’s not because I can’t take photos, but because I desperately want to see my food (and companions) clearly.

    Am also a bit appalled by Atul’s comment on GM foods in India.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s great, and had a lovely experience attending a blogger event at Benares in London, which included some mini cooking classes by him in his kitchen.

    • March 20, 2014 12:09 am

      Totally agree about the whole visual experience Kavey. I have only heard good things about Atul Kochhar and he has subsequently left a comment about his viewpoint on GM crops.

  14. March 19, 2014 7:59 pm

    Reading your article made me miss the Indian food I used to eat back in Sydney. The mix of aromas in Indian restaurants are so warm and mesmerising. I miss that very much. As for photos under the dark lighting, it’s frustrating. A small lamp attached under the table would be very appreciated by avid foodies. I haven’t ventured out to Dubai yet, how come? I wonder, since I live not too far away! From what I read on your blog, it seems to be a great place to experience diverse flavours. I’ll register Dubai for my next trip.

    I really enjoy reading your articles. I haven’t been around for a long time for personal reasons, but your stories always inspire me. Thank you.

  15. Atul Kochhar permalink
    March 19, 2014 10:37 pm

    Sally – great article – thank you. But I do believe that you have totally misinterpreted by comments about GM crops in India and almost succeeded in proving me ignorant. Well – I guess you will get a lecture from me on GM crops in India vs horrible things west is doing with GM crops – and then lets throw in the starving population of the world. Is there a good GM vs Bad GM? Lets discuss this next time. I feel little insulted that you jumped to the conclusion without quizzing me about my understanding.

    • March 19, 2014 11:51 pm

      Dear Atul, Thank you so much for leaving this comment and I am very glad to have been corrected on this. I would love to discuss GM crops with you, even if we disagree, it was never my intention to be insulting, and always felt that your response seemed out of keeping with everything else I had seen and heard. My own view is that there is no good GM. In theory some scientists believed that the potential for GM was good and that it could indeed feed the world. However, any likelihood of that has been sabotaged by chemical companies whose motivation is purely about the bottom line. Happy, nay honoured, to receive a lecture. The worst thing in the world is for there to be no debate about this vital topic. Kind regards Sally.

  16. March 20, 2014 1:52 am

    What a great review, Sally, and your pics are perfect! Lovely and interesting post, as always!

  17. March 20, 2014 9:59 pm

    It was certainly dark and sultry when I reviewed Rang Mahal which didn’t help my iPhone snaps but looks like it was even more sombre for you. To be honest I face this issue regularly when am reviewing at night. As much as it doesn’t help my job, if it creates atmosphere am all for it. Just don’t make it pitch black that we may as well be blindfolded and you know how much I hate that! Talking of which, Rang Mahal lacks buzz and intimacy which his London restaurant Benares has. Food and service top notch though. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when you debate GM with Atul 😉

  18. March 20, 2014 11:39 pm

    Lovely post as usual. I really enjoy your writing style. I had the pleasure of eating at Atul’s restaurant in London a few years ago & was amazed by the food. I always thought Indian food should be hearty & homely but I thought Atul’s skill with spices was incredible. I tasted flavours I had never experienced before which was thoroughly exciting.

    I guess it is a big world & we should enjoy everything there is no need for either or. I would eat his food again & again but would never stop enjoying a rustic curry too. The lamb you had sounds particularly delicious.

  19. March 21, 2014 2:11 pm

    The lighting is one reason why I don’t try to take photos when dining out. That, and I don’t wait to take photos when there’s a perfectly plated dish waiting to be eaten. 🙂 I guess my dedication to food blogging isn’t as great as my dedication to eating.
    BUT I do appreciate it when others take the time to write about the restaurant, atmosphere, tastes, smells, so I can vicariously visit restaurants on (almost) the other side of the world. So, thank you for these posts!

    • March 21, 2014 11:37 pm

      Yes – I’d rather relax and enjoy the meal than blog about it 🙂

  20. March 21, 2014 4:06 pm

    That’s really funny about the iPhone photography and the journalists disowning you! It would never occur to me to use a menu as a reflector but I’ll probably try it now! My own benchmark for photographing food at restaurant tables is to do so seated and to do it quickly. Rearranging stuff on the table is fine but I think it gets embarrasing when people stand up and try to photograph food from different angles. I would rather be discreet!

    • March 21, 2014 11:36 pm

      I don’t normally review restaurants per se – I like to eat my food hot and in peace!!

  21. March 22, 2014 5:58 pm

    I had great food at Rang Mahal but I wouldn’t go back because of the lighting, everyone had different ideas on decor though.


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