Of new restaurants and restaurant critics

Vikram Doctor points me to an interesting couple of blogs posts, one from a restaurant chef, and the other from a restaurant reviewer.

The first post is by Alex Sanchez, a young chef from the US who’s now cooking at this new restaurant in Colaba. He complains about how restauarant reviewers in India don’t give the place a chance to settle down before reviewing. Mangal Dalal responds in Mumbai Boss making the point that restaurant culture is different here and you better get ready to hit the ground running.

Having been a restaurateur, I agree with points on both sides.

Sanchez is right; no matter how well-trained the staff, how organised the kitchen, handling a full house of customers in a new restaurant is stressful, and it is impossible to get into the flow of things for at least a month. This is why I generally don’t visit new restaurants until a month has passed since opening.

Let me share a personal experience: when I moved Shiok to a new location, my original plan was to open with not only a new look, but also a new menu. As delays hit the setup process, I also figured that things would be slow enough with a new restaurant, and there was no need to aggravate it by changing the menu as well. Despite this, things took the usual 2-3 weeks to run smoothly, and this is for a restaurant with largely the same service staff and entirely the same kitchen staff.

That said, as a paying customer, I firmly agree that if a restaurant is taking a customer’s money, they are entitled to a proper dining experience, especially in a high-end place. When Gautam and I visited Edo, the expensive Japanese restaurant in ITC Gardenia in B’lore, we had an excellent experience, despite the restaurant having been formally open only for a week or so.

My recommended way around this for restauranteurs is to not start with a big bang on day one. Restrict news about the opening to only a few connected people, and let a couple of weeks go by with low-traffic before embarking on a publicity blitz. It gives the staff time to get used to the workflow and settle down. This may not sit well with investors, but it’s the best way.

As for the other question of restaurant reviewers, I agree whole-heartedly that most don’t know their mouths from their asses. If it’s college kids writing most reviews (as Mumbai Boss points out), then they possibly don’t know enough about either restaurant reviewing or food. Every restaurant, even the best of them, can have a bad day, and it’s not fair to assess a restaurant till you’ve dined there a few times. You say you don’t have the resources to do that? Well, don’t do restaurant reviews then. You say there are too many new restaurants? Well, don’t review every last one of them. And if a critic is knowledgeable enough, he/she can surely make a judgement call on whether a screw-up is due to general incompetence of the staff or just them having a bad day. The incompetent ones need not be visited again.

Let’s face it, the whole “restaurant review” business in this country is fucked up. The “reviews” for most major newspapers are arranged by PR people, and the critic will happily turn up after informing you in advance. You will make small talk with them, make sure your best waiter is at their service, and the head chef himself handles the food for their table. If you’re a Page 3 person who has been added to the restaurant management for your celebrity value, you will schmooze with them too – so, essentially, nothing like a typical guest’s experience. They will then partake of your free food and booze, and hopefully give you a stunning review. They may even write wonderful things about food they never tasted (a newspaper critic wrote about my fragrant Beef Rendang despite not trying it, and only reading its description in my menu.)

Restaurant “awards” from major publications too are usually a matter of who has more publicity clout or is a major advertiser, and I have often gone, “you can’t be fucking serious!” after seeing a particular restaurant win a category award.

Unfortunately, the average Joe is heavily swayed by such reviews and believes them to be authoritative. And that is the real tragedy of it.

(A post about the uselessness of “user/community reviews” web sites will have to wait for another day. That much vitriol in one blog post may be too much to handle.)

New mailing list for food lovers

Lavannya has started a new mailing list for food lovers. I’m copying and pasting her announcement:

Just started a new Yahoo group for all food lovers in India…


I finally thought we need a proper discussion platform for our palate. Lets bring together our common love for food.

Come join this group and lets discuss recipes, tips, eating places, in Bangalore and beyond.

Let us all get together…. and vent out all our food thoughts and ideas. Lets share our experiences with food, our likings and dislikes.

All are welcome – the excellent chefs and the beginners, the new wives and the bachelors who are tired of eating
Maggi and puffs everyday… those who want to cook a quick and healthy meal and those who want to make an elaborate menu as a treat.. those who hate to eat out and those who just love restaurant hopping..

Lets all pour out our ideas and knowledge… and we can have some experts and absolute novices all exchanging thoughts.

So if you’re interested in food, please do join.

Click here to join chilliesandchutney
Click to join chilliesandchutney

How to get a good steak in Bangalore

Getting a decent steak in this country isn’t easy. In the north, the taboo
against beef restricts serving of beef to only the five-star hotels. Thankfully,
in the south, we’re not so conservative and in Bangalore especially, there are
plenty of restaurants serving beef. 

But while there are plenty of restaurants serving steak, there aren’t too
many that serve good steak. In India, you don’t get a choice between different
cuts of meat
like you do in the West. If you want a porterhouse or a t-bone,
good luck. The beef you get in India comes in two basic forms: a) the stuff that
takes 2 hours to cook and b) the stuff that cooks in 3 minutes. There’s nothing
in between.

Moreover, most of the mid-range restaurants in town don’t know the first
thing about cooking the steak right. Some typical abuses are:

a) Not cooking at a high enough temperature because of which the meat
"leaks" and gets very dry

b) Overcooking it to death – giving you extra well done and turning it into
leather in the process

c) Liberally slathering it with some gooey sauce so you can’t taste any of
the meat flavour

d) Totally disregarding your instructions on the doneness of the meat –
giving you well done when you ask for medium


So, dear reader, given that you cannot go into a restaurant kitchen and make
the steak yourself (or call me to do it), here are some tips for you to get the
best out of your steak dining experience in Bangalore:

  1. Do not get it on a damn sizzler. It splatters shit all over your
    clothes and makes a mockery of cooking time. Anything you get on a sizzler
    is always extra well-done. You want the steak, not the sizzle!
  2. Ask for a medium or medium-well steak and tell the waiter you want it
    cooked for exactly 3 minutes on each side.
  3. If the steak is flavoured, ask for the sauce on the side and not spread
    like mayonnaise all over your steak or else there goes the meat flavour. :(
  4. When it arrives all hot, don’t cut it open immediately. Let it sit for
    about a minute. This gives it the "resting" period that the
    kitchen hasn’t given it. You’ll have a better steak after that because it
    allows the juices to be distributed properly.
  5. Don’t let it go cold.

Bon appetit!

PS: If you want to try something different from steak, try Shiok Far-eastern Cuisine, my restaurant on CMH Road, Indiranagar, Bangalore. We serve food from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Jeff Smith: May The Force be with you

Jeff Smith, 1939-2004: The ‘Frugal Gourmet’ was TV’s original celebrity chef

Jeff was a major influence in my life. In my early teens, when I was just
learning to cook, I would watch Jeff Smith’s Frugal Gourmet religiously. It was
the first cookery show I learnt from, even before learning to mince garlic from
Martin Yan. His obvious love for cooking was infectious. It inspired me to take
up cooking seriously and have fun doing it. His show also taught me some
important basic principles of cooking including one that I continue to preach to
all my friends and family: "Hot wok, cold oil; food won’t stick." It
is these principles that mark the difference between a good cook and a great
one. Jeff’s smooth-talking style made cooking look not like a chore but an
extremely rewarding experience. Wannabes like Sanjeev Kapoor can’t come anywhere
near him.

Today, I’m the chef and owner of a fine dining South-east Asian restaurant in
Bangalore. Jeff, you played a big part in shaping my future. For that, I will
always be grateful.

May The Force be with you.