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Features

New restaurant trends

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I don’t know to what extent restaurant trends are international. Some, I suspect, depend on circumstances and the city in question. It cannot be a coincidence, for instance, that Singapore became home to so many expensive restaurants (many – if not most – run by chefs from out of town) when the global financial community moved there.

In India, people want fresh brands and concepts. Young people tire very quickly of the old brands and want newer places

And the fact that the Mumbai and Delhi restaurant scenes have developed so differently shows that it is often difficult to draw general conclusions or make global predictions. Nevertheless, I reckon that the one city Indian restaurateurs always look to – perhaps because so many of us go there – is London.

Here are some of the trends I have observed over my last two visits to London. I don’t think they will necessarilybe replicated here but I am pretty sure that they will have some influence on our restaurants.

Scallops with artichoke and anchovies at the alluring Serge et Le Phoque restaurant

Away from the centre: In restaurant terms (and perhaps others as well) there are now two Londons. There is the smart London of Mayfair and Knightsbridge and then, there is the real London.The Mayfair-Knightsbridge restaurant scene is dominated, at least at the upper end, by tourists, expats, oligarchs, expense-accounters and the like. So the restaurants are expensive, fancy and not necessarily designed with local Londoners (or English people of any kind) in mind.

Some are, nevertheless, very good. But because rents are so high, few restaurateurs take risks in this area. The restaurants that have opened here recently (Sexy Fish, Cut, etc.) tend to be aimed squarely at visitors (Russians, Indians, Arabs, Eurotrash etc.) and are rarely very exciting.

The real action now takes place in what used to be called the suburbs: places like Shoreditch, Hoxton, Clapham, Bermondsey, etc. This is where nearly all bright new chefs come to public attention and where new concepts are developed.

Brat in London has startlingly good food and communal tables

To some extent, there are parallels with Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi. There’s much more happening in Gurgaon these days than in Delhi. South Mumbai’s restaurant scene is dying while Bandra is hotting up (especially if you include BKC). And in Bengaluru, it is hard to eat well in the centre of town: the action is in the suburbs.

Informal:The old-style restaurant is in intensive care. Everyone is going casual. This time, in London, I ate atElystan Street, the new restaurant opened by Phil Howard who had two Michelin stars at The Square, his formal Mayfair outpost, for years. Howard is one of Britain’s best chefs so it caused quite a stir when he sold The Square and opened Elystan Street, a sort of upmarket, casual neighbourhood restaurant.

But most of the newer restaurants are far more casual than Elystan Street, which is only informal when you compare it to The Square. The Shoreditch places all look like pop-ups, as though a gang of young chefs has moved into a vacant space and started cooking before deciding how to decorate the room. One of the two best meals I had on this trip was at Brat, among London’s hottest restaurants, where I sat on what was, effectively, a communal table and ate food that was startlingly good.

The other hot (and Michelin starred) places in that area like Lyle’s and The Clove Club (both of which I have written about here) are marginally fancier but you are left in no doubt that the point of the restaurant is the food and drink. No money has been wasted on an expensive interior decorator.

Will that happen here? It’s hard to say. Certainly all our restaurants are more casual now. But restaurateurs still look to hotels for inspiration and way too much money is being spent (especially in Mumbai) on restaurant designers who contribute very little to the overall experience.

Bookings: I think it is ageist, but a growing number of London restaurants are unwilling to accept bookings. You turn up and then you queue till a table becomes empty. Because young people are much more willing to stand on the street for 30 or 40 minutes (if not longer), such restaurants attract a younger crowd and are often only recognised by the long queue outside their doors. This queue is now regarded as a positive quality: Michelin says in its review of Padella, a popular pasta place, that it “isn’t difficult to find: just look for the queue.”

The Clove Club is marginally fancy, but the point of the restaurant is the food and drink and not the interiors

Manyplaces will now refuse to answer the phone. They expect you to communicate with them online. Brat, for instance, does not appear to have a phone. This is all very well but can be awkward if something unexpected happens. I was 20 minutes late for my booking because I had an Uber driver from hell who ignored his own service’s GPS directions, took the wrong route and got stuck in traffic. I tried to call Brat to say I would be late – but, of course, there was no phone. In the event, I made it just before they gave my space away.

Vegetables: There is a surge in vegetarianism, so restaurants will include more and more vegetarian options on the menu. But even non-vegetarian dishes will often be vegetable led. At the super glamorous Serge et Le Phoque, courgettes came with bottarga (fish roe), the scallops had peach and artichoke and the standout dish was baingan, cut like a steak and grilled with a miso sauce.Corn on the cob was a starter and tandoori Grilled Cabbage was a main course.

Corn on the cob turned up again at Rovi, the latest of the Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s operations, where almost all the starters and many of the main courses were vegetable-led.

Phil Howard, one of Britain’s best chefs, opened Elystan Street
(Getty images)

Even Phil Howard served us two largely vegetarian courses, his take on baingan (very good) and an update of that forgotten French standby, the cheese soufflé (though he made it non-vegetarian by adding bottarga – still very much one of the go-to ingredients in London).

I don’t think it will happen in India because all these vegetable-led dishes depend on the taste of the vegetables themselves. And in India, we don’t like to taste the vegetables unless they have been smothered in masala or deep-fried.

Bye bye lamb: Just as chicken disappeared from menus in the 1990s, lamb is now disappearing from many restaurants. Pork continues to find favour, either as an ingredient (lardo is another go-to ingredient at the moment) or as charcuterie.

But beef remains a clear favourite. It is hard to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a beef tartare on the menu along with a steak of some description.

That’s one trend that is unlikely to catch on here.Exit the hamburger: There was a time when upmarket burgers were all the rage. Entire chains were dedicated to them; there were crowds outside such places as Burger & Lobster and Meat Liquor or Patty and Bun and chefs tried to invent their own variations on the burger.

That’s over. The crowds have vanished. The burger chains are struggling. And serious chefs have moved on. Chains in trouble:I am not a fan of chain restaurants. Yes, at the upper end, I can just about see the point of Alain Ducasse opening around the world or of Nobu taking his restaurants from city to city.

Many main courses and starters by Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi are vegetable-led
(David Loftus)

But I hate what might be called the mid-market chain because it takes the joy out of eating and replaces a real restaurant with a corporate operation where portion control is the mantra and menus are standardised by head office.

Some chains still flourish but most are cutting back. Several Jamie Oliver restaurants are closing, so are outlets of the Byron chain as well as many others. Is the high street finally through with endless branches of Cote & Garfunkel’s? The consensus is that it is.

Will that be the case in India too? I think it will. Some successful restaurants will open branches in other cities but a chain-model is not sustainable. People want fresh brands and new concepts. Young people, in particular, are demanding newer places because they tire very quickly of the old brands.

Spanish: Spain remains the flavour of the moment in London whether it is in techniques, ingredients, style, or flavour. My friend Fay Maschler, England’s greatest restaurant critic, says that she thinks that paella will be the next big thing. She took me to the wonderful Serge et Le Phoque where paella is already on the menu and says she has heard of other places that are planning to introduce it too.

Would Spanish food work in India? I think it would. When we talk about Spanish food in India, we only refer to the tapas-style of serving small plates. But personally, I think that the flavours are more suited to Indian tastes than say, Italian, our current favourite. They just need to find a way to make the food less protein-packed and more carby.

Indian Restaurants:Suddenly, there is a boom. Within one square mile, you will find Chutney Mary, Veeraswamy’s, Jamavar, Indian Accent, Gymkhana, Bombay Bustle, Benaras, Matsya and other upmarket Indian places. And then, there is the casual Indian of places like Masala Zone, Kricket, Dishoom and Hoppers.

But that’s a whole new story – for another week.

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