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Kamala Mills in Mumbai is transforming into India’s hottest dining destination


“What I think is this: You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow”

— Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

There are no cats on the wall but there are shadows, lines, distances, women crossing the street, not in a frenetic New York way but in a placid Kyoto fashion, peering down, perhaps looking for missing parts of their shadows and souls.

The art work on the walls at the new Fatty Bao in Kamala Mills, Mumbai, is more nuanced, complex and stylised than the cheerful, colourful mural that defines the restaurant’s older outlet in Delhi’s RK Puram. It’s as if the little, gregarious, ramen-slurping girl grew up to be a mysterious sophisticate. It’s hard to define what exactly you feel for her — till you come back home and pick up your well-thumbed copy of Kafka on the Shore. Then, it adds up. If Murakami’s world is filled with gaps, missing shadows, fragments of dreams, words never said and, indeed, the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a word that is hard to define but which loosely means finding beauty in the imperfect, this is exactly the sense of fluidity, transience and imperfect beauty that you glimpse on the walls of this new restaurant.

As a brand, The Fatty Bao is a work in progress. It’s more grown up here at Kamala Mills than its older avatars in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai’s Bandra. While some of the trademark features and foods remain, others have shifted shape — and taste. There’s kathal bao for fashionable vegetarians (as also a Jain menu) and baked pork dim sum that reminds you of Cantonese puff pastry but also of Portuguese-influenced egg tarts from Macau. The well-loved Fatty oysters (with chorizo, pankocrumbed) now have a fresher sibling — fresh Kochi oysters cured in yuzu and dotted with Sriracha caviar in a nod to millennial gastronomy. The drinks are more elegant, less syrupy; the brand is upgrading.

The 37-acre premises of Kamala Mills in Mumbai’s Lower Parel is bursting at the seams with almost all major restaurant companies in the country setting up shop here.

It’s fitting this change should have come in a space that itself is undergoing major transformation. From being a sleepy industrial-turned-office zone of two years ago, Kamala Mills in Mumbai’s Lower Parel is transforming itself into the country’s hottest dining destination, with one of the highest concentration of restaurants in an area that was not exclusively planned for F&B retail. The upgraded Fatty (which opened on February 27) is its newest tenant but almost all major restaurant companies in the country are setting up shop here.

It’s only the last six months that have seen so much activity. The erstwhile mill is suddenly the Indian restaurant world’s favourite incubator. Brand new concepts or tweaked ones are looking to test the reception that Maximum City’s millennial audience affords them. The 37-acre premises are bursting at the seams; weekends are chaotic, traffic jams a given and in Mumbai where people are loath to stir out of their neighbourhoods, food-centric treks to the south from as far as Juhu and Bandra are now being undertaken just to be at Kamala.

“Since all boats rise with the tide, restaurants that have come in now have to do much less to get customers” Sameer Seth, partner, Bombay canteen.

I am mulling this change as I stand outside The Fatty Bao with Manu Chandra, its partner. It’s a quiet break from the frenetic preparations inside for a launch party that night. We are not talking anything in particular till Chandra, his nose for news as sharp as his prodigious sense of smell, murmurs under his breath, “That’s the man to know.”

Before I can ask, “Who?”, he has already called out to a welldressed young man stepping out of his car. “So, Chirag, what’s happening?” asks Chandra. The young man bursts in on the scene and into the story with a stream of information: X restaurant did a stupendous Rs.2 crore sales last month. Y has seen the sharpest dip in business. There are two new deals he has brokered, he says, and Z restaurateur will now rent space where something else is shutting.

“Food hubs help because they attract diverse customers with their diverse brands and it becomes easier to get clearances and licences” Manu Chandra, partner, Fatty Bao.

Mills on a Roll

Meet Chirag Maru, 33, who is much more than the go-to broker for all restaurant deals in Kamala Mills and increasingly in all of Mumbai too. Diners swirling their wine may not know him but all restaurateurs do. Maru is on their speed dials, often their friend and confidant. If “location, location, location” are the three most important factors for any restaurant’s success (as is the common belief), Maru is currently the most important man to know in the business in Mumbai. By his own admission, he has a decisive say in the leasing rights to all properties within Kamala Mills and decides which brand to place where, if at all — though he doesn’t own these sites. His rise to influence parallels the rise of Kamala Mill as a hip dining destination. Their stories and destinies are linked. Both are compelling.

“Till two years ago, I used to beg people to take up space here. Now, restaurateurs beg me,” he says. A commerce graduate, who “liked to party,” Maru started off with property consultants Knight Frank India. Because of his personal interest in restaurants, he started a restaurants division in the company. After a while, as his client base grew, he decided to go it alone. Having seen concepts like Clarke Quay in Singapore and the Dubai malls where space is sold to many restaurants as a consolidated retail space, Maru says he decided to focus on selling “hubs” rather than individual deals. The big break came three years ago with Kamala Mills.

In 2014, Maru says, the conservative business family, the Govanis, that controls the mill was reluctant to give out space to restaurants. “It took me six months to convince them,” Maru says. The Fatty Bao has come up, incidentally, in the site for the first restaurant, Tilt. However, it was The Bombay Canteen (TBC) in 2015 that changed Kamala Mills for ever.

The two most buzzing restaurants of the last twothree months in Kamala Mills seem to be Koko by the Tham brothers and Theory by Mickhiel Pinto

With its “chotas” and “badas”, platters of no-fuss modern Indian food rooted in a regional context, The Bombay Canteen was a hit. Mumbai’s hipsters, the arty crowd, tourists and even south Mumbai snobs started visiting the area; perhaps inevitable in a city starved of good Indian food. “When we started, because of the neighbouring offices, we knew we would get lunch business. We didn’t know whether we would get a dinner crowd, so we focused on our dinners,” confesses Sameer Seth, partner at the restaurant.

Today, about 400-500 people sail in every day during weekends. “Since all boats rise with the tide, restaurants that have come in now have to do much less to get customers,” says Seth, who, however, cautions that while Kamala Mills may seem a huge success story, most restaurants have been here for only six months. “That is too soon to say whether they are succeeding.”

The Incubator

Nothing succeeds like success, or at least the perception of it. With TBC being its leading light — “we are like the show house,” laugh its promoters — restaurateurs have been gravitating towards Kamala Mills. “Food hubs help because they attract diverse customers with their diverse brands and it becomes easier to get clearances and licences,” says Chetan Rampal, partner The Fatty Bao. “Also, since the ownership is controlled by a single family, infrastructure here is better than at some of the neighbouring mills where ownership is split.”

Chirag Maru, 33, has a decisive say in the leasing rights to all properties within Kamala Mills and decides which brand to place where, if at all.

Maru — who has signed 65 restaurants in the complex, selling, he claims, Rs.350 crore of stock last year — says owners are widening the roads, building parks and more to improve conditions. Rentals have doubled from two years ago, restaurateurs say (from Rs.200 per sq ft to Rs.400 per sq ft) but the common model that seems to be prevailing is a certain fixed rent or 15% revenue share, whichever is higher.

Meanwhile, a slew of interesting concepts has already come about. D:Oh! by deGustibus Hospitality (that owns Indigo) is a casual, no-frills place, with jhoola seating, a coffee shop with comfort food and self-service. Anurag Katiar, CEO, says the plan is to roll out 50 restaurants pan-India, but Kamala Mills, “with the presence of every major restaurant company”, was deemed the ideal place to incubate it.

Near D:Oh!, Anjan Chatterjee’s Speciality Restaurants is readying to foray into modern Asian food in April. Called Mr Poh’s (Progressive Oriental House), the concept is likely to be helmed by a top chef in the country (watch this space for more) and have top-of-the-line sushi, dim sum, small plates plus a section on modern Asian cooked with cutting-edge techniques — for a younger, casual audience.

There is also buzz about AD Singh’s Lady Baga, Zorawar Kalra’s modern European bar and a new concept by Riyaz Amlani, three of the top restaurateurs in the country. Meanwhile, at the moment, the most successful restaurant in Kamala Mills (and Mumbai) seems to be Koko by the Tham brothers. Just a few months old, the “gastropub” has been packing a punch with its matcha whisky sours, gin and champa liqueur combinations, top-grade hamachi and pork belly. It’s an expensive restaurant (in the vicinity of `2,000 per head) but has been doing the best sales in the premises, we hear.

The other hit seems to be Theory, a mammoth gastropub (that word again) meets nightclub, by Mickhiel Pinto, who used to be part of the Indigo and Tote team with Rahul Akerkar. Delhi restaurateur Priyank Sukhija has opened a huge outpost of his brand Tamasha next door to Kamala Mills and a slew of Delhi restaurateurs is now apparently looking to bring their brands to this part of the world.

While the NCR has its cyberhub, which is also one of the largest planned restaurant hubs in the country (though smaller in area than Kamala Mills), uncertainty vis-a-vis policy — post a Supreme Court ruling that no licences for liquor sales will be given along national and state highways; though the ruling pertains to liquor vends only, as was clarified earier this week, restaurateurs apprehended that it may be used to apply to them —means that restaurateurs have been increasingly looking at alternatives. For the moment, Kamala Mills is where the goldrush is, though there seems to be some kind of vetting before the pass.

“We don’t want to give space to newcomers who have ill-defined concepts or those who spoil the market with cheap Rs.90 beers. We want good concepts by seasoned restaurateurs… I interview newcomers and also study the personal habits of restaurateurs,” says man-of-the-moment Maru. Despite the upbeat mood, there have been failures too, like the muchvaunted Chemistry 101, an ambitious molecular mixology bar that shut in less than six months. Location is important but clearly there’s more to the fickle business of restaurants.

Source: Economic Times

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