In a city as closely associated with trade as Mumbai in southern India it is not surprising that Rahul Akerkar, the chef/proprietor of Indigo restaurant and Sanjay Menon, one of the subcontinent’s leading wine merchants, look on the months of December, January and February with such relish.
“It’s more than just the festive season,” Akerkar explained. “There is a record number of tourists as the weather is clement and most conspicuously it marks the return of so many NRIs [Non-Resident Indians] – from overseas. There’s a lot of flash and a lot of weddings and we tend to sell far more bottles of expensive wine than at any other time of the year.”
That Akerkar has reached the position where he can pass such judgements owes a great deal to his rather wild days as a postgraduate bio-engineering student in the US. Born in Mumbai to a German/Jewish mother (one reason perhaps why Indigo’s cheesecake is so good) and an Indian father, Akerkar, 46, drifted into cooking to pay his student bills. But he soon found that he enjoyed it too much and after cooking in several Manhattan restaurants he returned to Mumbai with the express intention of proving that restaurants could flourish independently of the hotels.
“It wasn’t easy to raise the US$800,000 to start Indigo seven years ago, mainly because restaurants in Mumbai were then either very basic Mom and Pop affairs or much more expensive and glamorous and located in the five star hotels. Even today I think there is a psychological barrier for many Indians to be seen spending too conspicuously outside the top hotels but the attitude to funding restaurants here has definitely improved. Restaurants are a bit like the IT sector today and are seen as rather sexy.”
Akerkar’s ambition was to create a comfortable, obviously contemporary environment in which he could combine a mix of the ingredients and techniques he had used in the West alongside all that Mumbai could offer, but initially that was not easy either. “What I realised pretty quickly was that Indians are only too keen to appreciate and enjoy French, Italian or Asian dishes, but they only expected to enjoy them in ‘French’, ‘Italian’ or ‘Asian’ restaurants. The criteria for my menu is that if the dish is good enough and I like it we’ll cook it. Happily, today my customers seem to enjoy what we do.”
After our meal it was easy to see why. Indigo is located in a large double fronted building that immediately generates a sense of space in an otherwise crowded city and the food exudes a similar level of calm confidence. No sooner had seven of us sat down than we were enjoying a coconut roast chicken soup with mushrooms, local tuna with sesame-marinated peppers, salmon with Madras onion marmalade, a terrine of beetroot and feta cheese and several well-sauced pasta dishes followed by some excellent desserts, particularly Indigo’s signature soufflés. While the menu might not be remarkable in Manhattan, it is most decidedly in Mumbai. Thanks to a seeming unlimited supply of staff, the speed of service in southern Indian restaurants is as welcome a phenomenon as the still very low prices.
Afterwards I asked Akerkar what other particular and unexpected professional challenges he had faced at Indigo, a question which caused him to roar with laughter. “In many ways I don’t know where to begin but I suppose the biggest challenge has been trying to create new vegetarian dishes. In the West it’s relatively easy for a chef to create something new just working with some of the great ingredients that are increasingly available. But in India there is such a rich tradition of vegetarian cooking it is much more difficult to create something new and I have had to work very hard with my pasta and risotto dishes to please this important segment of the local market.
“To give you an example of just what a challenge this can be, I have just managed to resolve quite a long-running issue with a customer, a Jain, who ate in my delicatessen. Jains are strict vegetarians who cannot eat anything that grows under the ground. But unfortunately, an inexperienced waiter on this occasion forgot to tell him that the dish he ordered contained garlic and he ate it. Afterwards he threatened to take the story to the papers unless I paid him a lot of money, but in the end we settled on a few cases of wine fortunately.
“And in the kitchen there is also a division which does not exist in the West as most of my cooks are either recent graduates from the catering colleges or young men from the villages whose fathers and grandfathers have been cooks before them. The latter tend to have the better technique but are only prepared to cook what has historically been in their repertoire whereas the city kids invariably want to experiment before they have mastered the necessary techniques. One recent phenomenon I have noticed is that quite a few Indian chefs are being lured away to better paid jobs in the West, a situation rather like our doctors and nurses,” Akerkar concluded with an uncharacteristic grimace.
With its food, sense of style and proximity to the Taj Hotel, Indigo provides an effective bridge into India for anyone arriving in Mumbai. Trishna, however, supplies something far more definitively Indian.
As our taxi turned into the small alleyway I began to doubt whether this could be home to what Jean-Paul Barat, a cosmopolitan Frenchman who has been in the luxury food business for the past 25 years, described to me as one of his top five restaurants in the world. But Trishna, we were quickly to discover, is one place where the décor does not attempt to impress but the food seems never to disappoint.
Trishna had been unceremoniously serving the freshest seafood for some time before being thrust into the limelight via the attentions of the city’s advertising industry. Visually little seems to have changed: the waiters in black bow ties, the rather maudlin looking senior manager pointing parties to empty tables, and the wooden garden bench seating which very effectively joins together to accommodate large parties such as the three Indian sisters who sat next to us with various children and their collection of mobile phones and gameboys.
But Trishna’s fish is little short of fantastic. Squid in a marsala batter; deep fried lady fish from down the coast; grilled pomfret; and, best of all, the most succulent crab, brought live to our table dangling on a piece of string held by the waiter. Their kulfi was impressive too (to a Londoner), as was the bill – dinner for four came to only 3,000 rupees, less than £40.
Indigo, 4 Mandlik Road, 91.22.5636 8980,
Trishna Sai Baba Merg, 91..22.703213,
Swati, Tardeo near Bhatia Hospital for exceptional vegetarian cooking. No reservations.