I didn’t know what to expect when I drove to The Oberoi, Mumbai located at Nariman Point a few day’s ago. I was scheduled to meet chef Vineet Bhatia at his restaurant, Ziya, for dinner. The busy chef was in Mumbai for a flying visit.
I am not big on travelling within the city, and the drive to South Mumbai from Bandra seemed a bit of a stretch in the evening. I admit that I was keen on meeting the internationally acclaimed chef. Yet, sometimes these ‘official’ dinners can be dreary and long drawn, and I felt that I’d rather be home for dinner. Given that the chef would be busy and possibly tired, I thought he might come and say a perfunctory hello to someone he didn’t know from Adam and leave me to navigate through a multi-course dinner by myself.
Moreover, Vineet Bhatia is known for ‘modern Indian food’. In my head that means test tubes, spheres and foam on the table. Yes, I admit I am biased and biases are never good. I don’t want to run down this sort of dining, but it’s not what appeals to me. After all, as Nicherin Daishonin, the Buddhist monk said, ‘"Cherry, plum, peach and damson blossoms all have their own qualities’. So, whatever works.
In case you want to know what finally happened, our dinner lasted for about four hours! I actually left well after midnight without realising how late it was.
Chef Bhatia set the tone for the evening when he sat down at the table with an impish smile and greeted me by saying “ why don’t you leave the camera and reviews aside, woh sab hota rahega (all that will happen). Let’s chat instead.” I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear that. Now, let me tell you why I ended up spending four hours with chef Vineet Bhatia.
To start with, his drive was inspiring as was the fact that he didn’t let setbacks hold him back. As a kid he wanted to join the Air Force. But, couldn’t make it because of his diminutive frame. So, he decided to become a chef instead. He then joined the Oberoi Hotels. While his peers from catering school made a beeline for the international restaurants of Indian hotels, which were said to hold a more promising future back then, Bhatia chose to work at the Kandahar, an Indian restaurant at The Oberoi. He felt that his creative urges were stifled there and he decided to try his luck abroad instead. He went to the UK with very little in his pocket. He was unhappy with what was served as Indian food in the West. However, he experimented till he came up with a winning formula that won his restaurants Michelin stars in two different countries (you can Google and get his story) and a clientele, which includes Hollywood stars and Grammy winners among others.
When Mr Oberoi of the Oberoi Hotels Group asked him to come back home, Bhatia didn’t let his past grudges colour his decision. He agreed to come back as a consultant and set up Ziya at The Oberoi, Mumbai. This, at a time before ‘eating Indian’ had become trendy in the city as it, thankfully, is now. He faced snide remarks when he launched Ziya and yet carried on. He decided to be flexible and kept black daals and alu jeeras for those who wanted it, while carried on experimenting with a young and visibly happy team at the restaurant.
He got in to more business ventures including in India and TV shows too. Some worked while some didn’t. He picked himself up each time and carried on.
If this story wasn’t infectious enough, then his energy was. Bhatia had landed from Dubai early in the morning, spent a whole day in the kitchen including hosting a media and bloggers meet in the afternoon, and yet chatted on past midnight as fresh as a daisy.
Coconut Rasmalai at Ziya.
The food that I ate at Ziya was good solid food. Plated prettily (special and small tasting portions) and yet didn’t intimidate me as sometimes overly ‘deconstructed’ and ‘dressed up’ food does. I felt like digging in when I saw the food!
My starters went cold while the chef and I did a half an hour live Periscope video, and people from across the world peppered him with questions including a foreigner who asked him, “what’s the difference between butter chicken and chicken tikka masala?” Bhatia answered, “the former was invented in Delhi and the latter in Birmingham,” and then patiently gave the technical differences too.
He also unabashedly spoke of his love for vada pav when asked about his favourite street food on Periscope. While he doesn’t get time to move around when in Mumbai these days, in Dubai (he lives between Dubai and London) he jumps off when he sees a vada pav shop at Deira (in Dubai) and gets his fill of his growing up days in Mumbai.
Despite going cold, my chicken tikkas were tasty and succulent. The wet mustard seed specked Norwegian salmon was very buttery with the bites of mustard sparking things up. The chef loves our Bengali kashundi (pungent mustard sauce) apparently. A contrast to the fatty imported salmon was the meaty Bengali bhetki, which was marinated with a sharp coriander and chilli marinade that left me with two contrasting piscatorial taste experiences.
I liked the influence of Western concepts of jus and roasts as evident in the Roganjosh where the lamb shank was paired with a drizzle of sauce. Also the juicy Chilean sea bass, which was served on a sparse, but inspired beetroot and local kokum berry coulis. All this came with a small white dhokla sandwich with prawn rechad stuffed in between, which was a lovely pairing of Gujarati and Goa classics. This meant, that unlike the usual Indian 'protein drowned in curry' concept, one got to appreciate the taste of both the protein and the very Indian sauces that went with them.
The pairing of fresh, and very good quality Alphonso mango with rasmalai, was just what one needed after an Indian meal. But, what thrilled me the most was the ice-cream made with real rose petals! It had a fresh taste, which reminded me of the childhood joys of having rose syrup before we all grew up and found the same to be synthetic.
I rarely drink with my meals these days though the chef assured me that wines paired well with what he serves. I gave them a miss though.
The simplicity of the chef’s thinking stuck a chord with me. When I asked him whether he did a lot of research on cooking techniques or past culinary traditions to conjure up his menu, Bhatia said what drives him the most is inspiration around him than being anchored in the past. He spoke fondly of his travels in India for his show, Twist of Taste, which let him reacquaint himself with his country and come up with new ideas on the table. I am pretty sure that a lot of expertise goes into his cooking style, but the childish innocence and zeal with which Bhatia approaches food came through in what I ate that night.
On seeing his love for beetroot, I asked him if he had eaten the Kolkata-famous beetroot-based vegetable chop. Turns out that he had eaten the fish chop in Kolkata, but not the vegetable or 'bhej' chop.
The next day I requested Amit Roy of Peetuk Caterers to take some vegetable chops for the chef. At night, I received a picture from the chef of the veg chops plated beautifully with the kashundi with a message, ‘they were gorgeous’.
The picture of the vegetable chop that was sent by the Chef.
My only request to chef Bhatia would be to look at options outside of five star hotels (Ziya at The Oberoi), or his own Rasoi, which is going to have one of the most premium Indian tasting menus at London, to offer the mass audience with a taste of his genius.
Of course, only the chef can decide what works best for him, but he is a man who has made many fresh starts in his life and has not let the past define his present. So, you never know what’s coming next in the Vineet Bhatia story.
The meal with Vineet Bhatia was courtesy The Oberoi, Mumbai.
Kalyan is a food and travel blogger, who is excited about Indian food and tries his best to bring it alive through his stories. He is happiest when he eats at small, family-run places. He blogs at <a href="http://www.finelychopped.net/"> Finely Chopped.</a>