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Raising the bar

It’s midweek, but chef Manu Chandra’s new Monkey Bar in Bangalore’s Wood Street is jam-packed. The 4,000sqft pub spread across two floors doesn’t have a dance floor but that isn’t stopping the crowd from jiving to the music around the bar area. Around the bar the focus is on stylish cocktails and beer. But move away from the bar area and it’s the food that’s drawing all the attention.

Liquor may be quicker but it’s even better when accompanied by good food, as chef Chandra likes to emphasise. And once the customers have knocked back a drink or two, their minds turn to food. One favourite is Chandra’s Monkey Bar burger but there’s plenty for customers who are differently inclined, like the mee goreng (a filling combination of ramen noodles, a soft boiled egg and spicy sauce with crispy vegetables). Alternatively, a Thai green curry with rice always hits the spot.

Chef Chandra insists that the Monkey Bar is a lot more than a place to meet and drink. He points to the extensive menu, which he reckons, puts it a cut above the average drinking joint. Says Chandra: “We’re a gastropub. The essence of a gastropub is good hospitality teamed with great food and drinks as opposed to a dingy dark pub serving drinks and a few greasy snacks.” Restaurateur A.D. Singh is one of Chandra’s partners at Monkey Bar.

Pick up the knife and fork — or chopsticks — and move to Delhi’s 100% Rock, another gastropub that offers a mix of rock music, exotic cocktails and till recently prided itself on its Thai and Chinese delicacies. The chain has three restaurants — two in Delhi and one in Jaipur — and one is just two months old. As it expands 100% Rock is now adding European food to its menu. The fare includes everything from spicy Thai chicken salad and dim sums to spinach pizza. “The demand for options beyond just being a watering hole is driving the success and demand of such places,” says Manish Choudhary, who owns the chain with Rajiv Choudhary.

Chef Manu Chandra’s mee goreng and Thai green curry never fail to hit the sweet spot at Monkey Bar

The Indian restaurant business is turning super-competitive and gastropubs are the newest manifestation of the constant battle to find new ways to bring in hungry and thirsty customers. And even popular pubs are discovering that thirsty customers soon start feeling hunger pangs and like to follow their drinks with a satisfyingly tasty meal.

Back in Bangalore, which prides itself on being ahead of the curve in the restaurant game, Arun George, co-owner of the 12,000sqft brew pub Toit in upmarket Indiranagar is constantly looking for ways to smarten his menu and put out a more lavish spread. “The days of serving ‘peanut masala’ with drinks are passť, and this is reflected in the growing focus on food in pubs across the city,” says George who, along with his partners Sibi Venkataraju, Mukesh Tolani and Glen Williams, is one of the pub’s owners.

Toit’s owners have brought in an Irish master brewer, Matthew Callahan, to take care of the micro brewery’s functioning but George and his team have been concentrating on food right from the beginning. On offer is everything from grilled fish and wood-fired pizzas to steaks and burgers. Taking things a step further, George even recommends certain beer and food pairings to his guests. “We were focusing on our food even before the term ‘gastropub’ became fashionable,” he says. A meal for two with one drink each, costs about Rs 1,600 at Toit.

Thai and Chinese delicacies have been the highlight at Manish (standing) and Rajiv Choudhary’s 100% Rock

To be sure, the liquor is always important. So, the Gurgaon-based Striker Pub and Brewery will pull you four different types of beer — Jazzy Light, Country Pilsner, Weiss Blues and Rock Bock — from its brewed-on-the-premises offerings. But it’s also cooking up a storm and offering a mix of Indian, Chinese and Continental food. The hotsellers, says Lalit Ahlawat, one of the directors, are bhuna gosht and Andhra-style chicken apart from starters like crispy corn with roasted garlic and beer batter fish.

“The importance of food is one reason why we keep revising the menu so that there is always something new to offer to the guests,” says Ahlawat.

It isn’t just the competitive market that’s forcing restaurateurs and pub owners to head back into the kitchen and come up with new offerings. Sovan Mukherjee of night club and lounge bar, Nocturne, says their customers are changing in more ways than one. And most importantly, customers can now go out for an evening and spend much more than before. The result is that Nocturne has been constantly adding new items to its menu to satisfy customer demands. “Young people and working couples have money to spend and all they need is a good pub or lounge where they can have a good time as well as good food and drinks with good music and service,” says Mukherjee.

Sovan Mukherjee of Nocturne chose to keep the focus largely on Mediterranean cuisine and Italian food

Good food always goes down well and some gastropubs are making space for more sophisticated offerings. Take Bangalore’s The Biere Club, Craft Brewery and Kitchen, famous for its micro brewery and for being a haven for food lovers. In recent months, they’ve divided the food section into two areas. On the ground and second floor customers can order nibbles like chicken wings, Middle Eastern kebabs and pizzas. The first floor has been turned into what’s called The Biere Club Chophouse. This section caters to meat lovers who’d like to put on their serviettes and tuck into an elaborate lunch or dinner that mostly consists of grills, steaks and burgers.

“It was because of the popularity and demand of our steaks and beer that The Biere Club Chophouse had to be set up for the foodies,” says Vishal G. Nagpal, director, operations of The Biere Club, Craft Brewery and Kitchen.

The Biere Club, owned by brother and sister team Arvind and Meenakshi Raju, has always gone to great lengths with both its beer and food. At different times, they’ve over a hundred different brews. And they called in Calcutta-based Shaun Kenworthy to plan a food menu that patrons would like to tuck into along with a glass of beer. “The same ideology was kept in mind while preparing the menu for The Biere Club Chophouse which is why 80 per cent of the dishes here are grilled,” says Nagpal.

According to Lalit Ahlawat, one of the directors of Striker, the hotsellers at his pub are bhuna gosht and Andhra-style chicken

Nagpal offers one reason why gastropubs may be particularly popular in Bangalore. The city with its footloose and fancy-free young executives from the hi-tech world has had its nightlife curbed by the tough closing rules that came in a few years ago. The result, says Nagpal, is that there aren’t many moderately priced non-five star options in the city after the 11.30pm deadline.

At Nocturne the game is slightly different because it offers a mix of being a lounge and club with high quality drinks and food. “Nocturne moves from being a quiet lounge bar in the early evening to a party zone at night,” says Mukherjee, who says they offer a crucial balance of taste and health in the food offerings.

Mukherjee focused largely on Mediterranean cuisine and particularly Italian food because it’s popular and also healthier. Another crucial factor was that the food should be filling and tasty but not too messy.

But Mukherjee points to another reason why gastropubs are suddenly the flavour of the month. Says Mukherjee: “Earlier the ratio of food and beverage sale was 15 per cent to 85 per cent, but nowadays it’s 30 per cent to 70 per cent.” He reckons that in some places the food to liquor ratio is now 40 per cent to 60 per cent. That’s partly because people are more aware of not drinking and driving and also because the police are now more strict with breathalysers.

The owners of Toit tempt guzzlers with everything from grilled fish to wood-fired pizzas

The other chefs and owners say the ratios are even more heavily skewed in favour of food. George at Toit reckons that 35 per cent of guests drink and leave. He adds: “About 65 per cent come here to both eat and drink.” Similarly, at the Monkey Bar, Chandra says that out of 10 customers, three come for drinks only while seven both drink and eat. Also, once upon a time pubs were strictly for the younger generation. But today’s gastropubs, says George, are catering every evening to a trendy, affluent crowd that ranges between 25 and 45. Similarly, for Chandra, the focus was good food that would appeal to a cross-section of age groups.

Choudhary points out that alcohol is a fairly standardised product and that’s why good food can make or break a pub — food is where there can be real innovation. “It is a magical combination of good food and drinks which will always work,” he says.

The food and drinks business is turning increasingly competitive. And customers are becoming increasingly demanding. But a combination of good food and drink at competitive prices is the surest way of staying in business.