The Telegraph
| Sunday, November 2, 2014 |

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THE BURGER BOOM

It's all about gourmet burgers at a new generation of restaurants that offer an upscale dining experience, says Susmita Saha

  • Manu Chandra is putting his own bigger and better spin on Monkey Bar's burgers and his Mobar Burger (below) comes stuffed with a 300g monster patty; Courtesy: KUNAL CHANDRA

At the buzzing Johnny Rockets outlet in Delhi's Select Citywalk mall it's all about plump and juicy burgers. Take a bite into the Smoke House burger that's topped with smoked bacon, Cheddar cheese, barbecue-ranch sauce and crispy sourdough onion rings. If that's not enough, the restaurant adds its own unique twist to the excitement of dining out — as they deliver the food the waiters dance to the tune of retro American music.

Hop across to Vasant Kunj in South Delhi, where Monkey Bar, the gastropub that's going national, is housed under a glass pyramid and offers a huge spread of bespoke burgers. Monkey Bar, which moved to Delhi some months ago and also has an outlet in Connaught Place, is a dream destination for burger lovers. On offer are burger-meisters like the Mobar Burger that is stuffed with a 300g monster patty. "The upmarket burger is here to stay," says chef Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner, Monkey Bar. Chandra's also the culinary brain behind The Fatty Bao and executive chef, Olive Beach, Bangalore.

Johnny Rockets and Monkey Bar are part of the burger renaissance that started out in Europe and North America and which has now landed in India. These are sophisticated burgers calculated to tickle the taste buds of both grab-a-quick-bite, casual diners and discerning gourmets. On offer is a wide selection of everything from a 1kg mince patty burger to falafel sliders (mini hamburgers) served up by a clutch of creative food entrepreneurs.

These burgers are definitely not made from chewy buns with super-slim frozen patties sandwiched in between. They're all about premium meat patties tailor-made to exact specifications, and monster buns baked in-house. What's more, they come with top-class cheese and fancy add-ons — pickles, gherkins, jalapeno, grilled mushrooms, dill and a variety of sauces.

Take a look at Fatburger, the all-American burger chain that set up shop in Gurgaon's foodie haven Cyber Hub in end-August. The brand, which claims to be a 'Hollywood favourite', has carved out a niche for its custom-made burgers since 1952. In India, it has arrived in a slightly different avatar and is offering everything from The Fat Greek burger (lamb patty with tzatziki sauce) to the Red Scorcher (minced chicken patty with an African peri-peri chilli spice blend). Says entrepreneur Vikramjit Singh, who has brought Fatburger to India: "Evolved customers are even asking if the patties are freshly made or frozen."

  • Bakshish Dean (top) and Vishal Chaudhry of Johnny Rockets are promising Indians pure-protein burgers (below). Pic : RUPINDER SHARMA

According to Vishal Chaudhry, director of Prime Gourmet, which has brought Johnny Rockets to India, diners are raising their forks to the idea of bespoke burgers. "The fast food space has grown by roughly 20 per cent-30 per cent year-on-year in the last few years in India, which is indicated by the number of brands that have entered the country," he says. Prime Gourmet's other directors include star chef Bakshish Dean and entrepreneurs Sachin Goel and Gaurav Sharma.

Chaudhry adds that globally burgers are growing at 30 per cent annually. "It is the fastest growing segment in the casual dining experience," he says. Johnny Rockets currently has two stores in the National Capital Region (NCR), at Ambience Mall, Gurgaon, and Select Citywalk mall, Saket, while a third is set to come up at DLF Promenade mall, Vasant Kunj, by the year-end.

Inevitably, global burger chains are making a beeline for India. Apart from Johnny Rockets and Fatburger, there's also the Burger King chain which wants to be part of the Indian dining-out scene. "We will launch our India stores shortly in Mumbai and Delhi," says Rajeev Varman, CEO, Burger King India.

Also putting up its tables is California-based burger chain Carl's Jr. that's being brought to India by Cybiz BrightStar Restaurants. The brand, known for its charbroiled or flame-grilled burgers, hopes to have five outlets by June 30, 2015, in NCR. "We're looking at a 100 restaurants in, hopefully, the first five years," says Sam Chopra, chairman and founder of CybizCorp, which owns Cybiz Brightstar. He aims to offer customers Carl's Jr.'s made-to-order burgers instead of the readymade burgers served by mainstream mass-market labels. Also, the patties will be charbroiled (yes, that's healthier) rather than put on the skillet. "I want to give an American experience," he says. Chopra is a real estate baron who aims to make it big in the restaurant business.

  • Sam Chopra, who has brought California-based burger chain Carl’s Jr. to India aims to offer customers healthier, charbroiled burgers (below)

It's true that mass-market, low-cost burgers have got bad press for a long time and have been accused of peddling inferior quality offerings. Says Bakshish Dean: "To capture the mass market, brands have to make a cheap product. Hence, they have to look at the cheapest possible ingredients and mask it to make it affordable."

In contrast, the new generation of burger joints mostly offers an upscale dining experience. "We use 180g of meat in our burgers. And this is pure protein as opposed to patties mass produced for big companies, which have only 30 per cent-33 per cent real stuff in it," says Dean.

Take a look at Johnny Rockets which offers burgers that are positively exotic by Indian standards. It first opened in 1986, has 250 outlets in the US and 100 globally. In also has a strategic partnership with Royal Caribbean cruise lines. One favourite here is the Route 66, named after the iconic American highway. This super-burger comes with both vegetarian and non-vegetarian patty options, Swiss cheese, grilled mushrooms, grilled onions and mayonnaise.

Obviously, the ingredients are king in the new upscale burgers. At Monkey Bar outlets in Delhi and Bangalore, buns are freshly baked twice a day instead of being outsourced. "The recipe is such that the buns don't crumble after being assembled," says Chandra. The 34-year-old chef, who studied at the The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, has put his own global spin on the restaurant's burgers.

So, you have varied offerings like the Chicken katsu burger (that's chicken breast marinated in oriental spices and herbs, sriracha (Asian hot sauce) cabbage and green curry mayonnaise). Or, bite into the Gastro burger (a 200g patty with Gruyere and Gouda cheese, mushroom ketchup, whiskey glaze and Bloody Mary tomatoes).

  • Deepak Datwani, owner of The Big Fat Lulu’s is ensuring that his Kilo Burger caters to patrons with monster appetites

High-end produce is also the key at Delhi-based dining outfit Smokeys which opened last December. Says Shiv Karan Singh, owner, Smokeys BBQ and Grill: "We have Stealth Fries — which is one of the best fries in the world — to go with our burgers. The meat in the patties is smoked and we only use impor-ted pork and bacon." Burgers are the highlight at Smokeys, which offers funky creations including the Pulled Tenderloin Ragout Burger, vegetable patty burger flavoured with Madras curry and much else.

Not surprisingly, the burger experience in India is incomplete without vegetarian options. But even vegetarians are getting adventurous burgers at these hip eateries. For instance, falafel sliders are showstoppers at Monkey Bar, while vegetable patties topped with ratatouille grab attention at Smokeys.

Other edgy dining outlets like Farzi Caf, Zorawar Kalra's flagship Indian bistro launched at Cyber Hub, Gurgaon, are trying to take the green burger to a different level. Inspired by what's called the Gupta burger found at roadside stalls, it has its sophisticated avatar, called Delhi's Favourite Gupta Burger. "It's a modern version where we use spicy mayonnaise and potatoes softened using sous vide," says Kalra.

However, in the rapidly evolving fast food space everyone agrees that they need to keep the buzz going to ensure footfalls. Hence, the new burger brands are expanding their social media outreach to communicate with savvy patrons. "I have been interacting with customers myself on social media, telling them how all our products are transfat free," says Dean. Most of the Facebook pages of burger labels are awash with contests and meal offers that help generate online traffic. One entry from Johnny Rockets India's Facebook page, for example, asks fans to describe their dream burgers where the 10 best answers will be rewarded. "Bacon.cheese.bacon.cheese.bacon.cheese. And more BACON!", screams a burger addict.

Similarly The Big Fat Lulu's, which swung into action in September in Gurgaon's Cross Point Mall, is also upping the ante about hooking smart customers. Its Kilo Burger Challenge asks patrons to demolish its Kilo Burger (yes, that's a 1kg mince patty) with half-a-litre of any aerated drink in half an hour without leaving the table. The monster burger's complimentary for anyone who wins the challenge. "Drop in at The Big Fat Lulu's and earn your bragging rights," says its owner Deepak Datwani.

These dining establishments are notching up orders though they are not easy on the wallet. The Big Fat Lulu's Kilo Burger costs Rs 999. And Smokeys charges Rs 610 for its Pulled Tenderloin Ragout Burger.

Is there a perfect way to eat the upscale burger? "Don't spend time taking selfies and food porn pictures. Have it immediately," says Chandra.