Bangalore's bytes and bites

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By New restaurants are firing up their stoves in the quest to conquer the Garden City's appetite, says Shrabonti Bagchi
  • Published 20.05.06
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(From top) A view of Sahib Sindh Sultan, an Indian restaurant built on the Raj theme complete with an antique railway carriage;chairman of the BJN Group, P B Nichani; the highly-popular Teppanyaki Bar at Ginseng, the Oriental restaurant from the Baljee Group; restaurateur A D Singh strikes a pose at Olive

He did Mumbai, conquered Delhi and then he felt a trifle restless. This thing, he said, is good, and this thing needs to go places. So, where next? That’s when he turned his sights towards a once sleepy hamlet in the south of the country, now a vigorous metropolis, and said ‘aha’!

We are talking about compulsive restaurateur A D Singh and his famous restaurant brand Olive here (in case you were looking up the history books to check which rampaging monarch this could be). Having set up a flourishing trade in crusty pizzas, melt-in-the-mouth pastas and excellent wine at the two Olives in Mumbai and Delhi, Singh felt the next best place for the Olive brand to be in was that young pretender, Bangalore. “We came to Bangalore because it presented a sophisticated international market with quality and style,” says Singh confidently.

Increasingly, it is a confidence that restaurateurs, both from out of town and the city born-and-bred, share about the Bangalore hospitality industry. Ask anybody what’s the most lucrative business for entrepreneurs in Bangalore today, and the answer is as likely to be ‘restaurants’ as selling your big software idea or setting up a BPO outfit.

The city, which did not have a single regular food-guide till this year, got no less than three within a month ? the Times Food Guide from the Times of India group, the Kingfisher CityInfo Great Food Guide from the CityInfo group and the Food Lovers’ Food Guide from Taste and Travel magazine. Says Priya Bala, editor of the Times Food Guide, “The food and eating- out scene in Bangalore has really picked up momentum in the last couple of years. So it’s not surprising that we have three food guides now.”

Just a look at the variety of cuisines available to Bangaloreans today would convince you that the city is in a fair way to give Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta a run for their money. Persian, Baluchistani, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian, Portuguese, Mexican, Caribbean, French ? it’s a geography lesson on a plate. And lesser-known Indian cuisines are equally well represented, from Goan to Kashmiri to Bengali, Parsi and coastal food.

Iranians Vahid Berenjian and Dr Karimi, who started a one-of-its-kind Persian restaurant, Sufi off busy Airport Road in Bangalore, are very pleased with the kind of response it has got. Their niche restaurant, situated in an old colonial house with seating on the broad verandah on raised beds on which you sit cross-legged and eat off a table placed in the centre, does brisk business and is one of the most popular restaurants in the area. “Bangaloreans are experimenting with different kinds of cuisines and coming back for more,” says the affable Dr Karimi.

Another sure indication of the boom in Bangalore’s eating out culture is the way restaurant groups are moving in more aggressively than ever before. The prolific BJN group of restaurants that runs nine successful fine-dining restaurants and pubs all over Bangalore, might be said to have had first mover advantage when chairman, restaurateur P B Nichani came over from Mumbai eight years ago. The BJN group’s repertoire runs the gamut of cuisines from the exotic North-West Frontier cuisine (Samarkand) to an Indian restaurant with Bombay as its theme, Bombay Post. Last year, the BJN group opened two specialty joints with much fanfare. One of them was Sahib Sindh Sultan, an Indian restaurant built on the Raj theme with an antique railway carriage ? inside which patrons are wined and dined, and the other, Firangi Pani, an ‘authentic’ English pub.

“One has to constantly innovate and differentiate,” says Nichani, who now plans to replicate the success of his Bangalore ventures in other cities such as Mumbai and Hyderabad. “Bangalore gave us a great opportunity to build our brands and see what works. I consider it one of the most ‘happening’ cities in India, and it has a developing palate and a high amount of disposable income.”

(From top) Head chef, Arif Ahmed with some of the fare at Sikandar, a restaurant that serves food influenced by the cuisines of Greece, Persia, Kashmir, Baluchistan and Hyderabad; a hostess greets you at the Taj Westend’s Blue Ginger, pegged as the country’s only purely Vietnamese restaurant

You could call it the Big Bangalore Bazaar with its high-income middle class and ever-growing populace of young professionals pouring in from every corner of the country, which has had an enormous effect on the economy of this city. And where there are young people with money to burn and weekend after weekend to burn it in, eating out comes right in line with entertainment and shopping.

“The average age of the Bangalorean is 35. That explains the explosion in the restaurant business and the much larger number of people getting out of their houses to eat out today,” says Arjun Baljee, scion of the Baljee group of restaurants. The group owns some of the city’s most popular joints, among them the six-month old Ginseng, an Oriental restaurant that serves signature dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and even Singapore.

According to head chef Arif Ahmed of another new stand-alone restaurant, The Legend of Sikandar at hotspot Garuda Mall, “young working couples hardly want to cook.” For them, eating out is often a necessity, and with enough money to spend, they are driving the restaurant business to a large extent and forcing restaurateurs to constantly innovate to cut the clutter. Sikandar, for instance, pays culinary tribute to Alexander’s route on his conquering journey across Asia, and serves food influenced by the cuisines of Greece, Persia, Kashmir, Baluchistan and Hyderabad among others.

Arjun Sajnani, one of the city’s most experienced restaurateurs whose European restaurant, Sunny’s is consistently on Bangalore’s must-visit lists, says the most visible sign of the food explosion are the food courts at malls. “The enormous amount of choice that food courts offer, the ability to say ‘let’s go there’ ? there has never been this kind of choice, so no wonder more and more people are eating out in Bangalore,” says theatre-person-cum-restaurateur Sajnani, sitting in the airy top-level of Sunny’s, tastefully done up in muted colours with a relaxed atmosphere that doesn’t take away from the fine-dining aura.

Although there were always those who considered an evening wasted that was not spent chewing the cud (and more) at the city’s popular old-time joints such as Koshy’s, eating out was not such a huge pastime. The IT boom ? which brought in new blood and new money ? made eating out almost a necessity at times. In no time, it seemed, people had turned into foodies.

Mall owners agree that eating out in Bangalore is at an all-time high. According to B G Uday, managing director of the Garuda Mall, 33 per cent of the mall’s revenues come from its food court and the other five speciality restaurants in the mall. “People want a complete entertainment package, with shopping, movies and eating out, and they get it in a mall under one roof,” says Uday.

While the stand-alone restaurants innovate, the five-stars clearly don’t want to be left behind in this race. So there are coffee shops serving Lebanese food (Mynt at the Taj West End) and the city’s best coastal food (Karavalli at the Taj Gateway), along with the Leela Palace hosting frequent food festivals celebrating cuisines as exotic and varied as Mangalorean, Moplah and Cajun.

A case in point is the country’s only purely Vietnamese restaurant, Blue Ginger, which occupies pride of place at the leafy Taj Westend near the city’s racecourse. Opened in 2004, Blue Ginger serves Vietnamese delicacies. This largely seafood-oriented cuisine has had influences ranging from French, Japanese and Portuguese. Sandeep Kachru, head chef at Blue Ginger, calls Vietnamese the “biggest cuisine trend since the Chinese” and says it is the cuisine of the future, having already become extremely popular in places like France. “We decided to try this concept out in Bangalore because it has a large young and well-travelled population,” says Kachru.

Arjun Sajnani, whose European restaurant, Sunny’s is consistently on Bangalore’s must-visit lists

What the city also has is a burgeoning expatriate population, with between 6,000 and 7,000 people holding foreign passports trickling in to work in Bangalore’s numerous IT and ITES companies each year. Some come on short assignments, while others may make longer stopovers lasting a couple of years. But what they all need is good food that reminds them of back home ? hence the small Korean restaurants set up by Koreans settled here, the Caribbean restaurant, Sue’s Place run by the eponymous Sue in upmarket Indiranagar and Japanese restaurant, Harima run by the mother-son duo of Junko and Mako Ravindran on central Residency Road. “There’s so much choice in Bangalore for eating out that all I’ve done since the food-guides were out is mark out places that I have to go to,” grins Steve McDermott, who’s here from the UK on a two-year stint with a risk analysis firm.

There are certain concerns, to be sure, such as the ban on restaurants and pubs being open after 11.30 at night imposed by the state government ? a rule that is almost equally hated by the restaurateurs and those who go out regularly. “It makes no sense in a city where on weekdays, most people only get out of office after eight in the evening,” says fashion designer Manoviraj Khosla, a compulsive pub-hopper.

“This is the single biggest deterrent to investors and more growth here,” says A D Singh who also feels that it is unsettling and entirely unexpected for an “international city like Bangalore” to have such restrictions. More rational policies on these issues would do greater wonders for the food scene in the city, most restaurateurs feel.

Yet, with more and more ambitious out-of-towners heading towards Bangalore ? from Singh to Anjan Chatterjee with Mainland China to other Calcutta brands such as 6, Ballygunge Place and more recently Tangerine One ? there’s only one direction Bangalore’s eating out graph can be headed. As Ramjee Chandran, publisher, CityInfo and one of the editors of the group’s food guide, says, “Bangaloreans were always foodies, what with the city’s cosmopolitan culture and Western influence. It’s just that now the scale has expanded phenomenally, and Bangalore’s little gourmet secrets are out.”

Photograph of Arjun Sajnani by Vinod Kumar