As preparations for Diwali get underway, Vineet Bhatia, one of the pioneers of contemporary Indian cuisine, talks about his Dubai restaurant relaunch and shares his own celebration recipe.
Vineet Bhatia in Diwali mood
The ease with which Vineet Bhatia moves around his kitchen suggests that although he has a veritable empire of restaurants to his name (11 in total), he is no stranger to the stove. An air of quiet authority clearly marks him out as the boss and from the young man tending to a pan of rice in the corner to his executive chef John Sinjobi, the dedication of his team is obvious.
Bhatia, who has two Michelin stars, is in Dubai to mark the change in name of his restaurant from "Indego" to "Indego by Vineet". A subtle alteration, but one that is designed to bring his various restaurants under the same umbrella and ensure that customers all over the world can easily recognise "the name, the standard and the philosophy" of a Vineet Bhatia establishment.
These restaurants are certainly scattered around the globe: from London and Geneva to India and Mauritius, with Dubai in between. When chefs expand like this, you can't help but feel that in doing so, they have to relinquish a certain amount of control. Surely, his influence is not felt as keenly as it once was? On the contrary, says Bhatia. "None of the menus are allowed to change without my approval. The chefs can experiment with different dishes and test ideas out, but the final say-so comes from me." A number of his senior members of staff began their careers with him, and having cut their teeth in Bhatia-run kitchens, they have this way of cooking "in their blood; it is what they do day in, day out".
Bhatia is regarded as one of the pioneers of contemporary Indian cooking. He admits that when he first arrived in Britain he was shocked by the dishes that were being served in curry houses, because they bore so little resemblance to the food of his homeland. "My style of cooking came out of necessity. It was born out of aggression, out of a desire to be different and a need to show the worth of Indian food."
"Modern, evolved Indian" is the way he describes the food in his restaurants: "Modern in terms of the way it is presented, and evolved because it is moving with the times. I don't think that any cuisine should stay the same, we have to move on, to be willing to adapt." What Bhatia manages to do, with infinite delicacy, is pay homage to his country's rich culinary history (tandoori chicken, lamb korma and various biryanis all feature on his menu) while all the while rejuvenating and refining it.
Bhatia's interpretation of Indian food is a far cry from the ubiquitous curry house or takeaway scenario, where tables are loaded with a huge variety of dishes and everyone helps themselves. In his restaurants, most dishes are served plated and the presentation is elegant and restrained, thus enabling him to "showcase Indian food in a manner that people come to regard as fine dining".
This Diwali, for example, diners at Indego by Vineet can expect to sample dishes such as achari paneer and pepper biryani enclosed in a flaky crust, served with slow-cooked red lentils and pomegranate raita, rose petal sandwiches, steamed yoghurt and redcurrant jelly, served with roasted pistachio and a refreshing mint ice-cream.
Earlier this year Bhatia opened a restaurant in Mumbai's Oberoi Hotel. That was a particularly poignant event, as this was not only the hotel attacked by gunmen in 2008, it was also where he worked as a young chef. After enjoying success on a worldwide scale, Bhatia says this homecoming was a pivotal moment in his career: "We were scared, I'll be honest. To open up in my hometown, cooking a modern style of food that people hadn't seen before, was a daunting prospect. I returned to the same kitchen that I'd left 25 years earlier and the first person I saw was the doorman, who simply said, 'Welcome back'. It was very special."
Having in effect come full circle, what does Bhatia envisage for the future? Well, he believes the popularity of contemporary Indian food will continue to grow and predicts that over the next few years the cuisine will undergo continued change, until it is firmly established as a major player in international fine dining.
He also predicts that chefs from other cuisines will begin to tap into the world of Indian spices and start to incorporate them into their cooking. "The pot is very deep and spices are a like a mystery box," he remarks. "They open up a whole new world."
With a restaurant due to open in Abu Dhabi next year, Bhatia's hectic schedule shows no sign of letting up, but then again, neither does his passion for, as he puts it, "creating the cuisine that I have always desired".
The Diwali five-course set vegetarian menu at Indego by Vineet costs Dh330 per person and will be served on November 5. For more information, call 04 317 6000.
A taste of what's in store at Indego by Vineet
We began with a tiny cup of light, frothy lentil soup, faintly spiced and hiding secret treasure: several pieces of succulent white crab meat. To follow, a dish decorated with ruby-red pomegranate seeds, roasted almonds and pineapple chutney, the centrepiece being small discs of potato, topped with a carefully arranged pile of exotic salad leaves. The presentation is delicate and importantly, the food feels as if it has been cooked with a light hand - the potatoes are perfectly tender and the spicing just so.
Next came tandoori monkfish. Cutting through the vibrant mint and coriander coating revealed a meaty white centre and although the casing erred on the salty side, the fish was moist and flavourful, with a subtle, smoky aftertaste. Served with slithers of pale radish, a tiny pile of sticky red onion and a bold slick of balsamic glaze, it is clear that this is well-considered food. By that I mean every element of the dish had a reason for being present - be it to add sweetness, counteract acidity or provide heat.
The chicken tikka featured quite the tenderest piece of chicken that I have ever tasted - the meat flaked away from the fork in the manner of slow-roasted lamb. This is an elevated version of a classic: the combination of spices was familiar, yet the taste was exquisite. The buttery richness of the saffron mash was offset by a piquant cranberry sauce laced with powdered ginger, which warmed the mouth as you ate. A single, plump lamb chop sat in the middle of another plate and once again, the meat was unfeasibly tender - we decided that the kitchen must be using a water bath to slow-poach its meat, and doing so to great effect. A hint of truffle oil in the accompanying corn and morel korma sauce meant the dish had an impressive depth to it.
I know all this seems like a rather preposterous quantity of food, but the tasting dishes were thoughtfully portioned. I was still able to enjoy a smooth, creamy mango lassi and a bite or two of a fragrant rose petal sandwich to finish.
The inspiration for this food may have its roots in tradition, but in terms of both flavour and presentation these are forward-thinking dishes: stylish, unique and, above all, delicious.
Vineet Bhatia's Diwali green pea and coriander soup with mustard 'caviar'
2 tablespoons corn oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped green chilli
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 shallot, sliced
200ml vegetable stock
4 tablespoons single cream
1 bunch coriander, leaves picked and chopped
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
salt to taste
For the mustard caviar:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
Heat the oil in a pan and add the cumin seeds. As they begin to splutter, add the garlic, green chilli, ginger and shallot and sauté for two minutes, until softened but not coloured. Add the peas and sauté for a further two minutes, then pour in the vegetable stock and cream. Bring to the boil and add the coriander leaves. Immediately blitz the soup with a hand blender until smooth, then strain through a fine sieve. Reheat gently and adjust the seasoning if needed. Mix in the butter before just serving. To make the "caviar", heat the vegetable oil in a pan over a medium heat and add the mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, reduce the heat and cook for two minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Let the seeds rest in the oil for 30 minutes before draining. Pour the warm soup into bowl and sprinkle over the mustard "caviar".