March 25, 2021 4:40:11 pm
A few months ago, chef Vidit Aren of Slink & Bardot, a fine dining tapas restaurant in Mumbai, got a phone call. It was from one of their suppliers, saying he had artichokes from Ooty. “My first thought was that we have to make barigoule, a classic French fish with artichokes, white wine, and shallots,” Aren says.
But Aren wasn’t excited by the dish, especially after the massive research and development project he had undertaken during the COVID-19 lockdown with Slink & Bardot co-founder, Nick Harrison. It had long been their goal to evolve the restaurant’s menu, and being at home in lockdown provided the perfect opportunity to do so. They constructed an elaborate ‘elements chart’ with ingredients, techniques, and garnishes to help them conceive new dishes for the menu.
So, instead of using the Ooty artichokes for barigoule, Aren took inspiration from his childhood in Delhi. He coal-roasted the artichokes on dying embers with portobello mushrooms and added two elements from the chart to complete the dish — pistachio pesto and almond romanesco. Aren says, “The dish was technical, eccentric and delicious. It was part of our radical rethinking of Slink’s menu during the lockdown.”
Over the past year, the features that make dining ‘fine’ — stunning ambiances, highly technical food, artistic plating and exemplary service — became largely irrelevant with the strict lockdowns. Slink & Bardot was one of the many fine-dining restaurants compelled to rethink their menu, creative process, and approach to hospitality. So how has the pandemic inspired reinvention at fine dining restaurants?
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Comfort in the Classics
At the beginning of lockdown, while Aren worked on a long-term project of re-envisioning Slink & Bardot’s menu, he noted that customers wanted comfort food during the lockdown. They didn’t want to be intimidated by delivery with many components, he says. He used a drawing board at the beginning of lockdown to conceptualise new dishes that were comforting and familiar, like handmade pastas and burgers. When Slink & Bardot reopened for in-house meals in early November, he decided to keep comfort food on the menu.
“We realised that there is great demand for a bowl of fresh pasta or for sliders with freshly baked buns at fine-dining establishments. Even though we are actively trying to make our menu less jargon-y and intimidating, sometimes customers just want something familiar rather than eccentric,” Aren says. At the same time, Slink & Bardot introduced out-of-the-box inventions constructed from the ‘elements chart’, including a 7-Day Duck, inspired by ageing duck prosciutto that Aren found in the fridge when he returned to the kitchen after the lockdown.
Meanwhile, at Masque, a fine dining restaurant at Mahalaxmi, known for its modern Indian ten-course tasting menu, executive chef and co-owner Prateek Sadhu also noticed that consumers sought comfort in the food they were eating. “Masque’s founding philosophy is to marry local and traditional with innovation and new techniques. However, during the lockdown, we decided to offer classic, minimalist dishes on their own instead of using them as a starting point for innovation,” Sadhu explains, joking that he never expected to order disposable boxes for biryani, butter chicken, and fried fish.
One of the classic dishes Masque offered during the lockdown was Tamilian prawn pepper fry served with beer dosas. Sadhu loved the dish and so did his customers. When Masque reopened in October 2020, the team wanted the prawn pepper fry to somehow feature on the tasting menu. They eventually conceptualised a hybrid “donut-wada”, stuffed with prawn pepper fry, dusted with beetroot malgapodi powder and served with tempered yogurt. “Cooking classic Indian dishes in our kitchen for the lockdown months inspired a new wave of innovation at Masque,” reflects Sadhu. “Of course, we were scared, we were all in survival mode, but the team came out stronger and more creative.”
Local, Ethical, Sustainable
Just as Slink & Bardot and Masque pivoted to delivery, so did Bastian, a seafood restaurant in Bandra. The delivery menu included restaurant favourites like animal prawns, lunch bowls and hot dogs. It also included new meat alternatives options like Sri Lankan Curry with fish or chicken mock meat, jackfruit tacos, and silken tofu in peanut sauce.
Ranjit Singh Bindra, managing director of Bastian, explains that the restaurant’s decision to explore meat alternatives was a result of changing food preferences among their clientele, but also because of supply-chain delays for seafood like crab and lobster. He says, “Before the pandemic, our supply-chains were nation-wide, but now we have come to rely much more on local producers.”
Aren of Slink & Bardot and Sadhu of Masque both predict that stronger connections between restaurants and local producers will be an enduring outcome of the pandemic as restaurateurs realise the economic, ecological and logistical benefits of investing in local connections.
Sadhu adds that the pandemic has awakened a consumer conscience about food safety, ethics, and sustainability that further compels restaurants to rethink their approach to hospitality. “There are so many do’s and don’ts in the hospitality industry that both restaurants and consumers need to challenge. Why are we always told to scale up? If we want to be sustainable as a society, we need to scale down. Why do we need sixty dishes on a menu? Let’s offer ten or twelve dishes that celebrate ethically-sourced local ingredients.”
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