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Eat,Drink and Be Merry

The gastropub,a rage in the West,is now Raising the bar in India as a growing number of pubs in big cities tempt customers with affordable menus featuring haute cuisine in a casual atmosphere

Written by N V Shoba | New Delhi |
August 5, 2012 3:45:50 am

The gastropub,a rage in the West,is now

Raising the bar in India as a growing number of pubs in big cities tempt customers with affordable menus featuring haute cuisine in a casual atmosphere

with afsha khan and debjani paul

Every evening,as the lights are dimmed and the music — sing-alongs from the ’80s,Sting and Sheryl Crow,Def Leppard and Bon Jovi — turned up a notch,Monkey Bar starts to resemble a crowd-tossed railway platform. Vada-pav and specialty burgers served on designer ceramic platters,pristine cocktails in mason jars,and a reclaimed “sleeper” wood floor overrun with stilettoes and pointy leather shoes complete the picture. Done up casually,with odd bits of smirk-inducing kitsch and plenty of swagger,the bar is Bangalore’s answer to New York cool and the city’s first self-professed “gastropub”,saluting the British tradition of pubs with grub.

Bangalore has all manner of pubs and bars,but most of them would rather have you soak up their suds and nibble on peanuts and fried chicken than manage a full-fledged kitchen. “It’s easier to pour out a drink than to put food on the table. With alcohol,the costs to the establishment are only 25 per cent of the price,but with food,they go up to 30-40 per cent,” says Satish Thomas,who owns Windsor Pub in Vasanthnagar,one of the city’s haunts for draught beer that has,for over a decade,served a wide selection of Malabar and Coorgi comfort food. A cluster of new establishments has now cropped up to challenge the status quo,with a full menu of appetisers,salads and entrees,sworn to quieten rumbling stomachs.

At Monkey Bar,chef Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal — both of Olive Bar and Kitchen fame — were sure they wanted to make a meal of it. On the pages of their street food-inspired menu,beef kebabs with pav and pork sorpotel from Goa vie for attention alongside the humble Gujarati dabeli,Iranian berry pulao rubs fat-free shoulders with mee goreng and lettuce-free salads,and Moroccan lamb heart skewers jostle bhetki fish from Kolkata. In the two months since the bar opened,its burgers,made from dry,aged meat cooked to perfection on a wood fire,have already earned a following. Nikhil N Shivhare,the manager at Monkey Bar and its “whole & soul” — that’s his designation on his business card — says many of the recipes have come from moms’ kitchens and other comfort food sources. There is,of course,enough booze to wash all this down and ensure that the milling crowd obliges stragglers — “you don’t make a reservation at MoBar,you amble in” — sharing seats and often,stories,with strangers. “We wanted to set up a fun space where the menu piques your interest and people talk about the food as much as about the atmosphere,” Chandra says. A meal for two here,including alcohol and taxes,costs a reasonable Rs 1,200-1,400,with starters beginning at Rs 120 and main courses going up to Rs 400.

The term gastropub was first coined in the UK in 1991 with the launch of The Eagle in London. The Eagle did to British pub food what Auguste Escoffier did to haute cuisine: for the first time in a pub setting,it served zesty Mediterranean dishes with homemade sauces that would,in time,inspire a cookbook and a movement. Dozens of pubs have since adopted the gastro guise,first in England,and more recently in the US for the last five-six years.

A cross between a restaurant and a bar,a gastropub has a casual vibe and typically serves beer and quality food — meats and seafood — with a gourmet twist at affordable prices. Sujeet Nair,an ad executive who has been part of Bangalore’s pub culture in the ‘80s,says it’s what Bangalore needed. A watering hole today is much like a smartphone that is expected to not just make calls,but also to send email,play games and do a whole bunch of other stuff. “You don’t just want to drink and get sloshed,” says Nair,46. “Earlier,we had the time to grab a couple of beers with a friend after work,then go home,pick up family and head to a restaurant for dinner. If we felt up to it,we’d go out once again to one of the more happening bars to party until late into the night. Today,with longer work hours and the 11.30 pm curfew across bars,the entertainment window has narrowed. In two hours,I want to eat,drink and be merry,” he says.

In Mumbai,Lagerbay,a new pub on Waterfield Road in Bandra that has replaced the iconic lounge-bar Zenzi,makes merry on weekend nights with a DJ and excellent food to match. Like Monkey Bar,it is an all-day diner and restaurant that morphs into a happening pub as night falls. Down a Tuborg or a Budweiser here for Rs 150 plus taxes and by all means,order nibbles like the prawn and calamari ajilo,but do save some space for the parmesan-crusted chicken served with a delightful cup of black grape sauce (Rs 290). Come Sunday,Lagerbay’s main bar area features a lavish spread of cold cuts — sausages,turkey and salmon — in addition to salads as part of their all-you-can-eat brunch menu for Rs 1,500. “Alcohol is the same everywhere. It is the food that becomes the distinguishing factor,” says Naveen Kotyankar,who launched Lagerbay in March this year. “We have kept the food and the presentation simple to attract a wide demographic. The menu also has dishes people know and are comfortable with,like mushroom risotto and steaks,” he says.

Continental food and steaks work best with beer,says Sibi Venkataraju,one of the partners in Toit,a microbrewery in Bangalore,which opened last year. A gable-roofed behemoth in the heart of the city,Toit’s wood-fired pizza oven on the second floor is always roaring in the evenings,even as a new,second oven,hidden away in the kitchen,tries to keep pace with orders. The pub offers food pairing suggestions with its signature in-house brews — seafood pizza with the Tintin,a Belgian white beer; a glazed chicken steak with its German Weiss brew; and lamb pie with a dark malty ale. “We take our food very seriously,as though we were a restaurant. In fact,food constitutes 30 per cent of our total sales,” says Venkataraju. “Beer is a social drink. You usually catch up with friends over a drink,spending a couple of hours. And you get hungry,” he says.

If beer is the new wine,what with so many microbreweries sprouting across India,then food and beer pairings are the way to go. While Doolally,a two-year-old micro-brewery in Pune,has tried to expand the experience of drinking beer with cheese pairing sessions,Woodside Inn in Colaba,Mumbai,has an ongoing beer and burger festival where one can sample Estonian blackened carrots and beetroot burger with a Mexican beer,or the Belgian pancake beef burger with a Japanese brew.

“From serving masala papad and tandoori platters with beer,pubs have come a long way. There is a very strong focus on food today in the newer pubs,but I’d like to see more specialty cuisine paired with craft beers — a

German lager with German food,for instance,” says Mohit Nischol,of Tulleeho Bartending Academy,Bangalore.

For some consumers,however,there is still a significant emotional difference when it comes to choosing to eat at a pub as opposed to a restaurant,says Ashay Desai,corporate chef at The Irish House in Mumbai,where the steadies on the menu include steak and chips,the rolling duck, fried in a roll of batter with a sweet and salty sauce,and,to our mild surprise,a goat cheese salad. “It is important to adopt the best elements of the restaurant sector — seasonal menus and consistent service,for instance — while retaining one’s identity as a pub,” he says.

At Terttulia,in Koregaon Park,Pune,the décor,music and vibe go a long way in creating the right atmosphere. But it’s the house specials,filet mignon and Italian crust pizzas and the special weekly menu comprising delicacies such as their watermelon and shrimp salad with balsamic reduction,that keep the cash registers ringing.

In January this year,when the Missouri-based Lemp Brew Pub and Kitchen opened its doors to the public in Gurgaon,NCR,it didn’t quite expect hordes of people to walk in for a meal on Saturday night right up till closing time. “It was a bit disconcerting at first. But we’re happy our guests love the food,” says Akshay Luthria,whose establishment is Lemp Brewery’s first franchisee anywhere in the world. The comprehensive menu at the pub comprises over 110 dishes,including classic American fare and some Mediterranean and Indian cuisine. “We are planning to bring an oriental chef on board for some gourmet Asian fare,” Luthria says.

At yet another fledgling microbrewery in Amanora Town Centre,Pune,as glasses clink,patrons dig into sumptuous meals. TJ Venkateshwaran,the eponymous managing director of TJ’s Brew Works,says the house brews are best enjoyed with signature dishes like green Thai curry and rice (Rs 260) and chargrilled fish and mash (Rs 310). At the pricey Kue Bar,at the Westin in Koregaon Park,Pune,the menu is even more ambitious,featuring specials such as blackened chicken with roasted potato wedges and grilled vegetables (Rs 800) and jalapeno aranchini (Rs 600),risotto dumplings stuffed with jalapeno and served with chilli-tomato sauce. “We put a lot of thought into the menu because food is now as important as the music or the ambience at clubs,” says Piyush Deshmukh,its assistant food and beverage manager.

It’s an exciting time to be hopping bars. “I’m a beer lover,and now I am into food pairings,thanks to the gastropub trend,” says Priya Dutta,a 27-year-old civil engineer from Bangalore. Dutta’s current favourite,and the newest addition to the Bangalore pub-dining scene,is the Chophouse on the first floor of The Biere Club on Lavelle Road,a year-old microbrewery. Food at this Euro-style pub consisted of Mediterranean nibbles and pastas,until the management,prompted by a demand for an elaborate lunch and dinner menu,decided to re-do an entire floor to make it conducive to dining. Vishal Nagpal,director of operations at The Biere Club,says the smoked salmon,the pepper steak and some of the bakes have been well received in the one month since Chophouse opened. The wheat beer is the top tap at the pub,but most of the fare — slow-cooked leg of duck served with blueberry compote (Rs 320),beef steak with blue cheese butter and grilled tomatoes (Rs 480),cumin-fried fish fillets with roasted roots and anchovy-caper butter sauce (Rs 480) — would easily add fizzle to the more full-bodied stouts and ales.

As pubs raise their glasses to lavish gourmet spreads,customers seem quite positive about the trend in India. Glen Williams,a partner in Toit,says their menu will be reinvented at least once a year. Coming up shortly are 23 new dishes from his trial kitchen including stuffed salmon and shrimp,beef with beetroot and mustard chicken. Should we say cheers to that or bon appetit?

(Inputs by Shantanu David)

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