Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Where India's top chefs eat

We queue up at their restaurants for finger-licking food. But where do India's best restaurateurs themselves head to for their favourite dishes?

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jan 5, 2016 06:58:53 AM IST
Updated: Dec 24, 2015 06:13:31 PM IST
Where India's top chefs eat
Image: Mexy Xavier
Hemant Oberoi at Mahesh Lunch Home in Mumbai

Hemant Oberoi
For a man who had to choose between a job at the Oberoi hotels and his surname (and he chose the latter), Hemant Oberoi can only look back at his life with content. In his 41 years with Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, from where he retired in early 2015, he’s had the world’s who’s who—the Obamas, the Clintons, John Major, Brangelina—eating out of his hands. Having created some of the most celebrated restaurants at the group—The Zodiac Grill, Wasabi, Varq and Souk, among others—Oberoi is now heading for a second innings as a consultant and, hopefully soon, will have a signature restaurant in Mumbai.

Pick of the platter: Whenever I eat out, it’s mostly with family and sometimes with colleagues to try out new restaurants. But I don’t eat out more than once a month because of my chock-a-block schedule. When travelling within the country on work, I eat and stay at our hotels only.

But it all changes when I am travelling abroad: Then I eat out often and try as many restaurants as I can. If I am in New York, I always go to Eleven Madison Park, chef Daniel Humm’s fine dining restaurant. Thomas Keller’s Per Se is also fantastic. My favourites there are the oysters, foie gras and brulee. The service and the ambience, too, add to the experience.

I love seafood. Back home in Mumbai, I go to smaller places like Mahesh Lunch Home and Ankur for comfort meals. I love the fish tikka, the kane fry and the butter garlic crab at Mahesh. My wife and I prefer eating at restaurants closer home [in Colaba], so we go to Royal China often. I like their dimsums and duck.

Where India's top chefs eatRitu
Image: Amit Verma
Ritu Dalmia (left) with friend Manish Mehrotra at his Indian Accent

Ritu Dalmia
A would-have-been-marble-businesswoman-turned-Delhi’s-fancied-Italian-cuisine-chef, Dalmia opened her first restaurant, MezzaLuna, at 21. The capital hadn’t yet warmed up to authentic Italian food, so it folded in three years and Dalmia moved to London. She came back four years later, in 2000, and set up Diva, a chic chain that has since been called the pioneer of Italian food in the city. Dalmia, who’s never had any professional training, now owns multiple restaurants, has hosted cookery shows on national television and has authored three cookbooks.     

Pick of the platter: I am a creature of habit, so when I go out, I love to stick to the places that I usually go to. In Delhi, my all-time favourite restaurant is Indian Accent. Manish [Mehrotra] is a good friend, so I don’t get to take a look at the menu card; most of the time I eat what he is planning for his next menu. But the two things that I have to eat at Indian Accent are the panko crusted bharwan mirchi and roast pumpkin kulcha. And for dessert, I need to eat his doda barfi treacle tart.

I’ve recently discovered a small place called The Potbelly in Bihar Sadan. I have grown up in a Marwari family in Kolkata with Bihari cooks; when I eat there, it’s like a blast from the past. The Potbelly is a no-frills restaurant, but their baingan ka chokha served with sattu parathas and litti is outstanding.   

There’s another cafe in Hauz Khas village called Coast, where I go often for its comfort coastal food.

When I go out I opt for either street food or desi khana. Street food, for me, is a long list. For chaats, I go to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi; I love the dahi-bhalla outside Central Bank and samosas from Tewari Brothers. Kolkata is another of my favourites for street food and I never miss the churmur (panipuri chaat) from Russel Street. There is nothing in the country that beats Kolkata’s puchka (panipuri) and churmur.

Mumbai, for me, means vada pao and sandwich. My first stop after I land is at a sandwich kiosk to have my fill of grilled vegetable sandwich. I love vada paos from a shop at Prabhadevi. If I have the time to step out, I try the berry pulao at Britannia and the Bombay duck at Gajalee.  

Manish Mehrotra
Brought up in a no-onion-no-garlic household in Patna, Mehrotra has gone on to redefine ethnic-inspired fusion cuisine. His inventive foie gras-filled kebabs, ricotta vadas or pulled pork phulka tacos will tell you why both he and his Delhi restaurant, Indian Accent, have won nearly every food award possible. Journalist and food critic Vir Sanghvi calls him the most exciting modern Indian chef in the world. The 41-year-old, who chose the kitchen as “it was different from all other scripted roles of running a hotel”, showed his penchant for improvisation on TV by winning Foodistan in 2012, a cooking reality show that pitted 15 Indian and Pakistani chefs against each other.

Pick of the platter: My eating out is generally of two kinds: One with family and, on workdays, with my colleagues. Since work typically gets over past midnight, when most restaurants are shut, we end up going to a five-star coffee shop that will also serve a glass of wine or a bottle of beer. Our regular haunt for this is Pavilion at ITC Maurya Sheraton.   

Another place we frequently go to during shift breaks is Carnatic Cafe at New Friends Colony market: They make a delicious paniyaram (dumplings made from leftover idli batter, a Tamil specialty) as well as thick, Carnatic-style dosas.

My family, on the other hand, loves to eat at a pan-Asian restaurant on Lodhi Road, Guppy by ai. Even I swear by their sushis, be it the crispy prawn or the tempura sushi. But my favourite restaurant food has to be the mushroom risotto at Diva [chef Ritu Dalmia’s Italian restaurant]. Ritu knows her cuisine and makes the perfect risotto.

I also love street food, but don’t have the time these days to go out and sample it. Having said that, I can always make an exception for a samosa. I’ll eat one wherever I get it.

Where India's top chefs eat
Chef Manu Chandra still frequents his childhood haunts in Delhiā€™s Pandara Road

Manu Chandra
A history graduate from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, Chandra spent half of his college admission interview discussing food. Although he counts a stint at The Culinary Institute of America as his only formal education, food, to this Delhi boy, has been much more than mere training: Even at 12, he was sharing baking tips with his aunts. Upon his return to India in 2004, Chandra joined Olive Beach in Bangalore, where he continues as executive chef. He is also chef-partner at Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao.

Pick of the platter: When I am in Delhi I tend to gravitate towards my old haunts—eateries in Pandara Road or Purani Delhi—because it’s only once in a while or on some occasion that I visit the city. Gulati on Pandara Road is a particular favourite for its Mughlai food. If in Delhi, I sometimes end up at Karim’s for kebabs. But one of my favourites is Alkauser at Chanakyapuri. Besides, my parents love Chinese food, so we go to Taipan at The Oberoi.   
Having grown up in Delhi, I wasn’t much exposed to seafood. That changed when I moved to Bangalore and travelled frequently to Mumbai on work. When I am in Mumbai, I try seafood. The mandeli fry at the GK Bar in Dadar and Bandra’s Soul Fry are among my favourites.

The dish that I have in Bangalore all the time is the Pandhi curry (Coorg-style pork curry) from a hole-in-the-wall eatery called Wild Spice.

Where India's top chefs eat
Image: Joshua Navalkar
Anjan Chatterjee at one his restaurants, Hoppipola, in Mumbai’s Khar suburb

Anjan Chatterjee
A foodie, restaurateur and adman in that order, one of his flagship brands, Oh! Calcutta, has taken the distinctive Bengali cuisine beyond the contours of the state. The other, Mainland China, is possibly the largest fine-dining Chinese restaurant chain in the country. Given such a CV, it’s hard to believe that Chatterjee started off with a hole-in-the-wall venture, Only Fish, in Mumbai that didn’t even have a restroom. Now, his food empire, Speciality Restaurants, has expanded to 23 cities in India and three countries, and includes fine-dining restaurants, delis as well as Sweet Bengal, their signature sweet shops. 

Pick of the platter: We are a family of foodies. My earliest food memory goes back to my mother cooking a dish called muri ghonto (a Bengali preparation of fish head with rice). I first helped her prepare this dish when I was six-and-a-half years old.

I eat out about four times a week, with friends, family or colleagues. When I go to a restaurant, I look at it through an ART (Authentic, Relevant and Talkable) funnel. What draws me is not the decor or the attitude of the people; I believe that the soul of the food is really in tasting and eating it.
One of my most favourite restaurants is Gajalee in Mumbai for its bombil fry and pomfret curry. The other is in Kolkata: Mocambo, a name that resonates with most Kolkatans. I always go back to Mocambo for its Chicken Tetrazzini and Beckty Belle Helen. Of course, if I am in Kolkata, I never give the street egg rolls a miss.  

My London favourites mostly serve oriental food. Duck and Rice is a stylish British pub that I visit for its Cantonese roast duck. Busaba Eathai prides itself on its pad thai, but my favourite from their menu is the Jungle chicken curry.

(Additional reporting by Anshul Dhamija and Debojyoti Ghosh.)

Where India's top chefs eat
Sanjeev Kapoor
One of India’s first TV chefs, there’s hardly anyone who hasn’t watched Kapoor cook on Khana Khazana, one of India’s longest-running cookery shows. Much before it had become fashionable, he ditched architecture to study cooking in college. Kapoor reached his professional peak pretty early in his career, winning, at 28, an award for the best executive chef in the country. His pursuit of ‘what next’ resulted in a culinary empire of sorts, including a TV channel (Food Food), restaurants and a range of cooking appliances. Any surprises that he was recently flown down to the UAE to prepare a multi-course dinner for PM Narendra Modi?

<-- Sanjeev Kapoor on the set of his television show

Pick of the platter: When I am in Mumbai, I mostly eat at home. But when I do go out, I prefer to look for the surprise element in a restaurant. I was introduced to such a dish at Gajalee by a friend who was visiting from Australia. Since it is a seafood restaurant, you would typically go for its coastal preparations. But one of my favourite dishes at Gajalee is their tandoori rawas and Hyderabadi fish tikka.   

Similarly, I find the fiery green chilli chicken at Fishland in Bangalore fantastic, perhaps better than their trademark fish dishes. At Nizam’s Club in Hyderabad, I keep going back for their khatta mutton as opposed to the popular biryani. In Goa, too, I’d rather have the sausage curry at Martin’s Corner [at Betalbatim], instead of their traditional fish curry.

I make it a point to eat local, homestyle food wherever I am in the world. One of the best dishes I have eaten is in the home of an elderly woman in a Spanish village called Viladrau, 50 miles from Barcelona. The taste of the paella she made with vermicelli and seafood will stay with me forever. That’s why I say food is not only about taste, it’s about memories.

(This story appears in the 08 January, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)