Experimental Indian-born, London-based chef Vineet Bhatia recently returned to his birth city, and a few surprises.
It’s the age-old story. Boy crackles with new ideas but society values tradition. Boy feels thwarted by obstinate society, so runs off to refine his talent in a foreign land. Foreign land loves boy and makes him a star.
Or so Vineet Bhatia’s life story goes.
Born in Mumbai, Bhatia trained as a chef with hotel group Oberoi before taking the helm of its classical north-western frontier restaurant Kandahar, a fine-dining affair serving tandoori breads and kebabs at the Oberoi Mumbai. But Bhatia wanted more – he wanted to throw out the rule book, play with the flavours of his native India, tease them a little, experiment. So in 1994 he left Oberoi and, with £7 in his pocket, landed in London. It took a few years of false starts, but in 2001 Bhatia wowed the gastronomic world when his contemporary Indian restaurant, Zaika, was awarded a Michelin star – the first ever for an Indian chef.
Seventeen years later Bhatia is back to where it all began – the same hotel and, ironically, the same space Kandahar used to occupy. “After the 2008 terrorist attacks on the hotel Mr Oberoi felt the hotel needed a radical change, so contacted me to open a restaurant,” Bhatia says.
Ziya, a slinky 74-seat restaurant on the hotel’s second floor, has hardwood floors and an open kitchen. It begins by telling you what it is not: a conventional restaurant where dishes laden in cream and ghee can be shared by the whole family. Instead, it politely requests you to be open and unprejudiced.
The restaurant rattled some diners and food critics – even before the doors had swung open – who thought Bhatia’s food should be called fusion, not Indian.
“Indians can be quite conservative about their food,” Oberoi’s food and beverage manager, Michael Farquhar, says. “People would come in and say ‘You don’t cook that like that!’ and demand they share plates. We would say to them: ‘Would you cut a Picasso up into five pieces? So why cut up Vineet’s food?'”
Mumbai could be coming of age, because the night I visit Ziya, it is full – and the majority of diners are Indian. I order the degustation menu, a seven-course meal that starts with a trio of appetisers: prawn wrapped in roti bread; hot tomato soup; and jellied Bloody Mary.
Alone they are nothing special but together they become a riot of flavours. The mushroom risotto with tasty curry ice-cream – hot and cold – is attention grabbing but the chicken tikka with semolina cake and paneer balls pales in comparison. Luckily the lobster simmering in curry leaf jus with spiced coco powder gets me back on track.
Close your eyes and the food tastes Indian – albeit milder, with less spice and less cream. Open them and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a synthesis of East meets West – except everything on your plate has Indian origins. “It’s not typically Indian but it’s still Indian,” Bhatia says.