When I asked several people who eat out frequently and whom I consider to have more than a passing interest in food, what they understood by the term “fine dining”, I received very different replies. “Expensive” and “overpriced” were common responses; “starched tablecloths” and “fancy tableware” were others. What about the food itself? That evoked mixed responses. In the old days, you knew it was fine dining when there was caviar, lobster or truffle on the menu or if the ingredient was imported or if the recipe required a high level of culinary skill like a soufflé. Most of the preparations claimed to be French or thereabouts. And you had to dress up. In fact many establishments even specified a dress code. Today, expensive or up market restaurants are distinguishable not by the starched tablecloths and snooty waiters but more often than not by the menu itself and the complicated descriptions. Meats and vegetables are not just “roasted”, they “oven or pan roasted”. Posh chickens are “corn fed”? And we don’t have three courses anymore; we can “graze” which means order several small portions altogether.
A good trend is “provenance”. In these days of global warming, fast food, junk food, additives and food adulteration, it is becoming very important that we become aware of where our food comes from and what we are eating. Exotic ingredients is another nouveau fine dining trend; a large ugly faced fish weighing sometimes 400 lbs, found in the depths of the Patagonian waters called Chilean sea bass, chocolate of a particular darkness defined in terms of percentage from one single estate, wagyu beef, graded and marbled with the right amount of fat from a region in Japan, an ugly fungus called truffle, sniffed out by dogs, is kept under lock and key by chefs.
In the 70’s, Europe witnessed a trend know as ‘nouvelle cuisine’. It was a reaction to the classical, stuffy, orthodox style of traditional cooking. Heavy, flour thickened sauces were replaced with light ones and cooking times were reduced to preserve the natural flavours of the food. The result was a new simple cuisine which was both elegant, light with an emphasis on presentation. Molecular gastronomy is the 90’s trend. It is a term coined in 1988 by a Hungarian physicist and a French chemist to describe and explore the science behind traditional cooking methods. The king of this style of cooking has to be Ferran Adrià whose restaurant El Bulli in the obscure village of Roses near Barcelona made waves in the International culinary arena for 10 years, winning major international awards year after year. Classical dishes are deconstructed (product – garnish- sauce) and reconstructed with a more intense and defined flavour which takes the diner completely by surprise. Molecular gastronomy is a response to the new millennium. Good food is not enough. Its theatre we are looking for.
India traditionally was never on the international trend setting culinary radar. However in the last 10 years with the onslaught of media and increased travel, our taste buds and intellect have suddenly been aroused by all sorts of food experimentation whether it is traditional Tuscan or ‘Culinary Constructivism’. So far in India, we have the ITC chain and the Taj, both who have take pains to research and preserve the integrity of regional cuisines and serve them with great elegance and flair. Some extraordinary restaurants have emerged; Dum Pukht with its Awadhi ancestry and Karavalli in Bangalore with its roots firmly along the south west coast. I recently experienced the incredible Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. A tribute to a bygone era, impeccably restored and maintained. The Indian food is a mixed offering of traditional Hyderabadi, fiery Andhra and what is today known as Telangana, which I haven’t understood yet except that it represents the more earthy flavours of this state. The Neruligguru, shrimp coated with coconut cream was as smooth as silk with a subtlety hard to find in Indian regional cuisines. Keema Shikampuri Biryani was infused with rose petals and studded with tiny Shikhampur kababs and the Dakhni Saag, a simple yet stunning preparation of spinach with south Indian spices complimented the richness of the other dishes. What I was most impressed with is not just the quality of the food and the extraordinary service (a service staff of 250 people for 60 rooms of which 35 are for the kitchen only) but the ambience. Allow yourself to be swept away by the European chandeliers, the Venetian marbles, the dining table which seats over 100 people and the working library. Dine on the terrace overlooking Hyderabad in the evening. Wines flow and if the company is as dazzling as the city lights at night which sparkle like diamonds on a Nizam’s necklace, this pretty much defines Fine Dining for me.