Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: element of surprise
What makes a restaurant successful? Thousands of people – consultants, restaurateurs, managers, chefs, etc. – claim to have the answer to this question. But ask yourself this: if there was a formula for making a restaurant successful, then why would so many restaurants fail?
In my experience, there is actually no such formula. Different things work at different times in different places. The hits – at least that’s what they think – turn out to be wet firecrackers. The first successes quickly fade. And many restaurants don’t scale fast enough over time.
I have been to some very popular restaurants in Delhi over the past week and tried to determine if there is any secret to their success. The short answer is no. But they all have one thing in common. They surprised me.
Let’s start with K3 at the JW Marriott. When the hotel opened I went to take a look and was skeptical of the concept of the K3. It’s the hotel’s all-day cafe / restaurant, but it’s actually made up of three different but connected restaurants, each with their own chef: Italian, Oriental, and Indian. One idea was to place diners in the room that focused on the cuisine of their choice, but that idea was scrapped and you can sit anywhere and order whatever you like in any kitchen.
I wasn’t too impressed with Italian food when I first went and settled for barbecued meats which the expat Chinese chef was good at. But even though I was somewhat contained in my admiration, I had to admit that my initial skepticism had turned out to be wrong. The restaurant worked well.
Then, a few years ago, the Aerocity JW had an adrenaline rush when the Marriott flew Nitesh Gandhi to Gurgaon Oberoi and put him in command. I’ve known Nitesh for a while, and I’ve always been stuck by his relentlessness. He always goes the extra mile to make sure everything is perfect. He enjoys excellent personal relationships with his guests, but he also brings Oberoi-style perfectionism to his hotels, exceeding Marriott’s usual levels of excellence.
You notice when you walk into K3 (and I’ve been there four times in the past few weeks) the entry handling is superb. There is always someone there to greet you and guide you to a table, not easy in a large, usually crowded restaurant. And the service is discreet but discreetly efficient. A few years ago I went with Neeraj Govil who was then in charge of India for Marriott (he has now significantly extended his responsibilities to all of Asia although India is still part of his portfolio. ), and the staff were careful to pretend that Neeraj was just another guest (although I’m sure the whole hotel was sneaking up on hold).
In recent months, the food at K3 has improved even more. A chef from southern Italy called Fulvio Ventura and a Chinese chef from Singapore called Travis Loh have led the improvements under the watchful eye of Sandeep Pande, the executive chef who can rival Nitesh in energy and relentlessness.
So why is the K3 always full even when restaurants at other Aerocity hotels may be empty? Part of it is the quality of the food and the service. But mostly, I think it’s because they got the concept right: people don’t particularly like cafes anymore, but they like the idea of three specialty restaurants in one.
Although Saga, Atul Kochar’s restaurant in Delhi, has been open for many months, I only went there last week. I felt better when I realized that Atul himself had only seen it a few days before me. The pandemic and its restrictions had held him back in London and he had run the restaurant, as he joked, through Zoom.
Of course the food was good. You would expect nothing less from a chef of Atul’s caliber and reputation. But what surprised me was the size of the 200-seat restaurant. It’s located in an atrium on three different levels, all open so you can see the whole restaurant no matter where you sit and watch the ceiling rise.
The usual problem with atrium restaurants is, how do you fill the space? Won’t the area leading up to the ceiling look too bare?
American designer Adam Tihany, who designed all the great New York restaurants (Daniel, Per Se, Jean-Georges etc.), discovered the solution when he designed Aureole in Las Vegas. Tihany created a 42-foot-high “wine tower” that rose into the space above the restaurant. The tower contained 10,000 bottles of wine that could only be accessed if someone was hoisted up to retrieve them by cables.
Tihany had the idea to make it a show for the restaurant, so young women in cat suits were tied in harnesses and lifted to retrieve the bottles. They were called the “wine angels” and the concept remains one of the most innovative in the history of wine service.
Saga does much the same, although the bottles aren’t collected by angels in cat costumes but by young Haryana men (and no, they’re not called “Wine Jats”) who tie up happily harness and fly to the bottles.
It’s the kind of dramatic statement typical of the restaurant, which also sells premium spirits (eg whiskey) at what must be the lowest prices in the NCR.
So why does it work? Well, the food, of course. It’s not only Atul’s dishes, but also the execution; the kitchen is run by chef Tanvi Goswami. And it is also the audacity of the company, its size and the care taken in the constitution of the spirit collection. (Right now, up to 40 percent of income comes from alcohol.)
The surprise factor is one of the reasons for the success of K3 and Saga, two new concepts. But what about older restaurants? How do they manage to retain customers?
I went to the Smokehouse Deli at DLF Mall in Vasant Kunj last week. It’s been around as long as I can remember, but while the other restaurants in the mall weren’t necessarily full when I visited, Smokehouse was packed.
The secret to his renewed success, I discovered, was that he had reinvented himself. A team of chefs led by Smokehouse veteran Shamsul Wahid and Jaydeep Mukherjee (whom I last mentioned when he was at Indigo Deli) completely overhauled the menu. The emphasis is now on local ingredients. The excellent Neapolitan pizza is made with high gluten flour from Indore. The risotto is made with a variety of Indian rice, not Arborio or Carnaroli. The steak is buffalo. Brie is Indian. The Reuben Sandwich pastrami is homemade.
The quality of the food overall is much higher than that of a cafe or deli. The steak was so thick that I marveled at the chef’s faith in buffalo meat. But it worked. The ribs were excellent. A large wild shrimp was full of flavor. The lamb shank was so tender that I ate it with a spoon.
The old favorites were still there. I had the signature burger, which I still consider unbalanced and difficult to eat (the patty is too big), but they can’t change it because the regulars love it.
So that’s another way to succeed: you evolve, you change, you innovate. But you remain unchanged enough to maintain contact with your guests.
Managing a restaurant is an art, not a science. But if you dare to think big, do new things, and maintain the relationship with your customers, then success isn’t that hard to come by.
The opinions expressed by the columnist are personal
From Brunch HT, December 12, 2021
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