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Fortune Cookie

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Fortune Cookie

Mulligatawny and memories at YBR, A Chicago touch to the staple Italian fare and What's cooking in the restaurant sector?

For music lovers, a restaurant couldn't have a more evocative name than Yellow Brick Road. It's the title of what critics have widely regarded as Elton John's best song ever it's also the name of his best-selling 1973 album that has the song inspired by the imagery of the film adaptation of Lyman Frank Baum's eternal parable of hope for misfit children, The Wizard of Oz.

It's the road that leads to the Emerald City in the land of the Wizard of Oz a metaphor for the path that leads to life's fantasies or even answers to the questions we may have about it (like the ones entertained by Dorothy, the principal character of the story). Tucked away in one corner of The Ambassador, the hotel in Sujan Singh Park that started out as living quarters for British soldiers during World War II and has been inseparable since the 1940s from New Delhi's history, Yellow Brick Road (or YBR in popular parlance), previously called simply the Coffee Shop', may not offer you answers to your questions about life. But its old favourites from the nostalgia-laden Railway Cutlet, the comforting Mulligatawny Soup and YBR Chicken, and Sheila Dikshit's favourite, Fried Fish with Tartare Sauce, to the unbeatable Bull's Eye certainly make life seem better.

It's been 20 years since YBR acquired its present personality and its playful colours, thanks to its hugely talented designer, Iram Mukherjee, and it
continues to be as charming as ever. The Ambassador, which has been a managed hotel of the IHCL (the Taj Group) since 1990, and was just brought under its newly minted SeleQtions brand, was the result of a partnership between Sir Sobha Singh, one of New Delhi's builders (and the late writer Khushwant Singh's father), who developed the Sujan Singh Park apartments along with the British architect (and associate of Edwin Lutyens) Walter Sykes Georgie, and Ram Pershad, a visionary hotelier who was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's adviser on all matters concerning the hospitality industry.

It was Ram Pershad, who had a hand in the creation of The Ashok and the birth of the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), who helped Sir Sobha Singh transform what were military officers' quarters into a hotel with the mod-cons of its time (1949-50). I met Ram Pershad's son, Rajindera Kumar, the Cornell-trained present owner-director of The Ambassador and a former two-term FHRAI president, at YBR's 20th anniversary celebrations, and I got him talking about his father.

RAM Pershad, his son informed me, started life as a gatekeeper in a cinema theatre and then became the projectionist, before going on to become the manager, in succession, of the two prestigious department stores of the Raj Gaindamull Hem Raj in Shimla and the Empire Store in Connaught Place. He was introduced to Sir Sobha Singh by the well-known contractor, Tirath Ram Ahuja, because the builder needed help to feed the British military officers living in his compound and Ram Pershad was already catering to those encamped around India Gate. The partnership led to the development of The Ambassador, which opened as a 100-room hotel in 1949-50.

I asked Kumar, whose first assignment at the hotel after returning from Cornell was to open the nightclub Wheels in 1970, for the recipe for YBR's ageless appeal. He said it survived on old memories and the passion of the management to maintain and sustain the exacting standards it had set for the restaurant, down to the art of making a jacket potato stand on its own. You cannot buy passion, said the impeccably attired hotelier, sitting in his little corner office crowded with memorabilia and files, from where he guards his family jewel.

A Chicago touch to the staple Italian fare

So what's a deep dish pizza? Well, the dough is shaped into a bowl and then the cheese, toppings and chunky tomato sauce (made from Italian peeled tomatoes) go into it in that order. The pizza takes twice as much as its regular cousin to bake, and you can take an occasional break from eating to dip the edges of its biscuit-like crust into your choice of sauce.

And if you're at Uno Chicago Bar & Grill, a 75year-old brand transplanted into Gardens Galleria, NOIDA, from the US of A by Kolkatabased Ambuja Hospitality, rest assured that each serving will be generously American-size. Moral of the story? Order in a way that two or three of you are prepared to share the dishes.

At Uno, sharing indeed is caring for, there's no other way in which you can finish the meal. Deep dish pizzas (my favourite being the Chicago Meat Market), though, are not the only reason why you should visit Uno. Starting from their cheesy pull-apart' garlic bread and home-made nachos served with a zesty salsa to onion rings and hot prawn dynamites', to thin-crust pizzas (the Uno Veggie Extravaganza is a must-have) and entrees such as the Baked Stuffed Spinoccoli (chicken fillet stuffed with the woks), and of course, the Wild West Burger. Finally, there's the deep dish apple pie loaded with sweetened cranberries and topped with a scoop of vanilla icecream drizzled with cinnamon powder. It is clearly my dessert discover of the year.

WHAT'S COOKING IN THE RESTAURANT SECTOR?

ONE doesn't need a report to understand how fast the restaurant sector is growing in our country, but when Samir Kuckreja, author of the National Restaurant Authority of India's chunky India Food Services Report 2019, says the industry's market size (`1,48,000 crore) is 3.5 times bigger than film, television and hotels put together, you begin to smell the espresso.

And when you hear that this is just the market size of the organised sector, for the sector's massive unorganised underbelly (from highway dhabas to street vendors) is estimated to be worth another `2,75,000 crore, you can understand why NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant wants states to be ranked according to how much ease of business they ensure for the restaurant operators. The sector means serious business, employment for 7.3 million people (9.2 million in 2022-23) and tax contributions adding up to `18,000 crore (it can only go up when more of the restaurant sector gets organised. Six points struck me while going through the report and these need to be underlined.

  • Affordable casual dining (average per person spend: `350 to `700) is the biggest segment (`60,255 crore) in the restaurant sector, followed by quick service (fast food) outlets.
  • Indians are eating out much more today 6.6 times than in the past, and spend on average `2,500 per month. Still, the average is significantly behind that of China (60), Bangkok (45) and Singapore.
  • Dining Out' is still the most important market segment (75 per cent), but takeaway (14 per cent) and home delivery (11 per cent) are growing steadily. This is driving the business of aggregators and getting them funding. At thereport's launch, Kabir Advani of Berco's stated that his home deliveries have gone up from 5 per cent of total sales to 30 per cent in four years.
  • Bonding with the family remains the most important reason why Indians dine out. And most of the dining out happens at dinnertime. Breakfast and late nights have a very limited appeal.
  • The cuisine choices of diners have remained the same in the nine years since the first report came out. It is North Indian (41 per cent) followed by Chinese (27 per cent), South Indian (23 percent) and Italian (mainly pastas and pizzas 16 per cent).
  • Contrary to the popular view, North (83 per cent) and West India (71 per cent) are dominantly vegetarian, whereas South India is the non-vegetarian bastion (70 per cent), followed by the East (57 per cent).