When you find a good restaurant, you need to grab it and hold it close. Eat there until you’re sick of the place, for food is a fickle thing. Chefs come and go, restaurateurs lean back as they gain popularity, and sometimes, you the eater, change and grow.
As with most things, it’s not the bad restaurant that’s dangerous, but the mediocre one. In the Indian city I’m in, there’s a particular mediocrity reserved for non-Indian food. I dare say there are few, if any, bad Indian restaurants here — they wouldn’t survive. Most Indian food hits some sort of note and though you might sometimes feel disappointed, you rarely feel cheated and angry.
But when it comes to international food, especially American or European (usually called continental cuisine, or simply “conti”), you start to play a dangerous game with your wallet. There are some excellent restaurants in this category, but on the whole you have to beware as prices soar, portions drop and a short-sighted “let’s make money off this game while we can” mentality sets in.
Also in vogue is creating strange combinations, not because they are creative and delicious, but because they sound exotic and you can add a few hundred rupees to the cost. This is how a beverage would be poured into pasta sauce at “authentic” Italian restaurants.
The customers being targeted are the ones all hot under the collar to prove to the world that you get everything in India. As long as you can go out for sushi or wood-fired pizzas, it doesn’t matter whether the food actually tastes nice, is authentic (or a well-thought out variation) or is even good value for money.
A writer friend calls this “tick-the-box food”, where the final quality isn’t the goal; hitting the bare minimum and charging as much as you can is. This is where she recently just had to try “Chicken steak stuffed with prawns and cheese”, a dish whose sheer “let’s-scam-the-tourists” audacity drew her in. And sure enough, with no finesse whatsoever, the dish did exactly what it said on the box and no more.
“Buried at the bottom of an otherwise good menu, I can understand,” she said. “But right there as one of the stars of the show? It’s like when you’re in a strange city and you know a shopkeeper is scamming you, but you walk in and buy something anyway.”
Food like this annoys me, mainly because improving on it doesn’t involve going to culinary school or travelling the world, but simply paying attention to details. Some of these details are at the stove, but many begin long before the fires are lit. Such as, what is the focus of our restaurant? What influences do we use for the menu? How can we make truly delicious food within this budget?
Instead, the questions being asked are, How do we bring the IT crowd in? What’s the lowest level of sophistication and ingredient that we can get away with at this price level? What sounds good in print, but is cheap and easy to slap together?
Every restaurant has a “stupid section” on its menu: the money-maker couple of dishes that require no passion or effort, that are reserved for the few people who don’t know better. But when nearly a whole menu is the stupid section, you’re not going to last, for you’re insulting your clientele — yes, even the ones who don’t know better. Call it gut instinct, but when it comes to food, people know, sooner or later, when they’re being fed a load of lies.
Gautam Raja is a journalist based in Bengaluru, India.