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Khyber Dubai: Indian food odyssey on the Palm Jumeirah

The storied Mumbai celebrity haunt Khyber opened a branch in Dubai this week, but can it replicate success hewed over 60 years? Owner Sudheer Bahl thinks so.

  • Image Credit:
  • SUDHEER BAHL | Owner, Khyber DubaiImage Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News
  • Samosa chaat with Tandoori raanImage Credit: Supplied
Tabloid

UAE residents who still refer to Mumbai by its old name, Bombay, are drooling at news that Khyber restaurant opened a branch in Dubai this week. “I love their Afghan chicken curry — they break an egg into the gravy,” a friend screeched down the phone at me on Monday morning in response to the news. Another regaled me with tales of long evenings spent solving the world’s problems over an endless succession of tender kebabs in one of the legendary restaurant’s cavelike private rooms. My own memories are of the elusive raan, a complex recipe of spiced, roasted mutton leg that Khyber more often than not ran out of well before the evening was through, and of the way one casually bumped into local socialites and international celebrities over dinner before heading to the city’s nearby watering holes.

The UAE restaurant, on the top floor of the Palm Jumeirah’s Dukes Dubai hotel, is the brand’s first international venture, despite 60 years in the business. In spirit and style, it channels the original without cloning it. “We’ve recreated the arches,” owner Sudheer Bahl tells Gulf News tabloid! proudly, running his hands over the dividers that partition the space. “Back in the day they were carved by hand, but now of course everything is computerised.”

Bahl, who took over Khyber from his father Om Prakash, has franchised the concept to Seven Tides International, the hotel’s owners, as part of a nine-year deal. “I’ve had literally hundreds of offers over the years, but this one I accepted in five minutes,” he says, elaborating how Seven Tides CEO Abdullah Bin Sulayem outlined his proposition over a Sunday dinner roughly 18 months ago. “I’ve always been looking for someone who had the big vision and the pockets to develop that vision and Abdullah has done just that. He’s gone to town with every nuance.”

Having been burnt by problems with franchisees in the past, Bahl says he and his team were involved in developing the menu and the interiors, as well as in recruiting and training key staff, but took a hands-off approach to the regulations and legal aspects, “because we don’t know anything about that, Dubai being a new market for us.”

Eight staff from the Mumbai flagship — including head chef Amol Patil and general manager Gerard Baptista — will be in Dubai for the next few weeks, he says, until such time as both parties are confident that the local team is on top of things.

CLASSIC FARE

For now, Bahl expects Khyber Dubai will draw equal parts Emirati nationals, Indian residents and Western expats. They’ll have to be satisfied with the 70 items on his menu, as compared to the 250-odd choices in Mumbai. “We’ve brought all the star performers here, because it’s very difficult to implement that breadth in a short time. Plus it gives us the chance to launch new dishes in a few months.”

Expect to find North Indian classics such as Paya shorba, a comforting consomme made from lamb trotters, Tandoori lobster, Reshmi kebab (cream-marinated grilled chicken), Dum ka murgh (chicken breast in almond and cashew gravy), Rara gosht (mutton in a fiery red almond gravy), a selection of kebab rolls (grilled meats wrapped in parathas), four different types of biryanis, and a strong range of vegetarian fare. And of course, the classic Khyber raan — which, at Dh225, is probably the most expensive thing on the menu.

Finding the ingredients to recreate the recipes here in Dubai has been relatively easy so far, Patil shrugs during a brief moment of quiet in the kitchen at the restaurant’s launch party. “The only ingredient we had trouble finding was real Kashmiri chillies. But our suppliers soon sorted that out,” he says.

Thankfully — and perhaps cleverly given its neighbourhood, with at least five Indian fine dining restaurants including Vineet Bhatia’s Indego — there’ll be none of the progressive modern fare that seems de rigueur at Indian restaurants in the city. “People from India, anybody from Bombay especially, has been to Khyber at some point in his life. So if we drop a few dishes from the menu, then a whole bunch of people will complain because they were their favourites! We can’t suddenly tell people that after all these years we’re changing, we’re suddenly doing smart cooking,” Bahl says. “Let’s just say — if you’re doing something right and you’re doing it well over a sustained period, why fix something that’s not broken?”

But what works in Mumbai may not work in Dubai. While the actual investment into the venue was not available, it can only be substantial. Khyber Dubai is presently the only signature restaurant at the hotel, besides an all-day dining outlet. Its kitchen alone takes up 1,850 sq ft and there are 162 covers.

On the other hand, given Seven Tides’ multi-year deal, and the longevity of the brand, Khyber could well emulate the success of its Mumbai forebear. “We have worked closely with the Bahl family to ensure the new Khyber restaurant captures the true essence of the concept and we look forward to welcoming our first guests for dinner when the restaurant opens later this month,” said Bin Sulayem said in a media handout this week.

CELEBRITY APPEAL

Equal parts restaurant and tourist magnet, Khyber Mumbai has drawn the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Richard Gere, Demi Moore and GCC ruling families over the decades, all of whom come for the North Indian food that has become the default culinary association with the subcontinent. In fact, as he prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, Bahl says the restaurant is having its best year yet.

Some of that appeal is down to its interiors, which like its food, is inspired by the Northwest Frontier province of undivided India (now in present-day Pakistan), with its name taken from the Silk Road pass linking Central and South Asia.

After it was famously gutted by a fire in 1985, Khyber, which sits in Mumbai’s most prominent art district, was redesigned by the socialite and interior designer Parmeshwar Godrej, and features work by MF Husain and Anjolie Ela Menon, two of independent India’s most expensive artists. “Anjolie painted on the walls, and afterwards Parmeshwar took a chisel to the murals and started chipping away because she wanted to make them look a hundred years old,” Bahl laughs. “I asked what she was doing, but she simply said, ‘trust me.’ But she got it down perfectly. At the end, it looked like a 100-year-old wall.”

With both Husain and Godrej now partying at that giant dining table in the skies, Bahl turned to Mumbai-based architect Ayaz Basrai, who’s worked on some 75 restaurants over the past ten years including his son’s 145 chain of lounges, to recreate the look and feel of the original here in the emirates. “We’ve got the same colour, the colour of Khyber,” Bahl says, as we debate whether to call it ochre, or beige, or champagne, “but we wanted to build on the spirit rather than copy it block by block.” Mughal miniatures replace the artful decay, while the views, in true Dubai fashion, serve up a panoramic sunset over the Burj Al Arab and Palm Jumeirah on one side, and the construction site that is the Nakheel Mall on the other.

So the food will have to speak for itself, I tell Bahl. “It had better,” he replies with the forthrightness Mumbai natives are known for. “You can look at a pretty thing and say, yes it’s pretty but the next time, it’s the food that’s going to bring you back. You’ve seen the interiors and the magic is over. After that, the food has to deliver every single time. That’s what we’re hoping to achieve.”

When a kitchen blooms

Memories of the legendary fire that shuttered its doors evidently still haunt Khyber, going by a chat with kitchen designer Naresh Shahani, who proudly shows off the misty hoods above the charcoal tandoors in the 1,850-sq-ft kitchen of the Dukes Dubai restaurant.

With eight people from his firm BHS Design World, he’s spent the better part of a year designing and sourcing equipment to comply with Dubai’s stringent hospitality regulations, he says, talking to Gulf News tabloid! at Khyber Dubai launch party earlier this week. “The municipality code is 300 pages,” he exclaims, “and I spent six months just reading it, with printouts all over my office!”

The emirate’s authorities changed the fire code recently, and facilities management firms everywhere have scurried to comply.

Based in Mumbai, BHS designs and fits out professionals kitchens. Its Dubai association goes back to the BurJuman food court in the 1990s.

The biggest challenge, Shahani says, was getting approval for charcoal tandoors. “Every other Indian restaurant in Dubai has gas tandoors, but they just don’t give the same taste. So we asked and asked and finally got approval,” he says. Those extractor hoods, along with several other state-of-the-art pieces, are part of the reason why, he explains, since the continuous flow of water both cools the air and works to deter fires.

“You build a good kitchen, you get good chefs. And if you get good chefs, you get good food coming out consistently. That brings the customers back,” he explains. “When I do it my way, the kitchen just blooms.”

Recipe: Navratan Korma

Ingredients:

120ml Indian vegetable curry

100ml Fresh cream

100g Evaporated milk

1 cup Mixed sauteed vegetables

2 tsp Crushed cashew nuts

Method:

• In a saucepan heat cream, Indian vegetable curry and evaporated milk

• Keep stirring for 2 minutes on a high flame then add sautéed vegetables

• Simmer for 3-4 minutes and add salt to taste

• Finish it with crushed cashew nut

• Serve hot with paratha or tandoori naan

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