Outside the Wizarding World, whose home has a truck trying to drive through a wall? Apparently, Bollywood actresses’ grandchildren do. Or that’s the yarn they’re spinning down on The Palm Jumeirah, where the Fairmont group opens its first Indian restaurant in the UAE this month.
And with an actual Miss India winner playing ambassador and a chef who flies in with suitcases of specially mixed spices from old Delhi’s backstreets, to a general manager who fought off fire-spewing bean counters from the corporate office, the story of how this sensory delight came to fruition is certainly fascinating.
“These days you have to be smart, you have to work with the market conditions to be able to see a project through,” Mark Sawkins, general manager of Fairmont The Palm, told me at a preview last week. “You’ve got to dream it and make it happen and open it and be passionate about it. And I’ve got the team to do so.”
A restaurant seems to open almost every week here in the UAE, but others are closing with alarming frequency. Sawkins is confident his new venture — which was a shisha storeroom until Dubai agency Stickman began work on the design — won’t be on a similar list this time next year. “This restaurant will stay open for a long time, because we’ve made it just big enough to be sustainable, with a team — of 14 — that’s very low by Dubai standards,” he says.
The real magic, he insists, is in the food — comfort fare aimed at bringing in property residents and diners from around the area twice a week. “Indian food anyway is a sustainable restaurant concept, as long as you don’t get to fancy with it, and comfort food is good margins,” Sawkins says.
The latest character-themed restaurant to hit the UAE, Little Miss India has been over a year in the planning. The backstory is built around the fictional Mohini Singh, the grand-daughter of a Bollywood actress and a well-travelled young woman who invites diners into her mansion.
To get there, you cross the hotel gym and walk past swimmers and pool guests towards the front of a truck painted in the elaborate style seen all over lorries and rickshaws across the subcontinent.
A glasshouse hung with plants serves as a cocktail and late-night lounge area, where the back of the lorry doubles up as a bar. Beyond, there’s a formal dining room reminiscent of the Raj’s colonial-era hotel dining rooms, complete with display kitchen so you can watch naans being slapped into the tandoor, and where, Sawkins says, everything is cooked to order. Or you can sit outside, overlooking the beach, or in a quiet garden area that doubles as private function space. Trinkets and curios such as an old rotary phone, now doubling up as a lamp, and wooden ceiling fans channel an olde-worlde vibe across the interior spaces, with antique wooden doors and mirrors, polished brass wall panels and pop art on the walls. There’s a riot of colour, metaphor and memorabilia everywhere. “It’s not a restaurant, it’s a home,” Sawkins says.
Singh is played by model and actress Prachi Mishra, who was Miss India Earth in 2012 and now runs Shock Talent Management, a modelling agency in Dubai.
Her job is primarily to schmooze with diners and make them feel at home. “I’ll be there every week, meeting people in person and telling them about my life and about India,” she says. “I’ll always be dressed in traditional Indian clothes — and the menu has a photo of me in the same outfit.”
Mishra says it’s the first time she’s done something like this, but the real-life role appeals to her because she gets to meet new people. “And people seem to like it so far,” she says, talking of reactions over the short soft opening period. “I personally feel if someone talks to me in a restaurant — whether it’s the chef or the staff — I feel nice and warm. It’s important to feel that you’re being taken care of.”
That attention to detail extends to the food, says the hotel’s Executive Chef Alain Gobeil, who insisted that the recipes used at the restaurant be minutely itemised and codified, in what he says is a contrast to standard methods for Indian food in restaurants.
“Restaurants in Dubai are hardly consistent,” he says. “At most Indian restaurants, a lot depends on the hand of the guy at the stove, each time you go you may have a different experience. To avoid that, all the spices and ingredients have been weighed and every dish follows a precise method.”
The city may be used to progressive modern Indian fare, but Gobeil and Aref Mohammad, the new sous chef who heads the restaurant’s operations, believe diners want the classics. The Avadhi-inspired menu is therefore heavy with the sort of rich buttery fare associated with northern India: there’s butter chicken, dal makhani, tandoori raan with dry fruit, roghan josh, different types of biryani, paneer kofta and kebabs for all comers. Even the few items from other parts of the country are what you’d expect — Goan shrimp curry, Malabar pomfret curry, shrimp stir-fried in the Chettinad style. “It’s simple, traditional food,” Mohammad says, “with about 80 per cent from North India.”
When Mohammad joined the hotel this summer, he arrived with a suitcase of spices, Gobeil says. All the restaurant’s spices are sourced from Delhi, and are mixed according to Mohammad’s own recipes — whether these are the go-to garam masala or individual mixes for biryani, kebabs and curries.
Gobeil is mindful of the fact that Indian food cuts across demographics now. “We have Russian and German guests who’ve loved the food, and a lot of our residents have returned with friends,” he says, attributing that at least in part also to the prices. A portion of dal makhani costs Dh60, while the roghan josh and lamb biryani are Dh95 each. “It’s not a special occasion restaurant. The focus is on authenticity at reasonable prices,” he says. “Some restaurants you need to save up for a month to go to, we don’t want that.”
For a hotel, that approach makes sense. Food and beverage accounts for about 40 per cent of property revenue in Dubai, insiders say. And with the bulletproof nature of Indian restaurants, Little Miss India’s financial appeal is evident. But with Fairmont having been acquired along with its stablemate brands Raffles and Swissotel by AccorHotels last year, around the time Sawkins and his team started work on the project, how hard was it to sell it internally in such an environment?
Sawkins, who expects to see a return on investment in under 18 months, makes it sound easier than it probably was. “We weren’t using the space, so I went to the owner, who gave me carte blanche and a small budget, with no room for 15 people to have an opinion. Once I had that, it was about having the guts to go out and do it,” he says, elaborating that disruptive thinking is now being encouraged within the group, as is Fairmont-style entrepreneurial approach. “So was very firm with the plan, and stuck to it. Don’t change your plan, because the more you change it and the more opinions come in, then the price goes up. If somebody’s got an extra few million in the pocket then you can say what you want, but if you don’t, then don’t say anything.”
As Dumbledore says, it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our friends.