Manish Mehrotra, the celebrity chef who rewrote the rules of Indian cooking, in India and the West
- Manish Mehrotra has Indian Accent restaurants in Delhi, New York and London, serving his modern interpretation of Indian cuisine
- His Delhi outlet was named India’s No 1 restaurant by World’s 50 Best Restaurants
“I cook global Indian food, not Indian Indian food,” says celebrity chef Manish Mehrotra, as we chat over a cup of tea in the London outpost of his award-winning New Delhi restaurant, Indian Accent.
Named India’s No 1 restaurant by the judges of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, his flagship establishment has been luring diners since 2009, keen to try his unusual format of traditional spice blends, diverse global ingredients and modern cooking techniques.
Some guests hope to catch a glimpse of the famous cook – for Mehrotra is as comfortable in front of the camera as he is in the kitchen. He won the popular television culinary game show Foodistan and has been a guest chef on MasterChef India.
After the success of his first Indian Accent restaurant, Mehrotra decided to open one in New York in 2016, followed by another, in London in December 2017. Both have been well received by diners and critics.
The London restaurant is located in upmarket Mayfair. A discreet shopfront leads into an elegantly understated space, with comfortable booth seating, minimalist decor and low lighting. Jazz drifts through the restaurant along with the scent of richly spiced buttery curries, punctuated by citrus wafts of delicate kaffir lime leaves.
Warm and effusive, Mehrotra has the cool mind of an astute businessman. Unlike many chefs, who are inspired to cook by their mothers or grandmothers, he admits that for him it was a calculated career decision. He studied hotel management, but became excited by the opportunity to learn and create in the kitchen.
“I trained in pan-Asian cooking,” Mehrotra says. “I learned to cook Chinese, Thai and Indian food, and I started my career with that. But I always wanted to create a modern Indian cuisine, where the taste was absolutely Indian, but I could use ingredients sourced from around the world, which I would prepare and present in different ways. I feel this makes my cooking more accessible to people from outside India.”
Unfettered by rules, Mehrotra crafts his dishes almost scientifically – ensuring that the spice mixture used in every recipe delivers perfectly authentic Indian flavours, while experimenting with ingredients and applying innovative cooking techniques. When he opened his New Delhi restaurant, local diners were confused by the unusual presentation and components of the dishes.
“They used to come, read the menu and say, ‘I don’t understand what this is. There’s no kebab, there’s no butter chicken, there is no biryani on the menu. This is not Indian’,” he says, wryly. “But very slowly, they understood what we are trying to do, and now we’re here in London.”
Any Londoner hoping to wash down a chicken vindaloo with chilled lager would have a similar shock in the Mayfair branch of Indian Accent.
Tasting and à la carte menus feature dainty receptacles of exquisitely constructed dishes: dosas the thickness of an onion skin, concealing crispy water chestnuts and umami-rich wild mushrooms; succulent roast lamb served Peking-duck style; a delicate tangle of tiger prawns.
Unusually for an Indian restaurant, pork and beef feature on the menu. “The diners love it,” Mehrotra says with a laugh.
Asked about his inclusive approach to ingredients, he mentions that he was brought up in a vegetarian household. “Meat, fish and eggs were not allowed into the house, but we could eat anything we liked outside.”
He believes that his inventive approach to dishes is partly a result of his childhood: when cooking ingredients are limited, creativity blossoms.
“It helped develop my imagination when working with vegetables. It taught me that food made with fewer ingredients can be really tasty.”
Mehrotra devised a clever soy keema, quail egg, lime leaf butter pao dish, neatly connecting the vegetarian fare of his childhood with classic Mumbai street food. He soaks soya mince in water, then adds it to a sauce made of tomato and onions, laced with fresh herbs and dried spices. He adds plenty of butter and ghee to give a creamy texture, then tops it with a quail egg yolk.
“We used to eat a dish like this – without the egg – at home when I was growing up.” he says. “But this also reminds me of keema ghotala – a famous Mumbai street snack of lamb mince with an egg broken into it.”
When the tiny yolk is pierced and stirred into the buttery sauce of Mehrotra’s soy keema, it adds smoky notes to the already richly spiced curry. This dish tastes uncannily like minced meat, and could easily fool a carnivore.
I ask if he adjusts the levels of chilli heat in his recipes for non-Indian customers, and he quickly corrects me.
“India is not a land of chillies. Mexico is the land of chillies. India is a land of spices, so we do a balance of spices in our recipes. I keep exactly the same level of spice [in dishes served] in New Delhi, London and New York.”
Mehrotra chose New York and London for his overseas outreach because he felt these cosmopolitan cities had the ideal clientele, who would appreciate his unique and intriguing cuisine.
“They are both global cities. Every type of world culture and cuisine is well represented in each place.”
He says Londoners may be familiar with Indian cuisine, but his style of cooking is completely different from anything they may have experienced before.
When Mehrotra opened Indian Accent in New York, inspired by the delicatessen sandwiches available in the neighbourhood he created a pastrami kulcha – bread stuffed with juicy pastrami and a sharp mustard butter. It was an instant hit.
He then invented a version for his London restaurant, this time filling the bread with grilled black pudding and boiled egg white.
“In the great cities of the world, you should dedicate a dish to the place,” he says with a smile.
A confessed rule breaker, Mehrotra takes liberties with traditional Indian techniques. He cooks all his meat on the bone, even when convention calls for the meat to be deboned before cooking, preferring the juicier texture of meat prepared this way. But there are some things that even this rebellious chef won’t dare to change.
“I have to use Indian salt. I tried all types of salts here in London, but they are wrong. They aren’t salty enough. If the flavour of the salt you use is weak, you end up adding more to the dish. The moment you add more salt, the composition of the dish changes – it affects everything,” says Mehrotra.
He also insists on using Indian flour for his breads. He noticed other Indian chefs in London using local flour, which is lower in gluten content, making their breads too puffy. “No one in India eats bread like this,” he says.
When it comes to drink pairing, Mehrotra’s progressive Indian cuisine continues to subvert culinary stereotypes. His elegantly plated and delicately balanced dishes work as well with wines as they do with the traditional choice of cold beer.
In general, Indian food can be challenging to match with wine when there are several different dishes on the table at the same time. It is even harder to find something that can harmonise with such a range of different flavours and textures.
As Mehrotra’s menu is made up of individual dishes, presented in separate courses, good wine pairing is easier to accomplish.
A diner has to think differently when choosing wine for an Indian dish. Rather than focusing on the protein and picking the classic choices of white wine for fish and poultry, red wine for meat, consider the sauce and condiments on the plate, then choose a wine to complement those elements, Indian Accent’s hospitality team says.
Guests with a taste for strong alcohol can even enjoy their dishes with a whisky flight, or they can pick from an imaginative cocktail list, which features a drink made from Cobra lager.
The 2019 edition of the Michelin Guide for Great Britain and Ireland rewarded the London outpost of Indian Accent in its listings with a Michelin Plate, a mark of good quality food. This seems quite an achievement in less than a year of operating. Mehrotra is happy with the result
“We work incredibly hard to ensure we are continuing to elevate and evolve. Guests leaving happy is the biggest reward for us, but of course recognition is always welcome and wonderful to receive.”