the art of a bite
Amuse-bouche to Indian restaurant today is what hors d’oeuvres were to America in the 1950s, courtesy a few chefs who have turned these nibbles into canvases of sheer culinary brilliance!
A decade ago, if someone had said ‘amuse-bouche’ and ‘Indian restaurant’ in the same sentence; you would probably brush it aside in jest saying, “This is Indian, not French”. No longer. Today, a meal at Mumbai’s Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra has not one but three amuse strewn over the courses, and dining out at Dusit Devrana’s Kiyan begins with a choice of not one but three extremely well done Amuses like aerated dhokla with coconut cream and coriander air, mulberry and ginger pate and the most-ordered twice cooked jackfruit pops. Clearly Amuse-bouche today is as much a part of the Indian fine dining space today as was mukhwaas in the yore.
But is it a true presumption to make? Disagrees Chef Manish Mehrotra of New Delhi’s Indian Accent, who believes that Amuse has always been a part of Indian dining space at large. “Even back in the 70s, Indian restaurants served Amuse in form of papad, chutneys and pickled onions.” And while others may differ saying an accompaniment cannot be categorised as Amusebouche, which is French for palate amuser, Chef Mehrotra isn’t far from the
Even in his bite-size, French avatar Amuse-bouche has been in the Indian hospitality space as early as the 1990, with places like Zodiac Grill in Taj Palace Hotel and The Oberoi’s Rotisserie and Sea Grill, both in Mumbai, serving them as part of their menu. Of course then, Amuse was not half as exciting as what a Varq or a Ziya will serve today. Consider this: Gari fruit roll in spoon – savory crepe done with mixed fruit chaat and tamarind coulis, garnished with olive and a slice of grape, Khandvi in spoon with fruit ratatouille, Chana dal kasoori wadi with tamarind, mint and yoghurt chutney are a few of the Amuse-bouche that Varq doles out for its esteem guests every day.
But where did it all started? At Mumbai’s Masala Kraft, Chef Hemant Oberoi’s ambitious Indian restaurant in Taj Mahal Palace & Hotels, back in early 2000s, when diners were served with aam panna sorbet, au gratis. A marriage of spicy and sweet, the sorbet, which was aam panna reincarnated and personified in the former Grand Executive Chef style, the idea was to present “a dish that sparks romance between the guest and the myriad of Indian flavours.”
The response to this experimental palate amuser was phenomenal and by the time Varq greeted its first guest, there was not one but two Amuse-bouches on the menu -- tamarind and aam panna sorbet. It was the perfect start to “French style of dining to the Indian table”. But little did Chef Oberoi realise then that in less than half a decade Amuse would cement its role as a pre-starter essential of a menu.
In 2010, two different restaurant in two different cities replicated what Chef Oberoi had done as an experiment, but with more flair. Michelin starChef Vineet Bhatia opened Ziya in The Oberoi with European-styled Indian menu along with a list of Amuse that were truly a precursor of his menu, and Chef Manish Mehrotra of India Accent with his famous Danish Blue Cheese Naan and a ‘Fusion Flavour’ menu. It is said that Chef Mehrotra had spend a good time at developing the blue cheese naan size, which had to be just right to hold the blue cheese within. While Chef Bhatia, who had done similar experiments abroad went with popular street snacks as Amuse like his dahi bhalla amuse, which is bhalla served with a quenelle of mint-yogurt icecream. The presentation wasn’t the only thing unique about these palate Amusers, it was also the way each element was designed in a way that one had to be instructed on the way to enjoy it completely. “These worked on the concept of ‘mind games’, where the dish didn’t look the usual way, but had in a certain way you can taste the familiar flavours. And that is what made amuse, exciting for the chef and the diners,” says seasoned food consultant, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, whose tasting menu back in 2005 was based predominantly on the concept of Amuse.
Such was the charm of these palate Amusers that by 2012 most Indian restaurant started developing their own Amuse-bouche – but the idea, says Nishant Choubey, Executive Chef, Dusit Devrana, “create a bite that could create an impression not only of the restaurant but the ability of a chef to surprise and get diners coming back for more.”
“Given that it was the first dish you had to add the element of surprise but without taking away the familiarity of flavours,” says Zorawar Kalra, who set a new benchmark for the Amuse by introducing the concept of having small Amuses throughout the meal with Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra.
Says Chef Kapil Mulchandi, The Park, Calangute, Goa, “This also meant that a chef could no longer just pick an ingredient and use it at will. There had to be a method to the madness, which on one hand had to be stunning and make the meal taste even better.” Like Kiyan’s Khatti Meethi Chuski. Presentation wise, the chuski is served as a quenelle on a bed of kala khatta caviar, but it showcases the mélange of sweet, tangy and lemony flavours that are predominant in the menu.
This explains why most Amuse until 2012 were mostly haute incarnation of popular street food and snacks. Like the Baluchi in Lalit The Ashok in Bengaluru, which serves the Palak Chenna Ki Potli made with spiced chenna stuffed in spinach leaves as Amuse-bouche. Or Ziya’s Gold Flecked Papdi Chaat.
It was in 2012 that Amuse-bouche really became a fad with Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra and the renovated Southern Spice in Taj Coromandel (Chennai), the latter had its Amuse-bouche designed on the lines of the traditional palaharam; a practice down south where small eats, sweet and savoury, are served along with a beverage. Says Executive Chef Alok Anand, “ The Amuse added a new dimension to the concept, since most expect a sweet or savoury version. Recreating such mix and match of flavours in a bite is what many chef find exciting and thus get attracted towards creating the Amuse.”
Masala Library made Amuse more conversational by giving it a different look and appeal. “We customized everything,” says Zorawar Kalra. “Instead of the regular spoons and white bowls, sev puri ‘on the go’ was served on customised rickshaws and the yogurt sphere in specially designed conical glass, which engaged the diners while giving them a glimpse of what molecular gastronomy was all about. Plus the Amusebouche was paired with a palate cleanser like the misti doi sorbet–designed as an Amuse to be served during the meal.” A year later, Kalra upped the ante by bringing in the ‘fusion’ element with the misti doi sphere, strawberry gel amuse at Farzi Café (Gurgaon), which was a huge success. “Amuse today is no more only
about recreating a popular snack or a dish, it’s also about amusing the brain into trying newer dishes and bold flavours, which is the next step for this now much Indianised concept.”
True to his words, Tawak (Noida), a restaurant chronicling the erstwhile spice route up North East, introduced two Amuse-bouche – the Thai-flavoured puchka and lychee poached in cinnamon and jasmine tea reduction. Says Tawak co-owner and chef Deepankar Arora, “Today Amuse is all about how differently can ingredients be played with, and with flavours once seen as odd.”
Little wonder that the soon-to-be-relaunched the iconic Kebab Korner of The InterContinental Marine Drive (Mumbai) too is looking at a list of Amuse that will be as exciting as their new menu.