India might be finally getting its own version of Michelin

The Ultimate Restaurant Ratings judged over 3,000 restaurants in 6 cities

65-Johnson-Ebenezer-and-Manish-Mehrotra-and-Nikhil-Nagpal Top of their game: Chefs at the restaurants which topped the list. (From left) Johnson Ebenezer, Manish Mehrotra and Nikhil Nagpal.

A cursory glance at author and award-winning journalist Vir Sanghvi’s food writing shows fervour and flavour. A piece on why leftover food tastes better the next day? The nation wants to know. Another on why the world of seafood is so mystifying? Yes! (And you thought you were the only one who did not know the difference between crayfish and lobster.) A story on why Gujarati food does not get the respect it deserves? Hit us with it.

That’s why Sanghvi is probably the right person to helm India’s first annual star rating system for restaurants. “The majority of restaurant awards in India is done on a sponsorship basis,” he says. “Often many of them will charge you for the award, and accept sponsorships from restaurant companies, so there will be people who are getting awards who will be listed as sponsors, the hotel where the awards are held complimentary will be called hospitality partner, and the airline will be called airline partner, so there is a problem with the credibility of these awards.” Ultimate Restaurant Ratings, on the other hand, were established “with a mission to recognise and award culinary excellence without any form of outside influence”.

And when the foodie is ready, the financier appears. Sanghvi met Sameer Sain, co-founder and CEO of the Everstone Group, before the pandemic and together, they founded Culinary Culture, which they describe as “the country’s only authoritative culinary movement”. Other than the Ultimate Restaurant Ratings, Culinary Culture has a few intellectual properties―like the Gourmet Delivery Awards for food delivery and Food Superstars to rate India’s top chefs.

66-Sameer-Sain-and-Vir-Sanghvi Guardians of taste: (left) Sameer Sain and Vir Sanghvi.

The Ultimate Restaurant Ratings were roughly modelled after the Michelin. To judge the best restaurants in the country, 50 ‘food hunters’― mostly food writers, critics and bloggers―were selected to anonymously rate over 3,000 restaurants in six locations: Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata. The shortlisted restaurants were visited by a member of the jury (Culinary Culture prefers to keep details of the food hunters and the jury confidential) and their decision ratified by Sanghvi and Sain. “We rarely interfere, but if there is a major dispute, then we may adjudicate,” says Sanghvi. The process began in 2020, and the awards―where over 50 restaurants were given three, four or five stars based on the criteria of taste, technique, presentation, and service―were announced this month.

There were surprises. And a few quibbles from social media users: Why was Lupa in the list? Bomras should have received four or five stars. Sublime in Goa should have been included. But as Sanghvi intimated, rating food will always be subjective and there are bound to be disagreements.

Sanghvi himself was surprised by some of the findings. “The highest number of three-star restaurants were from Mumbai, and I thought Delhi would do better,” he says. “Also, in Mumbai, most of the restaurants that made it were non-hotel restaurants. There was a time when hotel restaurants had the best chefs and used the best ingredients. I think that has changed. Also, many of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Asian cities specialise in European food. That’s not the case in India. Of the three restaurants which got the five-star rating in India, Avartana in Chennai does modern south Indian food, Farmlore in Bengaluru does ingredient-based food with south Indian influences and Indian Accent in Delhi again does modern Indian food. It is interesting that we are developing an Indian restaurant cuisine that is independent of tandoori chicken, that is innovative and is being accepted by audiences and markets.”

Even as Culinary Culture aims to expand the list to 10 cities in the next edition, which will probably include Amritsar, Hyderabad and Kochi, THE WEEK spoke to the chefs behind the three five-star restaurants in the country. After all, no one has boiled, broiled or braised India as these chefs are doing.

Farmlore, Bengaluru

Waiter, there is a fire ant on my plate!

67-chefs-at-Farmlore Chefs at Farmlore.

Many of the dishes at Bengaluru’s Farmlore do not just tell a story, they make a statement. Take the seataphor―a dish that is a metaphor for how we destroy our oceans with plastic and oil spills. It is made with Kochi snapper, a blue algae called spirulina, coconut, which reached various shores through ships, and edible plastic, made with potato starch. “One has discovered that when ocean ecosystems are given time and space to recover from detrimental human activities, they can rebound at an astonishing rate, so it is never too late [to save them],” says Chef Johnson Ebenezer, co-founder and chef patron at the 18-seater restaurant, located on a 37-acre farm.

Umami milk, farex crisp and mashed veggies at Farmlore. Umami milk, farex crisp and mashed veggies at Farmlore.

In fact, the ocean has a special significance for Ebenezer. He started his career working with Carnival Cruise Line in Miami. “My uncle used to work for cruises, and he used to send me postcards from different parts of the world,” he says. “Seeing them, I too decided I wanted to travel around the world. But my father is an ordinary cop who did not take bribes, so he could just afford to give me a normal education. That’s how I thought of going outside India to make money. Once I started travelling, I started understanding different cultures and foods, and soon, cooking became a passion.”

Ebenezer started Farmlore with Kaushik Raju, the COO of the Atria Group, in 2019, after helming Nadodi, a celebrated restaurant in Malaysia. The menu at Farmlore changes every day and is dictated by what is produced on the farm. He refuses to let his cuisine be defined by any specific category and describes it as “eclectic with locavore sensibilities”.

“When you say farm-to-table, the food sometimes tends to look boring,” he says. “We did not want that. We wanted to have fun with our dishes.”

And that’s where the fire ants and the gin gummy bears come in. “We collected fire ant nests from the mango and citrus trees in the farm, crushed the ants, added some Teja chilli and shallots and made a chutney out of them,” he says. Just as playful is the gin and whiskey gummy bears. “These are locally made whiskey and gin,” he says. “We give them as a takeaway as well. They are very cute and when you see them, you feel like popping them into your mouth.”

69-Rameshwaram-lobster Rameshwaram lobster, massor malika miso and kozanja soru at Farmlore.

But at Farmlore, the fun is never frivolous. “The dish should make sense in terms of flavour pairings,” says Ebenezer. “I could never do something that is completely eccentric. It has to appeal to the senses―to the eye and most importantly, to the palate.” Well, mission accomplished! All the Farmlore creations on its Instagram page―the pork belly with mustard espuma and charred purple cabbage, the poached egg with moringa, turmeric and crispy seaweed, the Christmas pudding with pine needle ice-cream―look like they could be framed and hung on a wall.

And if the Valentine’s Day specials were anything to go by, they might have tickled your literary sensibilities as well. The theme was Cupid taking revenge on Shakespeare for all his tragedies. An innovative spin was given to references like the quote on garlic and cheese in Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV. So if you were served crispy cheddar pork chops with garlic at FarmLore on February 14, you have King Henry to blame.

Indian Accent, Delhi

The Maggi man who makes a mean dal Moradabadi

67-inside-Indian-Accent Inside Indian Accent.

Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent grew up in Patna in a vegetarian household. His father and grandmother never allowed even onion and garlic in the dishes. His mother used to feed them eggs, but only on the terrace, on separate sets of crockery. Living in a household without onion, garlic or any non-vegetarian food did leave an impact on the celebrated chef. It taught him that you only need few ingredients to cook delicious food.

And that, in a nutshell, is the culinary ethos at Indian Accent―simple flavour profiles with innovations that do not compromise on taste. There are certain rules Mehrotra follows while experimenting on new dishes. First, he will not mix two Indian cuisines in one dish. At Indian Accent, you will never find a paneer chettinad or idli in Kashmiri spices.

68-Doda-burfi-treacle-tart-at-Indian-Accent What’s cooking?: Doda burfi treacle tart at Indian Accent.

Then, he gives international classics an Indian twist. “For example, pork ribs will always go with something sweet and sticky, whether it is the South East Asian version or the Texas version,” he says. “So I thought, why not pair it with a sweet mango pickle sauce? This dish has been a best-seller at the restaurant from the day we opened. Or take bread and cheese, which is again a classic combination. So we decided to try out a blue cheese naan. Blue cheese is a bit of a wild flavour for the Indian palate, and that’s why we toned it down by stuffing it in hot naan. After getting cooked in tandoor, there is a hint of blue cheese, but it is not too overwhelming for the Indian palate.”

Indian Accent, now with three outposts in Delhi, New York, and Mumbai, is no stranger to awards and acclamation. It has been on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list since 2015. It was recognized by Time magazine as being one of the world’s 100 greatest places to visit and was voted the no.1 restaurant in India by Conde Nast Traveller. The five-star recognition by Culinary Culture is the icing on its cake.

The Indian Accent in Delhi is completing 15 years this year. “Yes, there is pressure to maintain the quality,” says Mehrotra. “You must be on your toes all the time. There are legendary restaurants like Bukhara (in ITC Maurya, Delhi) where the menu has remained unchanged for the last 35 years. They don’t need to, because they have specialised so well in certain dishes. That’s not the case with Indian Accent, where we keep innovating and experimenting and providing our guests with new experiences regularly.”

And for Mehrotra, innovation comes from travelling, visiting relatives all over the country to learn more about eclectic Indian dishes and poring over cookbooks―he has over 1,200 of them and he says every two months, he searches out new ones. It began from the time he shifted from pan-Asian cuisine (while working with Oriental Octopus at the India Habitat Centre) to modern Indian food when he started Indian Accent in 2009. “It was really difficult to make the shift. I researched, practised and studied so much. If I had studied half as much in school, my parents would have been very happy, and I would have become a doctor, engineer or scientist,” he quips.

And what is the go-to food for the chef extraordinaire, whose doda burfi treacle tart, pulled pork phulka tacos and galautis stuffed with foie gras are now the stuff of culinary legend? “I’m more of a 2am Maggi kind of guy,” he says with a laugh.

Avartana, Chennai

Put your mouth where the south is

If James Bond had asked for a martini at Chennai’s Avartana, he would have been in for a surprise. For instead of “three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet”, he would have been served an ancient potion said to have been brought to Madurai by the Saurashtrians in the 16th century―distilled tomato rasam.

Sure, the rasam at the modern south Indian restaurant, served in a martini glass, has been given a sexy facelift―it is made over two days with bruised tomatoes hung from a muslin cloth for several hours for the flavour to drip through. But at its heart, it is still the soothing concoction that even our colonisers could not resist (they renamed it as mulligatawny in an attempt to anglicise it).

The story of rasam is also the story of Avartana―authentic south Indian flavours creatively reimagined. So, there are dumplings inspired by the famous ‘kozhikatai’, yogurt spheres in crispy chili potato and multi-layered panna cotta coated with pulled sugar. There is also the famous sago yogurt, one of the first dishes created even before the opening of the restaurant, inspired by a well-known family of gourmands in Chennai.

Somebody once said that order exists so that good things can run wild. Whether it is the jackfruit seed fritters and potato crackers or the butter toffee wrapped with beetroot and spiced aubergine sheet, there is discipline in the playfulness, effort in the effortlessness.

Avartana, which opened at the ITC Grand Chola in 2017, now has two more outposts in Kolkata and Mumbai. Guests are offered a range of seven to 13 tasting menus. Interestingly, the person behind the restaurant’s success is not south Indian. Chef Nikhil Nagpal, executive chef and brand custodian at Avartana, was born in Kolkata. “Having travelled to multiple cities in my childhood gave me a varied experience of flavours and dishes,” he says. “I decided to be a chef in high school and since then have been inspired by food cultures across the world. Over the years, I have loved to travel and soak in experiences from various cities around the globe.”

For someone who could not boil rice without burning it in college, Nagpal sure has come a long way.