The Hungry Happy Hippy: Why is Mumbai taking time to warm up to French cuisine?

While Chinese, Italian, Thai and even Japanese cuisines have found love amongst Mumbaikars, French hasn’t quite made the same impact

Priya PathiyanUpdated: Saturday, December 04, 2021, 02:12 PM IST
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French Onion Soup at Soufflé, Mumbai |

While Chinese, Italian, Thai and even Japanese cuisines have found love amongst Mumbaikars, French hasn’t quite made the same impact. When it comes to dessert, perhaps, we are a little more open-minded, be it Sanjana Patel’s exquisite Parisian-inspired pastries at La Folie du Chocolat (Kala Ghoda) and La Folie Lab (Hill Road), melt-in-your-mouth macarons by Pooja Dhingra at Le15 (across the city), or Freny Fernandes’ elaborate five-course dessert degustation menu at her plush Pali Hill dessert bar called Monèr. All of these and more have found favour across Mumbai. But when we talk of French cafés and restaurants, there’s less resonance.

Internationally, Le Cirque is a brand that is associated with the finest of fine dining, ever since it first wowed New York in 1974. Le Cirque Signature at The Leela Mumbai offers the signature and most popular French-Italian specialties from the brand’s fabled restaurants around the world. But, although it has its regular patrons and others who visit for a celebratory meal, and offers a great experience, it still isn’t top of mind as the place to go to for wining and dining.

Chef Pierre Storti and Chef Pratik Deshmukh

Chef Pierre Storti and Chef Pratik Deshmukh |

Even Sofitel, a hotel chain known for its French roots, and one that urges you to ‘live the French way’ (have you seen their latest short films making French phrases accessible to those who are not in the know in a typical light-hearted and whimsical style?), doesn’t have an out and out French restaurant in its Mumbai property in BKC. Its Pondicherry Cafe has some stellar fare, but it is a multi-cuisine menu. And, perhaps, with good reason. Gaylord’s at Churchgate, Mumbai has long plied us with the French classics, but they have few takers today. Suzette at Nariman Point and Pali Naka — created by French chefs Antonia Achache, Jérémie Sabbagh, and Pierre Labail — tried to sell the idea of savoury and healthy buckwheat crepes, but soon diversified into an organic café and bakery in other outlets.

The gorgeous Slink & Bardot in an unlikely little bungalow inside the Worli fishing village started as a purely French restaurant, but soon became more popular as a speakeasy-style watering hole for the swish set. It had the genius of restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani behind it, and the winning team of Canadian restaurateur Nick Harrison and French chef Alexis Gielbaum (fresh from their success at Le Bistro du Parc in Delhi’s Defence Colony) at the helm, but, as they say, the customer is king. And when Mumbai decided that it would go there mainly for the mood and the drinks, the food — as fabulous as it was — had to take a bit of a back seat. I hear new things are afoot in the Slink & Bardot kitchen, so we shall see how it pivots to tantalise patrons.

Chef Vidit Aren with the Duck Liver Donuts

Chef Vidit Aren with the Duck Liver Donuts |

Meanwhile, chef Vidit Aren, who now heads that kitchen, is also trying to woo Mumbaiites with a vibrant French menu at Soufflé S’il Vous Plaît, in Churchgate. His French onion soups — both, the vegetarian, and the non-vegetarian versions — are spot on, exactly like the ones I have had in authentic bistros in Montmartre, Paris. His delicate camembert and truffle soufflés can make you float on cloud nine and the steak frites stand testament to the fact that French cuisine can be solid, filling, not bland, and no-fuss too. But it is dishes such as his Chicken Liver Parfait and the house-cured Duck Prosciutto that tell me why Mumbai seems to be resistant to French cuisine. Now, both are absolutely great in terms of the perfect texture and refined taste. I enjoyed them immensely, but I did approach them very tentatively initially, as I have had liver and duck in the past that was much too gamey.

It is this type of fastidiousness, where the flavour of the poultry shouldn’t be ‘too strong’, the meat shouldn’t taste ‘too meaty’, the fish shouldn’t be ‘too fishy’ is rare amongst non-vegetarian diners elsewhere. In fact, I remember how some of my Puerto Rican guests, acclaimed surgeons and inveterate travellers, who had feasted their way across the world, were visibly affronted by a Pomfret Recheado! “They have RUINED the fish!” one of them bemoaned loudly, pointing at the masala in disdain, much to the alarm of the establishment where I was hosting them! For them, for a fish to be good, it cannot be masked in spices, whereas for many of us in India, it’s quite the opposite. This is perhaps the reason that Italian, redolent with herbs and paprika, does well, while a Spanish seafood paella, isn’t quite as popular.

Chefs Pratik Deshmukh and Pierre Storti, who are behind the newest French café called Cou Cou (in the beautiful Jio World Drive at BKC) understand this about the Mumbai palate. Even though this is an Oberoi group enterprise, they have kept the menu and pricing quite accessible, choosing the menu wisely, picking elements and ingredients that will appeal to the diner instantly. The super-soft brioche encasing mushroom and truffle is sensational, and their range of flaky croissants with delectable fillings is something I wish I could have for breakfast daily.

Storti, who grew up in Metz, in France creates the classic Quiche Lorraine that originated in the region. Learned from his grandma, his quiche isn’t the insipid gluggy-cheesy ones we’ve had so far. The crust is perfect, and the bite of onion in it truly makes it sing. His sourdough bread has the right crackle, and the baguettes are actually better than the ones I’ve had around Paris! Same for the silky crepes at Cou Cou, which are so delicate, it almost feels like fairy gossamer is wrapping the white asparagus, artichoke and black truffle. As for dessert, their gleaming Ispahan, rich with rose and raspberry, is a hit here, though it might be a tad too sweet for the Western palate. Chef Pratik’s pick for me — the Chocolate Kumquat Pastry, intense with dark chocolate and orange — made me fly home in a French dream.

(The columnist is Associate Editor, TravelDine, and a bespoke Mumbai tour specialist. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @priyapathiyan and @thehungryhappyhippy on Facebook. She blogs on thehungryhappyhippy.com)

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