Qualia in the World Towers at Lower Parel shut down on August 31. It’s one among the many restaurants that have succumbed to Covid-19. But the fact that it belonged to chef-restaurateur Rahul Akerkar, the man behind the original Indigo in 1999, perhaps Mumbai’s first standalone European fine dining establishment, is what made the shutdown even more poignant. In a very honest and heartfelt post on Instagram, he detailed the entire ups and downs that the doughty team at Qualia went through before reaching the point of no return.
The sentiment in the food industry now is rather despondent. ‘If Rahul can’t make it, how can we,’ some restaurateurs are wondering aloud. While the authorities are focussing on safety through capacity and time restrictions (the beleaguered restaurant industry first faced a complete shutdown, then were allowed to operate only until 4pm on weekdays at 50 percent capacity, and are now allowed – at long last – to remain open for dinner until 10 pm), the massive workforce of the hospitality sector has seen major upheaval in their lives, with many remaining unpaid for months, others losing jobs, several going back to their hometowns, as they aren’t able to sustain the expenses of living in a city while they aren’t earning as much as they did before.
While restaurants have been demonised as spreaders, it’s perhaps more a class issue. You see people everywhere disobeying rules, walking around without masks, patronising unregulated eateries and street vendors, crowding at sari sales, and dancing at building society gatherings without any clampdowns. These are scenes that all of us have witnessed in the last few months. But, in the meanwhile, the places that have pumped in the most money to flourish are the ones getting the short shrift. A walk through Kamala Mills (ironically dubbed Utopia City by the owners) shows building after building with the bare bones of restaurant skeletons strewn everywhere. Even deep-pocket doyens of the food world didn’t have a choice in the face of the astronomical rents they were paying and the sudden drying up of corporate clientele and post-work party hearties that constituted their main business. Riyaaz Amlani’s Flea Bazaar Café or Zorawar Kalra’s Hotel Shanghai – both high concept eateries that showed so much potential -- are now just a series of empty arched windows with a sad breeze blowing through.
Despite this huge industry slowdown, there’s a slew of newbies opening almost every day. Call it revenge revelry or whatever, but most people have started stepping out much more than they did at the end of the first lockdown. We are tired of ordering in and dealing with all those boxes. Of trying to plate food restaurant style at home because we miss those elegant dinners. We want to go out, to pamper ourselves, to have a good time with our family and friends. And to click pictures of this for social media. But what is it we are really looking for when we eat out? Restaurateurs may need to think about this, to pivot and rethink what will work. Whether it will be Instagram-worthy designer restaurants or something different. Because, surprisingly, the ones that are surviving best today are the ones that foster a sense of community, a feeling of the familiar, even as they keep up with the times.
I experienced this at good ol’ Salt Water Café in Bandra recently. Now, this is a restaurant that opened back in 2008 but is still going strong and has even had a spruce-up of late. I think a good restaurant is like a good marriage, you need to have the comfort zone, but also be pleasantly surprised and dazzled every now and then.
Chef Gresham Fernandes, Amlani’s blue-eyed boy from the ‘hood, really knows how to keep that delight going. So, we had the most delicious vegetarian Beet Morani made tangy using fruit preserves, the most creamy-McDreamy Burrata, and assorted marinated mushrooms that literally made us whoop with joy. The liver pate shmear was good, as was the tuna thecha, and the mains we tried. The Kerala Vanilla Custard Cake at the end of the meal was spectacular. But the dish I really loved was the Hand Cut Pappardelle with the Bandra-inspired Spicy XO Sauce, which, strangely, was made of a whole lot of ingredients I don’t usually eat, much less enjoy. I cut into the runny yolk of the fried egg on top, mixed it all up with the little prawns and bacon bits, the pasta and sauce, shut my eyes, and took a sublime mouthful. Gresh’s use of the East Indian bottle masala that is close to his roots and made by a Bandra aunty for the XO sauce made this dish all the more appealing, as it brought the very neighbourhood it was served in, to my plate and palate.
Restaurants like these are giving us a taste of what we need most right now. Connection.
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