I’ve always wondered how a restaurant in Copenhagen could become the best in the world with a menu of foraged grass, ants and dried mushrooms, when India, with a culinary tradition that spans centuries and an abundance of ingredients and techniques collected over generations of invasion and trade, struggles to produce even one restaurant of the same calibre. Which is why, when Gaggan’s was crowned the best restaurant in Asia and the tenth best restaurant in the world, we bought a ticket to Bangkok just to see for ourselves.
The menu at Gaggan’s is billed as a modern interpretation of traditional Indian cuisine. I have had many chefs thrust their experiments with modern Indian cuisine upon me and have, for the most part, been left less than impressed. They either tried too hard to force-fit molecular magic into the meal or allowed the weight of tradition to overpower their creativity — in each case ending up with a meal that just fell short of the standard at which the top restaurants around the world are cooking. I was really hoping that Gaggan Anand, with a stint at the El Bulli Academy, would be different.
If you have eaten at any of the restaurants that feature on The List, you will come to expect a certain rhythm to the service. It all begins with a fusillade of starters —bite sized portions high on flavour, texture and elements of surprise — designed to give you a glimpse of what the chef is capable off and to lay the ground work for the more nuanced entrees that will follow.
Gaggan’s was no different. No sooner had we been seated (at the chef’s table, no less — with a fabulous view of the entire kitchen) than we were presented with a couple of screw-top test tubes filled with rose flavoured Shikanji, suspended passion fruit seeds and rose water gel. This was followed by an assortment of three starters each designed to evoke the flavours of the Indian street. The Yogurt Explosion was exactly what was advertised — a spherified white globule that softly pops in your mouth to release the unmistakeable flavours of Paapri Chaat. The transparent edible packet of spiced nuts (laid out on a log) was unmistakably Indian in flavour profile but harder to identify.
But it was the last of the three starters that was so unexpectedly good that we requested the kitchen for a second helping. It was called Chocolate Chilli Bomb — and on the plate it looked like an innocuous sphere of tempered white chocolate covered with silver leaf. Pop it into your mouth, bite down firmly and the chocolate sphere explodes, filling your mouth with paani puri water. Who would’ve thought that that unmistakeably sour sweet taste would go so well with chocolate.
The starters kept coming out at this quick-fire pace, light and bite sized and continuing to riff on the street food theme. The Birds Nest was clever, potatoes done two ways — as a crisp noodle “nest” at the base and resting on top of the spiced date chutney as a liquid sphere. The pakoda had a mouthfeel unlike anything I have tasted in India (and so, I thought, was poorly named), its dry mousse texture smoother and more buttery than the coarse mash that you would ordinarily expect. But the strong mustard flavour was clearly evocative of Bengal and the noori wrapper with the liberal sprinkling of green tea dust was clearly reminiscent of Japan, a cultural justaposition that we were destined to see repeated throughout the meal. The tomato pappadam, perhaps the least extraordinary dish of this sequence, was a rice crisp topped with a tomato gel that had in-your-face South Indian tomato flavours.
We’d moved on to the hot starters by then and the first portion was a Keema Samosa shaped like an Alpenliebe wrapper, deep fried and served with mint chutney. Except that this chutney wasn’t what you’d expect. The flavours of the chutney had been reduced to powder and gently sprinkled on top of the samosa. When you bit into it, the powder miraculously reconstituted itself into the chutney we all know and recognise.
Along with this was perhaps the most delicious Dhokla I have eaten. I have to say, and my Gujarati friends know this, I am not a huge fan of the fluffy savoury cake that all of Western India adores. But if you had just one chance to try and convert a set-in-his-ways South Indian, serve him this Dhokla along with coconut ice cream and delicate coriander foam. Of all the creative imaginative flavour pairings we tasted that night, this was one of my favourites.
The next dish hero’ed an ingredient which is such a family favourite that, for health reasons, is strictly rationed to one annual serving per person. I was glad to consume my once-in-a-year portion of brain in a dish so delicately created. The brain itself was reduced to the texture of a paste and presented like a mini slider, sandwiched between two delicate crunchy meringues dusted with tomato powder. The entire course was a single comfortable mouthful, delicious in taste and texture.
I like it when the transition from the staters to the main course is imperceptible — when the portions start to become that wee bit more weighty, the flavours get slightly bolder and more complex and before you know it you are in the business end of the evening. And just like that, at around about this part of the meal, we found ourselves inching towards mains.
The first of these courses was called the Fukuoka Surprise, another dish that highlighted Gaggan Anand’s current fascination with Japanese techniques. It looked absolutely beautiful on the plate — fresh and delicate, just like a portion of freshly prepared sushi. Sitting, as we were, at the chef’s table we could see just how complex the dish was given that they were already starting on the mis en place for this dish for the next day’s service .
Let me try and break this down. The rectangular cuboid at the base is a white asparagus mousse that has been set overnight using little plastic moulds. The green wrapper is a gel of Japanese melon that holds the mouse together. This is all then topped off with salmon roe, crispy fried seaweed and various sea herbs. If you open your mouth wide enough you can pop it into your mouth in one go — and feel the individual textures swirl about your mouth for a short while before the flavours meld together. Divine.
When the next dish came along it confirmed something that I’d suspected for a while now — that Gaggan Anand has something of an aversion to traditional crockery. Up until now the various courses had been presented in a variety of Tim Burton’esque plates — designed to heighten the drama of the dish, but yet bearing a resemblance to something you would eat out of. But all pretence was forsaken with the next course which was served on a rock!
It was called Crab and Flowers and was a delicious crabmeat cutlet served on skewers of crab claws with a tamarind chutney. The chutney was very familiar to my tastebuds — a refined version of the staple ingredient present in many a street food concoction. But when combined with that breaded crabmeat mince — it was delicious.
The next plate was, once again not so much a plate as the cross-section of a tree. Which, after I got past the rustic simplicity, was a wonderful way to present a mushroom garden. The station responsible for churning out these portions was right up against the glass separating our table from the kitchen — so we’d been watching a pair of chefs plate these up all evening.
At the base of the dish was a little squish of mushroom puree. All evening I’d watched the chefs use a pair of culinary forceps to artistically position the mushrooms and microherbs in the puree and then carefully lower on top of this a brown puree filled tuille that was made to look like a rough hewn log. Of all the dishes we’d been served this was the most international in flavour — and the least reminiscent of India.
What followed was the most unusual thing I have been presented at a restaurant. Served on a sheet of polished slate — that itself looked like a meteor shard — was a ball of what could only be described as congealed magma, a black crusty nugget covered with white, powdery ash. It was called charcoal and it looked every bit the part. A tentative nibble was all it took to reveal that beneath the blackened exterior was a delicious fish cutlet, cooked with some obscure deep-frying technique that turned the crust coal-black but without any of the charred bitterness you’d expect from something that had been burnt to a crisp. The white powdery ash was onion chutney powder, similar in presentation and technique to the mint chutney powder we’d tasted on the kheema samosa earlier in the evening.
After that it was right back to the traditional with the Chennai King — a seafood dish that was spoke of South India with every mouthful. The “King” itself was a lightly seared scallop made to rest in a lightly spiced sambhar foam. The crunch in the dish came from the generous heap of traditional gunpowder so integral to any South Indian breakfast. The flavours were unmistakable — what you’d expect on a Sunday morning at a roadside restaurant in Tamil Nadu — just gentrified till it was unrecognisable.
Then came this exquisite hunk of Iberian pork loin that had been cooked sous vide for 72 hours till it was as delicate and soft as possible without completely breaking down to a paste. The loin was served with a potato puree set off by a delicate coriander drops.
These two dishes were, to me the biggest boldest Indian flavours of the evening — traditional western cuts of meat and seafood that would, in any other fine dining restaurant, have been served on their own or with no more than a hint of seasoning. At Gaggan’s they had, perhaps controversially, been married with flavours so bold and over the top that if you weren’t paying attention you’d easily overlook how well the protein had been cooked.
This was followed by a Daab Jhingri — a kind of prawn coconut stew that had been to finishing school. The prawn itself was spicy and all of them were huddled up together in the centre of the bowl atop a base of savoury rice pudding. Surrounding the prawns was a delicate coconut milk foam through which, every now and then, floated a little strand of tender coconut flesh.
Next up was a dish that had been humourously titled “Who Killed the Goat” and to emphasise that plotline, the reddish plate on which the lamb chop was served had been artfully splattered with red paste that resembled blood. From a distance I could see the team assembling this course slather each plate with “blood” using a brush dipped in beetroot sauce (thoroughly enjoying themselves in the process). The “Goat” itself had been cooked sous vide for 32 hours and finished off on the grill with almond saffron oil. It had been placed on a bed of apple sauce giving it an almost French flavour pairing while staying true to the Indian ambience.
This brought up the last and most traditional portion of the meal — the curries. We had a choice of one out of the three available protiens — mutton, fish or chicken and since neither of us is a huge fan of chicken — mutton and fish it was.
Of all the courses, this was the biggest let down . It’s not that there was anything wrong with the taste or the cooking — these curries would have stacked up with the best from the streets of Old Delhi. But I was here for an alternate take on Indian food and the last thing I wanted to end the meal with, was an authentic, dip-your-bread-in-the-gravy dish. I wish he’d carried the inventiveness of his menu all the way to the end.
Thankfully this was a temporary aberration and by the time we got to the desserts, Gaggan the Inventive was back in the room and firing on all cylinders. The desserts, all three of them, were delightful quirky interpretations of traditional Indian sweets — starting with one of my favourite Indian desserts — Gajjar ka Halwa. Except that this was not the saccharine carrot sweet I was accustomed to. What came to the table was a large bowl that looked like something stolen from the set of Thriller, overflowing with mist that nearly covered the bed of grass. Nestled in the grass were a couple of mini cone shaped tuilles into which had been poured an orange liquid with a familiar flavour. I don’t know how he did it but it was still completely recognisable as Carrot Halwa without the sugar rush that normally follows.
The second dessert was called “In Season” and was served in a plate that looked like one of those high shutter speed captures of a milk drop. All we could see was a rough white semi-sphere that resembled a coconut that had been stripped of its hard brown shell leaving the white flesh exposed. We had to knock hard to crack open the sphere to reveal a sweet puree of Maha Chanok Mangoes in a custard. The sphere was made of salted coconut milk that set off the sweetness of the mango puree. When eaten together the dessert was perfectly balanced — the salt cutting through the sweetness.
The final dessert was a take on the Magnum brand of ice-cream that is currently all the rage in India. We were presented with a rack on which two roughly assembled ice-lollies were served standing up. Except that these lollies were chocolate milk ice creams on a stick crusted with a variety of crunchy nuts. Bite-sized but a lovely way to end a long, intricate meal.
The petit-fours were, predictably, paan flavoured. But instead of offering a beetlenut leaf, he chose to go down the more universally acceptable path of presenting little heart shaped gummy bears that tasted of paan.
Also in the wide-mouthed jar were a variety of candies made from tamarind and yuzu jelly but which bore the unmistakeable flavours of saunf. This was how I’d expected the meal to end — inventive and creative to the last.
There is little doubt in my mind that this is the best modern Indian food that I have eaten. There are other talented chefs who are capable of producing this kind of food — Manish Mehrotra and Manu Chandra immediately leap to mind. But, for now, I think the crown deservedly belongs to Gaggan Anand.
What we tasted, that night, was a menu deeply rooted in the familiar. It was a meal brimming with modern techniques but which played with only the most easily identifiable Indian flavours — tastes that anyone, from anywhere in the world, will easily recognise.
But this is Gaggan v.1. I don’t think he hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the variety of Indian food he has to play with. What I’d like to see is for him to dig deep into the traditions of Indian cooking and apply his creativity to showcase the lesser known flavours and techniques of the country. To blend the mild slow-cook techniques of Kashmiri food with the heat of Andhra cooking. To use the platform he has created to show the world Indian food that they are less familiar with.
I predict that is the path that he will go down and that Gaggan v.2 will be all the more enjoyable for the depth and diversity of food it will showcase. After all, unlike Noma which is limited by what it can forage, there is no limit to the permutations of food and flavour that Gaggan has to play with.