Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar and restaurateur Vishal Anand experiment with food across the country
By Payel Majumdar Upreti
Nestled inside a tall glass building on the tony Golf Course Road in Gurugram, Saga opened a month before the lockdown in 2020. While they have been delivering meals online throughout the year, the place deserves to be seen just to take in the grandiose architecture. Saga is divided into three separate areas – alfresco dining, popular with the crowds for winter brunches, a mezzanine floor overlooking the grandest transparent bar in the city, almost two floors tall, with an in-situ concert space in front (Sonam Kalra was performing the evening I visited) and mid-century modern décor in the ground floor, interrupted with a stellar swirling staircase deserving of a popular downtown space.
Saga seemed poised to take its position as the new ‘it’ place in town. Owned by Vishal Anand, restaurateur, who has a slew of restaurants including all the Farzi Cafes, and Pa Pa Ya, Saga aims to be a destination restaurant for special occasions. They even have special experiences, where the hotel has put together a pickup in a limousine, a special nine-course tasting menu and a cake to celebrate special occasions such as anniversaries. At the media preview table where LuxeBook was invited, a new experience menu was unveiled by Michelin star chef Atul Kochhar, who owns the restaurant with Anand.
Chef Kochhar and Anand have conceptualised a modern Indian restaurant, keeping India’s diversity in food cultures at the centre of their vision. “We celebrate cuisines of India, not a homogenous ‘Indian cuisine’. I want to revive cuisines and spread awareness about them, discover forgotten favourites and bring them back,” says Kochhar. Chef Kochhar is known for bringing modern Indian food to the fine dine tables of central London.
“I draw strength for Saga from my experience in London,” shared Kochhar. “When I went to the UK, I wanted to make fine dining food. People said you will get a lot of laat/joota (brickbats) for it, and I said I will take it, but I want to change people’s minds for it. And I feel I was quite successful in doing so. It is tough, not easy to change the perception of people.”
Speaking out against an outdated bias for south Asian fare, Kocchar says, “Indigenous or native food can be elevated to the level where people are happy to pay for it. For a restaurant at Mayfair, when I’m buying the meat from the same butcher that Gordon Ramsay goes to, vegetables from the same guy that Jamie Oliver buys from and I’m in the same vicinity, and it’s not like the rent is cheaper for me, then why does my food have to be worth less? I think we are in the same league as any other cuisine, at least in London. I have broken that barrier and said that we can do it too.”
The experience menu that chef had prepared for us had subtle flavours from across the country. Each course was designed to stimulate multiple senses – sight, taste and touch. The amuse bouche comprised of cauliflower – the humble vegetable presented three ways, tossed with black onion seeds and some herbs and lemon – reminiscent of the light summer chhechhki in Bengal, to the more common tandoori cauliflower, to a cauliflower samosa, nothing like its heavy country cousin, but baked in filo pastry sheets encasing a melt-in-the-mouth filling.
The main course – a bass, lobster and prawn served with Malabar curry hit the right spots, as did the butter chicken ball. The innovative dish seemed inspired from a Chicken Kiev recipe, served on a dal makhni base. The ball itself was a chicken breast full of butter chicken gravy, which when cut oozes the sweet/salty sauce, to be scooped up with a crispy naan on the side.
This was Chef Kochhar’s first physical visit to the restaurant, thanks to visa issues in the pandemic. Despite the distance, he’s involved in all major decisions involving the kitchens, including the regular tasting menus at the restaurant. The bar menu has also been designed keeping in mind the food, with flavours such as black pepper, apricot and fennel making it to the cocktails which are refreshing and non-traditional in keeping with the food.
Says Chef Kochhar, “I work with a team of developmental chefs, and we decided to come up with food stories, instead of a menu. Each item has been put there because it has a backstory attached to it. That was the concept and slowly it developed into a decent menu. That is the ultimate aim, to show how dishes have been put there because there are personal stories and food memories that make it to the menu.”
Being an Indian restaurant comes with the burden of having to serve certain items which the audience expects, even for a swish new-generation one. Both Kochhar and Anand want to respect that comfort food matters, and have come up with innovations to tailor to such audiences. Says Anand, “I think the hardest part is to not be the restaurant that will give you your dal makhni and chicken tikka at the end of the day. We try to reach a compromise, not losing our vision, but also listening to our audience.”
Currently, their focus is to reach consistency and standards worthy of a Michelin starred chef. “Until and unless we reach the stage where we perform it like a theatre everyday, till that time it will not be a thought that will recur. The element of theatre has been incorporated in every aspect of the story of Saga. However, at the moment, I think bringing stability in the menu is more ,” says Kochhar.
The team is exploring more cuisines such as Assamese, Naga, Chettiar and Rampuria food at the moment. Having travelled the length of India, spices is definitely what unites the country, and is a hero of the cuisine at Sage. “The sequencing of food is different, how we introduce spices is very different, some like to use the roasted way, some boil the food and then put tadka, some start with tadka. Working with different cuisines of India I have learnt that understanding the sequencing of cuisines is very important. Comparing cuisines in India is like comparing chalk and cheese, says the chef, speaking of India’s diversity. “Comparing Kashmiri food to say food from the southern parts, is like comparing Norwegian food to Southern Italian fare. We have that much variation. Sure they both use potatoes and salt. Otherwise, everything is different. So we all use spices, but the food is that diverse.” However, Saga plans to marry them all in different ways on their menu, just like the chocolate rasmalai we were served in the end. Two flavours so diverse, but one that came together so beautifully in the end.