Jason Burke, The Guardian, January 20, 2012
After mutter paneer and rogan gosht comes crispy asparagus and seared eel with cod roe emulsion. And after samosas and onion bhajis comes molecular fusion.
This weekend the latest addition to India's increasingly frenzied fine dining scene opens in the capital, Delhi. Megu, a cutting-edge "Modern Japanese" chain will start serving Delhi's richest from a brand new venue in the luxury Leela hotel in the city's diplomatic quarter.
Diners will eat off specially created ceramics in rooms lined with antique kimonos and hundreds of folded paper decorations, and pay about £80 per head before sake.
Welcome to the brash new world of elite Indian international gastronomy.
"We are aiming at the affluent traveller or the ultra-rich local," said Aishwarya Nair, a senior executive at the Leela. "The idea is to give people a taste of globalisation. In our restaurant you don't know you are in India. You could be in New York, Japan, anywhere."
The Leela, which opened 15 months ago as Delhi's most luxurious hotel, already hosts the first Asian outlet of Le Cirque, the notably expensive Las Vegas and New York gastronomic French-Italian restaurant.
On a cold midweek evening this month, it was almost full. Waiters served lobster risotto, Wagyu beef, tournedos rossini and black cod – with a sommelier offering fine 25-year-old bordeaux wines.
There have been fine dining establishments in India for years, but the gastronomic scene is undergoing something of a boom. Scores of chefs have returned from London, Tokyo, New York and elsewhere bringing new expertise and invention.
Popular interest in cooking – once seen as a function that the middle class would delegate to a servant if possible – has boomed, with 24-hour TV channels devoted to food and a local version of Masterchef that has an avid following.
Most significant, says restaurant critic Vir Sanghvi, is the arrival of the major international brands.
Hakkasan, the contemporary Chinese restaurant, opened in Mumbai, the Indian commercial capital, recently and will come to Delhi shortly.
Masaharu Morimoto, the international Japanese chef, already has an outlet in both cities. The Leela Hotels chain plans at least one more Megu soon.
India is not the only emerging market to interest big international fine dining brands. A Hakkasan restaurant recently began trading in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has a new Megu – as Moscow soon will.
But India is seen as having particular potential. "The food [at somewhere like Megu] doesn't matter so much as the experience and the glamour," said Sanghvi. "There is a lot of money outside the traditional elite now and these people are looking for ways to spend it on only something that seems sophisticated."
The price of the food is as important to some clients as the quality, according to Nair – and the high cost can be an attraction.
Nair has created a pizza with a caviar topping costing £120 – named The High Life – specifically to appeal to customers more interested in conspicuous consumption than gastronomy. It has, she said, sold very well.
The Leela bar serves a spirit known as "the black pearl", which is priced at 125,000 rupees (£1,600) a shot. The hotel has so far sold seven, of which four were drunk by the entourage of "an African king". Cristal champagne is more popular.
The publicity for one New Delhi restaurant scheduled to open this year promises a fresh interpretation of traditional Indian ingredients by half a dozen three-Michelin-starred chefs.
A meal for two will cost about £1,000 including wine, heavy local taxes and a limousine to take diners home – making it the most expensive Indian restaurant in the world.
With Indian diners having only recently developed a taste for cuisines from around the world, some customisation of menus is often necessary.
"At Megu in Delhi we have created new vegetarian dishes and have also used ingredients like foie gras," said Akiko Kitajima, Megu's managing director. "It is an introduction to Japanese culture but you can't ignore the local context."
Chefs in Delhi, seen as a rough and uncouth city in comparison with the cosmopolitan Mumbai, tell of wealthy Indians asking for more spices with their risotto or "pink sauce" with their pasta.
However, Indian tastes seem to be evolving rapidly, as more people travel overseas. "You now get customers sending back a dish saying it doesn't taste like it did when they were recently on holiday in Italy or France – that didn't happen before," said one executive chef at a luxury Delhi hotel.
The Indian economy has experienced solid growth, at up to 9 percent a year, for nearly two decades and the country's middle class is expected to number more than 250 million by 2016.
The new interest in gastronomy has provoked criticism from some who point out that malnutrition remains a major problem for hundreds of millions of India's poor.
Despite a recent slowdown, so-called aspirational eating is likely to be a major trend for those with new disposable income in coming years, market analysts say.
"India is growing very fast, whether in terms of art and culture, economic strength, technology, luxury or food," said Siddharth Mathur, manager of the independent Smoke House Room restaurant.
"With bigger and better restaurants and international food brands coming in to the country, it's only a matter of time before fine dining finds its place among a growing cosmopolitan population."
Mathur's restaurant offers "adventurous epicureans" a "molecular, multisensory" cuisine and is typical of smaller restaurants being opened in Delhi.
But no one doubts that the globally known prestigious gastronomic brands are here to stay.
"Fine dining in India has become part of the international label culture," said Sanghvi.