Luckily for his countrymen, the young Mehrotra summered with relatives in New Delhi and Mumbai who ate widely. And fortunately for anyone who reserves at Indian Accent — the chef’s three-year-old, 45-seat jewel box tucked into the Manor hotel in south New Delhi — there’s nothing that he wants to deny his diners.
Softshell crabs are often exported from India. But here they are at Indian Accent, featured as golden nuggets in a paper cone with roasted coconut. Alongside the seafood, spiked with curry leaves and dried red chilies, is a pale pink dip coaxed from tomato pickle. Diners also get tweezers for extricating the hot crab from its pliant vase.
Butter chicken, ubiquitous on restaurant menus in the Indian capital, gets a rich lift from crushed roasted peanuts and peanut butter, a texture combination that demonstrates the chef’s pan-Asian culinary training. The entree is sandwiched between fenugreek crackers and served with a vivid salad of onion, mint, beet and carrot by a waiter who playfully upends a chai glass over the plate.
I’ve had Indian breads stuffed countless ways over the years, but it wasn’t until a spring dinner at Indian Accent that I encountered quarter-size nan sharpened with blue cheese and larger pillows of bread plumped with pumpkin and cheddar cheese.
Mehrotra refers to his style as “Indian food with an international accent,” or the other way around. However you view his elegant and entertaining cooking, the chef comes from an unlikely background and is doing something that few of his peers have attempted, says Vir Sanghvi, a respected Indian print and television journalist and my recent guide to the country’s dining scene.
According to Sanghvi, most Indian chefs are steeped in the ways of the French; Mehrotra, by contrast, was schooled in pan-Asian techniques by Thai master chefs in London.
Even the venue for his cooking is uncommon. Most high-end Indian restaurants in New Delhi are found in large hotels that are “designed to appeal to foreigners who want to enjoy a good Indian meal without venturing too far,” says Sanghvi, who gave Mehrotra his namesake chef of the year award in 2010. Flanked by an expansive lawn visible from the serene dining room, the Manor houses a mere 15 guest rooms in a part of the city where ambassadors and titans of industry reside.
Indian Accent was preceded in its space by a restaurant from the Michelin-starred London chef Vineet Bhatia. That concept foundered. Says Sanghvi, “Delhiites were not ready for Vineet’s style of modern Indian cooking.”
They’ve since warmed to Indian Accent. To win the confidence of what Mehrotra calls his toughest audience — his fellow middle-class Indians — he never mixes two styles of regional Indian cooking on the same plate. Also, “if I can give a reason why I’m doing” something different with a traditional dish, he says, “fusion is successful.” I appreciate the little story that accompanies most dishes, especially if Mehrotra is the dispenser of the tale.