The chef behind some of the most thrilling food in New Delhi grew up in a “no-garlic, no-onion” home in a small town in eastern India. The family roost was ruled by a meat-averse father who was also so insistent about what was consumed indoors that his wife had to cook eggs for the children in separate cookware — and outdoors on the terrace.
“It was a very strict house,” remembers Manish Mehrotra, 38, “but nobody stopped us from eating anything outside.”
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.
A specialty of northern India, galawat kebab is made with ground lamb tenderized with raw papaya and smoked with cloves. Updated with a strawberry and green chili chutney, the kebab I get is a small cake as smooth and soft as a paté. Why? The texture was appreciated by 18th-century kings who loved meat but might have had trouble chewing. A garnish of foie gras reinforces the creaminess of the lamb.
Even the palate-cleanser comes with a nostalgic note. Mehrotra punctuates his meals with the chewy Indian ice cream called kulfi, flavored on my visit with traditional mango and unexpected cranberries, a flavor combination the chef picked up in London while drinking a smoothie. The intermezzo is served in a toy-size pressure cooker that plays to his Indian clientele’s sense of home. “Rich or poor,” he explains, “everyone has a pressure cooker in their kitchen.”
Bite-size sweets, including pralines made chewy with cashews and fragrant with rose petals, arrive on what looks like a miniature cot with colorful yarn crisscrossing the frame. Indians recognize the four-legged display as a shrunken version of a charpai, or bed.
The confections are interludes to grander desserts, including a pyramid of crisp cannoli with centers of sweetened yogurt, and a thin slice of banana cake set off with a little log of banana, glinting with gold leaf, and ginger-veined ice cream that doubles as a support for a candy cigarette. The last detail is politically incorrect, concedes the chef, but it also reminds certain Indian customers of the Phantom brand sweet cigarettes of their childhood.
Dal, says Mehrotra, “is the only dish on the menu that doesn’t come with a twist.” The secret to good lentils is tasting them just before serving; tomatoes, which he uses in his dal, vary in sweetness, the chef explains. Surely it doesn’t hurt that his lentils, rich with butter and cream, also simmer overnight on the ashes of the restaurant’s tandoor.
Indian Accent’s contemporary approach extends to its Western-style marketing. The establishment was one of a handful in the city to participate in the relatively new-to-India idea of Restaurant Week this spring. Mehrotra filled his dining room by offering a three-course menu for a mere 1,000 rupees (about $19).
Not that he needs extra attention after emerging in March as the victor in an eight-week long “Top Chef”-style reality television show called “Foodistan.” Mehrotra bested 15 other chefs (half were Indian, half were Pakistani). The 20 percent bump in business and the demand for the dishes he made on-air resulted in a special “Foodistan” menu.
I hadn’t planned to introduce myself to Mehrotra until dinner was finished and the bill was settled, but he greeted my party while we were sipping cocktails, and I rose from my chair to shake his hand. When the chef returned to the kitchen, a dashing stranger at the next table motioned to me.
“Are you in the food trade?” asked Mayur Sharma, co-host of the popular Indian road food TV series “Highway on My Plate.” Only someone in the industry, he explained, would stand up for a chef in India. “He’s worth standing up for.”
Indian Accent at the Manor
77 Friends Colony (west), New Delhi; 91-11-43235151; www.themanordelhi.com. Seven-course tasting menu costs between $42 (vegetarian) and $44 (with meat).