What if we threw in some lamb korma and some lasooni scallops, a fillet of sea bass with crispy skin, a scoop of sorbet and a couple of chocolate truffles? No? Maybe it would be better if we upped the price to 650AED, then paired each dish with a matching wine, and gave you a Mumbai Martini to set you rolling? Still no? How about we ensure it’s cooked by Atul Kochhar and served up in the Dubai version of Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom? Getting warmer, I bet.
But for many, there’s still a barrier here, that just cannot be overcome. Indian food is one of the most complex cuisines in the world, and yet it’s also one of the cheapest. Taking a handsweep and describing people from my kind of background (western, Aussie), we would spend exorbitant amounts on a French dinner, a Japanese spread, or a contemporary British degustation menu. But for Indian food, we just can’t get over the image of a beef vindaloo and a chicken tikka masala in a couple of plastic tubs, some garlic naan wrapped in foil, and a night in front of the telly. 20 quid tops, and leftovers for your toasted sanger tomorrow. I also recently discovered that this feeling (of an Indian meal being most definitely NOT a fine dining experience) is not necessarily limited to my own culture. It seems quite a few of my Indian mates believe that a good curry is either a cheap eat, or what you get at Mum’s place. They would rarely want to pay more than about 50AED per head for a full feed.
Of course, there’s so much more to Indian food than just “curry”. And it’s generalizations like the ones I have made above that are assisting to keep Indian cuisine hovering somewhere around the Sudra of the international culinary caste system. It’s something that is loved and needed, but destined for a life with limits and no chance of promotion. There’s just too much of it around for the better few to excel, push forward, display their unique talents. I suppose we need an American Idol for Indian dishes to help the trampled and forgotten shine through the murk.
Or perhaps just a little more knowledge and understanding from the outside may do the trick. It’s no doubt I’ve learned quite a bit about Indian food since I moved to Dubai. I still remember foodee introducing me to aloo tikki chaat at a Mahec brunch one day (I became a little obsessed and now cook it at home) and relish the evening that Arva (frying pan adventures) taught me to throw back pani puri like tequila shots. I discovered the lighter vegetarian dishes of Kerala on a banana leaf on the backwaters of Kochi. I’ve got myself to a stage where I finally understand condiments, the range of breads. I eventually got the guts up to order thali (with complete success). I now eat the Indian breakfast in the Emirates lounge in preference to scrambled eggs and croissants, and will do so before my trip to Mumbai next week (which of course will involve quite a bit of food-study).
But I’m not sure that even education can help Indian cuisine. Even I, the luxury-slanted, partially educated food-fanatic, am still far more likely to hit Bur Dubai for an Indian fix than the glittering towers of Dubai’s finest five-stars.
But everyone loves a free lunch, don’t they, and so that’s how I found myself in Rang Mahal, eating a 650AED Indian degustation meal. I’ll shamelessly admit it, they would never have got me there if I’d had to pay for it. It’s not the price – I have paid the same in Dubai – Table 9, Reflets, Zuma and Pier Chic come to mind immediately – and if I had the strength of character to study my ridiculous credit card bill (I prefer to close my eyes and pretend I didn’t do it), I’d probably find plenty more, but none of them are Indian.
Indian cuisine is only gradually making a move into the upper rung around the world, and when you think about it, it’s well after due date. For westerners, Indian food was one of the first Asian tastes we encountered and loved. Look at the rise of Japanese food, which was still largely untasted up into the 1980s. Or how about we look further afield – Peruvian, which went from unfeasible dishes like barbecued guinea-pig to the coolest thing since the ice-box in London, largely in the last 5 years.
My recent trip to Melbourne showed me that there’s some scope for Indian fusion – Tonka, a fairly recent laneway beauty is on the tips of everyone’s tongues. It’s just on that edge of casual and fine-dining, but sharp as a knife in the constantly twitchy food fashions of my home town. There are now six Michelin stars for Indian cuisine in London, with the likes of Kohccahr’s primary restaurant Beneres and some other very famous names like the Cinnamon Club, Trishna, Amaya, and Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi. Dubai too is moving forward. Our scene used to be held up by Nina’s and Indego, but is now propped with the likes of Rang Mahal, Amal, Ananta, and the recently opened (as yet untested by me) La Porte des Indes.
There is a theme that runs through all these restaurants that are managing to scale that cliff that has separated Indian food from the peak of dining – they fuse. You’ll see that many of the (remarkably good) dishes on the Rang Mahal degustation menu are unmistakably un-Indian in some way or another. Use of European ingredients like burrata and Scottish scallops, presentation techniques quite French in appearance, and even the whole progression of dining, which completely breaks the traditional service technique, where many small dishes are presented at the same time, replacing it with the la-de-da mini-bites 9-course, 3-hour tasting menu that we now expect in anything European with even a scent of a Michelin star hovering in it’s ether.
The food was good, some of it very good, and was worth the money (or should I say the PR cost of having me there?). I’d pay full price
again next time, even if the venue was next time without the illustrious presence of Atul Kochhar (celebrity chef behind the name of Rang Mahal, some-times visitor, and all-round-lovely-bloke), and advise you to do the same. The restaurant itself is suitably palatial for the price, and blends exotic nuances with modern tastes, and just a dash of Dubai’s “bigger is better” attitude with those incredible columns. It fills one with the same characters. It’s lavishly sexy environment makes one feel a little languid, rich, and fantastically transported – our table could not decide if our surroundings were more Temple of Doom, Total Recall (the first one) or Gattica – but any way you look at it, we felt like players on the screen, and quite removed from real life.
The current tasting menu (Navratan) is available at 350AED or 650 with paired booze, which went from a stunning ‘Mumbai Martini” with lemon, ginger and a curry leaf, through some mediocre new world whites, and some super German riesling, to an interesting (but not adored) Indian red and a lovely US Pinot. Atul Kochhar was in town for the Dubai Food Festival, but is not always in the house. Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar is at the Dubai Marriott Marquis on Sheikh Zayed Rd. Book via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on +971 (0)4 414 3000