The newly opened Saga from Chef Atul Kochhar offers up Indian cuisine in a grand setting – and a generous dollop of stories.
Fun. Yes, of all the adjectives one could use to describe different aspects of the newly opened Saga, Chef Atul Kochhar’s latest opening – from stunning to stupendous and spacious, alluring, inviting, flavourful, memorable and more, fun would perhaps be the one that would draw you back to it. Repeatedly.
Saga: Cuisines of India is a modern Indian fun dining outlet with deep roots in Indian food culture and hospitality. This is how Kochhar, whose restaurants have won the coveted Michelin stars, puts it. “Its food is all about the cuisines of India. The recipes are inspired from different regions and flavours that have crossed the boundaries of the country and made their space on a more global platform.”
The choices are definitely eclectic. “We also take inspiration from what is happening around us and reflect the same emotion through our food,” elaborates Kochhar. “At Saga, we believe that food is a journey that one takes and we would like to be a part of that journey with you. Saga also represents the stories that gravitate around food, which help the dishes make their emotional connection with people around the world.”
Even though the food served at Saga comes with a very modern sensibility – be it texture, plating or flavours, Kochhar does not believe in specific guidelines to modernise a cuisine. “Modernisation of any cuisine is done over a period of time,” he says. “Time will determine how we interact with the current environment, outer world, what we take from the outer world and what we give them. As a society, we grow and our traditions grow accordingly. So, I don’t think we have the same traditions which we used to practice 5,000 years ago. We have moved on, we live differently, we eat differently, and we react differently. So our food has to reflect how modern we have become. It’s for us chefs to pick up on those traditions, pointers which will help us make a cuisine go forward.”
Kochhar is one of the chefs responsible for putting Indian cuisine on the global map with restaurants such as London’s Tamarind and Benaras, both of which went on to get Michelin stars. With increased recognition came several new restaurants in different culinary hotspots globally, including finally in India with Lima in Mumbai (since closed). With regular television appearances, and popular cookbooks, his career trajectory seemed to be headed for the stars when an ill-judged tweet (for which he has since apologised) about actor Priyanka Chopra, impacted his career adversely with widespread backlash against him and his restaurants. He has since made a comeback with the opening of Kanishka in London and now, Saga.
As for recognition for Indian cuisine(s), Kochhar admits there is some way to go. “It’s true that Indian food hasn’t taken centre stage as Japanese or American or Mexican cuisine has and it’s purely because of how we have progressed in our home country,” he says. “We as a country have not put our act together and that starts with agriculture. We cook what is available to us unless we go into a standardised market. It’s very sporadic at the moment, so it is difficult to buy the right ingredients throughout the year or during certain times of the year, there is no gradation of what we buy and how we buy. People like Gaggan Anand have taken Indian cuisine to new heights and I am immensely proud of it.”
It’s not talent that is lacking, he says, but it’s only a matter of time before Indian food is recognised, says Kochhar. “Their cuisine revolution started 30 years ago, our cuisine revolution started merely 10 years ago or may be less. We didn’t even take notice that our chefs had started receiving Michelin stars for Indian cuisine. The young brigade I am working with are fired up, they know what they are doing, there is an immense amount of talent in India. I see Indian cuisine going only upwards.”
Kochhar admits it is difficult to estimate what will work in the restaurant space. “A restaurant closes because many things go wrong and India is a fast-moving country, especially for the restaurant industry. There are restaurants like Bukhara, Dum Pukht which have been there for many decades now but there are also restaurants which don’t even last 10 days. What makes a restaurant fail is very hard to predict. However, we need to remain true to ourselves, put truth in the menu, look after diners and ensure hospitality at its best, which we do in Saga.”
Figures aren’t handy, but restaurateur Vishal Anand, Partner, Moonshine Food Ventures, seems to have spared no expense in ensuring jaw-dropping first impressions. The 175-seater restaurant is spread over two levels and has an outdoor alfresco area. Immediately facing the entrance is one of the tallest bar displays in Asia, according to the restaurant, and you could be forgiven for mistaking it to have an altar-like function. The ground floor is spacious (and not just due to the current spacing dictates!) with the interiors reminiscent of Delhi’s colonial heritage. The upper level is cosier, and has the option of a cordoned-off private area facing the music stands. Staff uniforms are designed by designer Raghavendra Rathore.
You would be forgiven for forgetting all of the above once the food starts making its appearance. The charcoal hued a la carte menu is reminiscent of global standards with its detailed explanation of every dish. Which, in turn, did little to prepare me for the little skips my heart did upon seeing the plating on each successive dish. Each item, whether it be from the starters, mains or desserts, came immaculately presented. The ghee roast prawn, with its garden-like appearance, could double as a centrepiece in a SoBo living room. The delightful-sounding sea tangle and Darjeeling tea leaf turned out to be a wonderful starter of delectable seaweeds – one of the possible wonder foods of the near future. The Ayam tikka, tandoor smoked chicken with Malay garam masala is a favourite, reflecting the amalgamation of Indian and east Asian flavours that descended from dishes prepared by travelling monks dispatched by Mauryan emperor Ashoka.
While there are multiple stunning starters to choose from, those watching their calorie intake are would be well advised to save space for the mains. The dal Moradabadi – an innovation associated with Mughal prince Murad, a younger brother of emperor Shahjahan – a moong dal preparation, is velvety smooth and once again, uniquely presented almost as a stuffed puff. The Parsee-style salli murgh is a chicken variant for those who like their curry to be on the sweeter side, with a distinct tang of spice and sourness. Vegetable Vepudu is an Andhra-style mix of vegetables such as the ivy gourd, potato and onion. For those hankering for the more familiar, dishes such as the Punjabi saag paneer, khade masale ki boti and kosha mangsho are on the menu too.
There is a whole page full of desserts, to properly do justice to which, you might need a separate, focussed trip. While there is Agre ka petha, Delhi’s rasmalai, baked sweets from Bengal, and kulfi, an innovative option is Pilgrim’s Sweet – which has traditional sweets offered on festive occasions – Plum cake, Panchamrit ice cream, date treacle and wheat halwa. There is also the alluringly named tipsy pudding, another melange, for which there was no space on this trip.
Given the financial heft of drinks, Saga has an ambitious drinks menu, including whiskies, wines, vodka, beer, rum, liqueurs from around the world, and a list of cocktails divided into ‘mild and refreshing’ and ‘rich and aromatic’. With five options in each, you will not regret trying them all to know which is the best for next time, right?
Fun, flavour, aesthetics, entertainment, all with a generous dollop of glamour – accompanied by stories galore – SAGA is designed to delight all your senses.