Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent dishes up a COVID survival guide

Indian Accent, which featured on the No #13 position in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 and was positioned as the enviable No 1 among the Indian restaurants, is positively buzzing. The restaurant also made it to Time magazine’s Top 100 destinations worldwide that are breaking new ground and ranked #60 on the World’s Best Restaurant list, sending Chef Manish Mehrotra’s popularity soaring.

Chef manish mehrotra at indian accent
Chef Manish Mehrotra has taken Indian Accent to heights of global fame through his fun, inventive take on Indian cooking.

Chef Manish Mehrotra, the man responsible for Indian Accent’s playful take on Indian cuisine, has several global fans. His fine dine is one of India’s few home-grown restaurants to have made it big in the US, particularly in a highly competitive market such as New York, where there is an outpost. Unfortunately, the London outpost that he opened in 2017 fell victim to the economic devastation caused by the pandemic

The focus at Comorin is on cocktails and Indian-casual cuisine, with dishes such as Comorin Vada Pav, Bacon Bread Pakora and Champaran Meat. 

Creating new formats

Like all hospitality and restaurant businesses, COVID-driven economic slowdown has pulled the ground from under the feet of most restaurateurs. Much like the rest, Indian Accent re-opened doors in October 2020, with all the mandated protocols in place. “Honestly speaking, we expected a better response, but the high levels of pollution in Delhi has made it difficult. Some nights have been hell. Some evenings, I haven’t been able to see beyond 50 metres, there is so much smoke. There have been several cancellations. Right now, there is no expat clientele, no corporate events, which form the mainstay of fine dine restaurants. All of us are facing a challenging time.”

Chef Manish Mehrotra doesn’t expect things to get any better till at least some of the Indian population is vaccinated. And till the international borders open. “A large part of the hotel and restaurants business in Delhi depends on international travellers. Till the time the travellers come back, the financial situation is unlikely to improve.”

But survive you have to. Among the stringent measures Indian Accent has taken to control costs: guests have to book before coming in to dine at so that they have the guest count and cook accordingly; electricity usage is optimised during non-operational hours, and there no overtime for staff, which means both the restaurant team and the guests have to follow strict timings of operations and rosters. 

Unlike other restaurants, however, Indian Accent has stayed away from home deliveries. “The kind of food Indian Accent serves does not lend itself well to home deliveries.” 

Instead, Chef Mehrotra’s team has been focusing on catering and bespoke home dining experiences, the cost of which is a minimum of INR one lakh. “We have done several smaller and bigger parties, with a minimum spend of INR 1 lakh. I need to take my entire infrastructure, my chefs to someone’s house if I want to create an Indian Accent experience, which costs money,” he says.

The restaurant has been catering to two to three home dining and catering experiences per week and saw a spike during the Diwali festival. It is likely to see sharp demand over Christmas and New Year too.

The buzz in Chef Mehrotra’s restaurant in The Lodhi, New Delhi revolves around new menus, private catering, Makery—a bespoke home cooking project, Yoni, a customised wedding planning business owned by its mother company, Old World Hospitality, and, of course, the restaurant, which is picking up, albeit slowly. 

Makery offers meal kits that make home cooking simple. It crafts easy to follow recipes with perfectly portioned ingredients for home cooking, safely delivered to people’s homes. For the venture that redefines home cooking, transforming it into a restaurant-style experience, Makery is partnering with creative chefs and restaurants such as Olive, Indian Accent, Comorin and Chor Bizarre, besides of course Chef Mehrotra.

Makery kit by chef manish mehrotra
Chef Mehrotra cooks his famous Jackfruit Phulka Tacos, which can now be made at home using his Makery kit.

Makery is owned by Old Fashioned Technology, a tech start-up co-founded by siblings Tarika Khattar and Rishiv Khattar, who incidentally is the creator of Comorin, a restaurant steered by Chef Mehrotra. Makery has meal kits of the chef’s best-known dishes: Jackfruit Phulka Tacos (Rs 1,500 for a kit that serves four), its non-vegetarian variant with pulled pork (the kit costs Rs 2,000). 

An exciting new menu

There is the Christmas dinner that the Corporate Chef of Indian Accent Restaurants are working on. It includes Chef Mehrotra’s take on Indian dishes that balance the classic with his contemporary, signature approach to Indian cooking.  

Bengali rice kitsch-ree is chef manish mehrotra's take on the quintessential khichdi, a special dish for this christmas
Bengali Rice Kitsch-ree is the chef’s take on the quintessential khichdi, a special dish for this Christmas

Among the dishes, he is recommending this winter is a comfort dish, but in his hands, it brilliantly transforms into a dazzling new version. The Bengali rice kitsch-ree with mustard oil-fried sausage and masala mash fritters is Chef Mehrotra’s gourmet version of khichdi. “I like to mine classic Indian recipes and then present a whole new version. And there is nothing more classic then khichdi.” 

Unlike the vegetarian version, which is made in every Indian home, Chef Mehrotra’s meaty version includes pork, or if you like, a chicken sausage. The sausage is somewhat spicy and served in a risotto-style khichdi, garnished with papad and infused with hing or asafoetida, methi or fenugreek leaves and moong dal. 

Unlike most chefs today, Chef Mehrotra isn’t falling back on different kinds of Indian grains, millets or rice varieties just to pay obeisance to local ingredients in what has emerged as 2020’s biggest trends: Think Global, Cook Local. Instead, his dishes include Kanyakumari Crab with Sago Pongal, “a star dish on our tasting menu. We get good quality crab and we use sago to create a Pongal. Sago is often used in Mumbai or Maharashtra in the quintessential sabudana vada or Indore in sabudana khichdi.” 

During the long summer-spills-into-winter lockdown and several semi-disruptions, Indian Accent kitchen has been a hotbed of experimentation. “In Indian fine dine and luxury restaurants, there is very little experimentation happening with regional cuisines. There is the formula menu: a few Tandoori dishes, such as chicken and lamb, a few kebabs, some gravies, maybe one coconut-based curry particularly if they claim to serve Kerala or Chettinad cuisines.”

Among the dishes he is putting out is a flavoursome and spicy Goa Smoked Chilli Curry, a raw mango curry with prawns; Tofu Medu Vadai; besides a dish from Uttarakhand that has the Himalayan dog mustard or wild mustard, Jakhiya. It has a nutty flavour and packs a punch. “Then we have Beetroot and Peanut Butter Chop with kasundi, much like the Calcutta Chop, Banana Blossom Kofta, and Pork Belly Tikka with Punjabi lobia or black-eyed beans. “My focus is on acquiring good quality meat from Rajasthan, fresh Bhut Jolokia chillies, and several such fresh ingredients. There is one small family in Kolhapur which makes a beautiful Buknu masala we use.” 

Aloo chaat, indian accent
Chaats, Delhi’s favourite cuisine, are part of Indian Accent’s new Tasting Menu, and draw from Lucknow, Benares and Old Delhi’s chaat traditions

Chef Mehrotra has introduced an experimental Tasting Menu, which includes a chaat section. “COVID has hit street hawkers and small restaurants serving chaat hard. Delhi has also missed these chatpata offerings. So, we researched all through the lockdown to create a chaat menu with dishes drawn from cities such as Lucknow, Banaras, and Old Delhi.” Of course, each dish has an Indian Accent spin. A moonglet (a vegetarian pancake) is served with a dash of gari, but the taste and charm of Old Delhi have been kept intact with every mouthful. “It has slivers of radish and sweet chatni, quintessential to “purani Dilli ka khana”, he says.

Indian Accent is has a few classic dishes that everyone talks about: Duck Khurchan presented in a cornetto-like cone with herb yoghurt and chilli chutney; Ghee roast Mutton Boti; Roomali Pancake; Kashmiri Morel Musallam and Parmesan Papad. I can personally vouch for the fabulous Doda barfi handmade by the chefs, the kind I have never eaten before, or since, and his inventive Blue Cheese Naan. 

Blue cheese naan by chef manish mehrotra is an indian accent classic.
Blue Cheese Naan is an Indian Accent classic.

Chef Mehrotra has thrown away the old Mughlai template and created food that is fun. Born in Patna in the northern state of Bihar, Mehrotra has drawn liberally from his roots and from North Indian food cultures for finely crafting his menus at Indian Accent in New Delhi, which he founded in 2009, the New York outpost, which opened its doors in 2016 and now, Comorin.

“Modern Indian cuisine can only be drawn from traditional Indian food. It should taste like an Indian dish; it should strike a chord,” emphasises Chef Mehrotra. Anything lesser will only remain a gimmick. 

Quick Bytes with Chef Mehrotra

Designing a menu for a post-COVID world 

Pulled kathal phulka taco by chef manish mehrotra
Pulled Kathal Phulka Taco

“Ensure there is something unique in the menu, even if the food is traditional. Source seasonal ingredients because they are cheaper and healthier. Use them in inventive ways in your menu. Ensure that you have a few dishes using one ingredient to avoid wastage. Follow strict hygiene protocols.”

If I was not a chef…

“I would be running my father’s petrol pump in Patna.” Or maybe, working as an actor. Not many know he performed as a child artist in a movie called Doosri Dulhan (1983).

His most extravagant buys

Chef manish mehrotra's favourite cookbook. The flavour thesaurus by niki segnit

Cookbooks. The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit is his most thumbed-through book. 

An ingredient he uses often

The Indian gooseberry or amla. “It has a tangy flavour, is an immunity booster and works well in salads.” He adds amla murabba, a North Indian staple, in a pomelo salad, along with lettuce, chopped coriander and dried red chilli.  

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