Back in January, I attended a press meet for the announcement of a pop-up by two Michelin star chef Gaggan Anand at the Hyatt hotel in Delhi. The hotel is set to complete 40 years of its flagship property opening in the Capital city this year, and they wanted to kickstart the celebrations in style. Though I usually shy away from attending food events, I was drawn to this one because I really wanted to see the master chef in person. The press meet went off well. Chef Gaggan had us all in splits with his wry humour, and excited to see glimpses of the 25-course menu he planned to offer when the pop-up opened in February for a month.
So, when a couple of weeks later, the price of the meal was announced at Rs 50,000 per head for 25 courses with alcohol and Rs 40,000 per head without alcohol, the Indian foodie fraternity was shocked. I’m not one to chase expensive culinary experiences and so I made peace with missing the pop-up. Fortunately though, a golden opportunity arose when I was invited by a friend to attend it. So, before I embark on this review, I must put the caveat in place that I did not the pay the exorbitant price it was billed at.
WHO IS CHEF GAGGAN ANAND?
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Chef Gaggan is the pioneer who put Indian fine dining on the global culinary map. His famed restaurant ‘Gaggan’ in Bangkok, Thailand was ranked number 1 of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and number 7 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants from 2015 to 2018 consistently. Here he served multi-course meals which presented the age-old flavours of Indian cuisine in a contemporary format – creative in taste, appearance and concept. Hence, he was awarded two Michelin stars too.
Then in 2019, he made the daring move of splitting with his partners and financiers and going his own way with 65 of his teammates following him. As part of his independent re-branding and in the face of a post-pandemic slump in fine dining across the world, Chef Gaggan began experimenting with pop-ups in different countries as a familiarisation activity for a new audience.
THE 25-COURSE MEAL AT THE GAGGAN RESIDENCY:
Before we embark on the review of the Gaggan Residency in Delhi, it’s important to explain the concept behind this 25-course meal, because ultimately, it’s the experience that you’re paying for. Upon arrival, patrons are presented with a menu card consisting of emojis printed on butter paper. These symbols signify a connection to each dish served. His affable team-members explain what the dish is before serving it. They also narrate funny anecdotes related to each one, but the names of the dishes are revealed only at the very end. Most dishes are served without cutlery encouraging the diner to feel the texture of the food, in addition to tasting, smelling and viewing it.
The first course served to us consisted of a green crackly receptacle, in which rested a ball of solidified yoghurt. This unobtrusive dish offered an explosion of flavours that included (but were not limited to) kala namak, chaat masala, mint and green chillies in a near approximation of my favourite street-side papdi chaat. Next came the now infamous ‘licking’ course, which literally had to be licked off the plate, because as we were told, “Gaggan wants to debunk the idea of fine dining and make it fun.” It was served as a bed of flat ‘soil’ to mimic the soil children lick off the ground when they are little and was an amalgamation of surprising flavours – sweet and savoury, crunchy and soft.
The next set of appetisers consisted of corn papads, buckwheat sandwiches with goat liver and pineapple, and a bhel puri ‘cookie’ with a strong aftertaste of mustard. A meringue of peas and a wispy dish of hummus served on edible paper came next. A ring of pani puri coated in white chocolate was perhaps the most unusual offering, not least because we were told to perch it on our middle fingers to eat it.
A duck vindaloo cracker was followed by an onion kachori made with five layers of onion including the glaze, filling, and oil. The iconic British dish chicken tikka masala was served within a charcoal coating. My favourite dish of the night came next – the mutton ghee roast on a dosa pancake. Its smoky flavour was magnificent.
The shahi tukda was reimagined as a savoury item served with bheja and a soft foam, and the mushroom methi malai momo was innovative even if its dry and sticky texture didn’t quite live up to my expectations of a well-made momo. My table mates loved the carrot rasam soup with Japanese Yuzu lemon but honestly, I felt our homemade tomato soup tastes similar.
After 15 courses, cutlery was introduced for select dishes. The first of these was the deconstructed cold prawn curry made with kari pata, chili oil and yoghurt and devoid of traditional spices. Next was a black bharwan baingan, separated, smoked and cooked before being reconstituted in its own skin. It tasted like the real thing despite being made differently. The Bengali fish paturi with mustard was delicious but not unusual.
The substantial main courses consisted of standard North Indian home staples like a mix of rajma-dal which we are often served in gurdwaras for langar and home cooked phulkas served with white butter, achaar and gur. Chef referred to the former as a dal reinterpreted with Mexican beans, but it wasn’t really! There was also a gucchi mussalam pulao made only in onion stock without any oil, and an interesting palak dish which replaced the paneer with burrata cheese.
The meal was rounded off with a beetroot rose gulkand, a delectable bite of ghewar and thandai that had to be sucked out of a baby’s bottle!
REVIEW OF THE GAGGAN RESIDENCY IN DELHI: WAS IT WORTH THE HEFTY PRICE TAG?
There are certain aspects of the meal I would like to highlight before sharing my opinion of the taste of the dishes. The Chef’s intent is to make the food as healthy as possible, and so sometimes, it feels like the dish doesn’t taste as good as the version we eat at home or in other Indian restaurants – but it looks far prettier and is also healthier in the way it’s made and through its choice of ingredients. Chef Gaggan used only locally sourced ingredients to achieve authenticity of flavour. He spent weeks sourcing local versions of ingredients that are typically found abroad.
With all this in mind, there is no doubt that this 25-course meal was the most creatively conceived one I have eaten so far, including Michelin meals abroad and in India. Chef Gaggan has an artistic flair for bringing unusual ingredients together for stunning results.
As for the taste of the food, once it’s stripped of its fripperies, the result is hit and miss. Some things were excellent, some were good but not unusual, and some I personally didn’t like. But nothing was bad, and you bet I ate every last bite of those 25 courses! As I’m off alcohol for a bit, I didn’t sample the drinks menu sponsored by Campari, but I’m told the cocktails were delicious.
More than the beautiful art on my plate, I enjoyed the brutally honest and witty interaction with the Chef himself. He is part and parcel of the experience, as he speaks to patrons, pokes fun at them, makes hilarious (often inappropriate) comments, and is honest to a fault. His tremendous rise to success hasn’t made him less relatable or less approachable. So, when you pay the monumental fee, you pay it for him – for brand Gaggan, not for a dish (or 25!) on your plate.
To address the exorbitant price of the meal, let’s put it in perspective – Rs 50,000 roughly converts to a little over $600 per head. Hence, it was still cheaper than flying to Thailand to eat a similar meal priced at $400 in his original restaurant, where you may or may not get a seating due to the phenomenally long waiting.
Long story short – my meal at the Gaggan Residency pop-up at the Hyatt hotel in Delhi was one of the most memorable meals I have ever had. But would I pay Rs 50,000 for it? Probably not. That’s a personal choice – just as I don’t see myself buying an Hermes Birkin bag or a Jaguar anytime soon. But if I ever win the lottery, I might do all three 😉
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