In her memoir My Life in France, Julia Child recalls in mouth-watering detail the “epiphany” of her first meal in France, at the Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen: “The flesh of the sole (meuniere) was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”
Similar passages about sun-dappled feasts in Provence and Avignon abound in the prose of American culinary legends James Beard and MFK Fisher, who also happened to be in France in the 1950s. Petit Suisse cheese, foie gras, pâté de campagne bought from a local charcuterie, glasses filled with sweet and delicate Sauterne. The sheer sensuality of these writings continues to inspire ideals of food lovers across the world decades after they were first published.
Yet such descriptions would leave most Indians cold. French cuisine is more likely to feel like the culinary equivalent of a sphinx, an edible enigma they cannot decode. Most have never tasted croque monsieur, never mind jambon persillé – because barring a few exceptions – like the expensive Bistro du Parc in New Delhi – French eateries are virtually absent in India.
Modern Indian chefs baulk at the idea of opening a French restaurant. Haute cuisine is complex and involves so many sauces that it is clearly not meant for the faint-hearted. Besides, the unavailability of ingredients due to rigid import regulations makes it doubly difficult to create an authentic French restaurant here.
Chef Conrad D’Souza, who helms Out of the Blue in Mumbai, summed up the challenges: “If I had to open another restaurant, French would be my last choice. Sourcing ingredients, understanding each and every sauce and recipe, and passing it on to the boys in the kitchen – I would have a nervous breakdown.”
The cuisine was not always non-existent in India. French food dominated the fine dining scene in India till the late 1980s. The earliest and best-known French restaurant in India was Rendezvous, the rooftop diner of the Taj Mahal Palace with a magical view of the Arabian Sea. Vir Sanghvi described it in glowing terms in his book, Rude Food: “The Taj was the first Indian hotel to discover nouvelle cuisine. Paul Bocuse came and cooked in the kitchens, so did Franz Keller, the brothers Bise and a procession of Michelin-starred chefs.”
The iconic Zodiac Grill launched in 1989. Adored by celebrities, corporate heavyweights and cricketers alike, it was famed for its venison, five varieties of caviar, camembert dariole and kahlua mousse. The diner once enjoyed a 25-year reign and a menu that boasted over 300 dishes. By 2015, when it closed down, it was a dated institution from which all the magic and romance had been leached away. French food in India, on the whole, saw a steep decline over the last two decades, becoming infused with mediocre, slap-dash, overpriced meals that ended in a heavy beurre blanc, or white butter haze.
Chef Hemant Oberoi, who helmed Zodiac Grill for 25 years, attributes this demise of French restaurants to new culinary trends like molecular gastronomy and the Asian influence on western food. “French food is the mother of fine dining but it’s very demanding,” he said. “People don’t want to fuss so much.”
Restaurateur and former marketing director of the Taj, Camellia Panjabi added: “Indian restaurateurs didn’t really know what to do with French food. Only five per cent of the population here would eat steak. Also, French have a limited vegetarian repertoire – you can’t serve a plate of ratatouille as a main course. Then again, a French restaurant needs a separate cuisinier du poisson, or a chef who prepares the fish. People found all this very difficult to handle after a point.”
Jeremy Horowitz of Café Zoe in Mumbai says diners might like the idea of French cuisine but not the actual stuff. “Besides, Indians still associate French food with small, manicured portions. That doesn’t cut it with price-conscious diners.”
The creeping dominance of Italian cuisine in India must be to blame too. Unlike French food, which is meat oriented, Italian food is cereal based and similar to Indian food. Oscar Balcon, the owner of the award-winning Artusi restaurant in New Delhi, noted several points of convergence: “Apart from the level of spice, using tomatoes, onions and garlic in the preparation of many dishes, as well as enjoying flour-based products is common to both. The cultural affinity between the two cultures, the strong family orientation, helps too.”
But the real culprit behind French food’s lackluster status in India has been its own lack of evolution. Across the world, the decline of French food has been reversed by the arrival of “bistronomy”, a phenomenon traceable to the 1990s when chefs like Yves Camdeborde put an haute-cuisine spin on the traditional bistro dishes and reinvented French food for a new generation. Sadly, in India, French food became synonymous with the stuffiness and extortionate prices of fine dining.
The new wave
But India isn’t saying au revoir to French food yet. The jaded world of French restaurants in India seems to be regaining its sparkle thanks to the efforts of a new breed of restaurateurs and chefs who are experimenting with casual dining. Fearless and talented, they defy French classicism and draw influences from all over the world.
Bengaluru has witnessed a French food boom in the last couple of years with the opening of eateries like Café Noir and La Casse-Croute (a food truck that specialises in French-style sandwiches). Pierre Gregoire, who sells breads, tarts and crepes at Pierre Artisan bakery in Indiranagar, believes that if priced correctly, French food has potential in India. “French cuisine has a good reputation, so you can make a name quickly. But people are also quick to judge this kind of food.”
In Mumbai, young chefs like Alexis Gielbaum are leading the way with ventures like the recently launched Slink & Bardot in Worli. Despite his years of haute-cuisine training, Gielbaum was clear he wanted to open a casual instead of a traditional fancy French restaurant.
The menu seeks to please the Indian palate without making compromises. “I didn’t want to add chilli flakes or more garlic because Indians would like it. The recipes are authentic,” promised Gielbaum. He simply skipped dishes like blanquette du veau – which is mild for the local palate – in favour of those with a little punch, like steak tartare with fries and tomato and mozzarella tart.
The Parisian chef and his partners Nick Harrison and Riyaaz Amlani wanted to break all the prevailing stereotypes about French cuisine: that it’s fussy, pretentious, heavy and outrageously expensive. Although the menu includes main courses, the focus is on small plates and nibbles and a great cocktail lineup.
“Crepes are to French cuisine what pizza is to Italian,” said Pierre Labail, who owns the popular crepe restaurant Suzette in Mumbai, along with his two partners Jeremie Sabbagh and Antonia Achache. “You aren’t making a complex sauce, you aren’t cooking meat in a particular way for 20 hours. It’s easy, non-fussy and Indians love it.”
Pastry king Laurent Samandari, who owns the popular L’Opera patisserie chain in New Delhi, is also experimenting with non-dessert options. He recently introduced the salon du the concept at some of his outlets, which offer bistro-type fare like croquet monsieur and croque madame. “These are the more accessible French dishes we offer,” said Samandari, who admits that people still come to L’Opera mainly for items like macarons and almond croissants.
It also helps that Indian gastronomy is now a booming industry. The next five years will be interesting to watch – while French food will never overtake the Italian market in India, the opening of more French restaurants will expand the Indian palate and offer diners options other than just Chinese or Italian food.
Gielbaum, for instance, plans to introduce clams a la mariniere, a French staple to his menu at Slink & Bardot. “It’s a quintessentially French dish that’s been missing from the Indian restaurant landscape. We’ll just take some fresh mussels or clams from the sea, add a bit of red wine, garlic, parsley and cream, and voila!”
Shellfish lovers can rejoice in anticipation. If Gielbaum keeps his promise, they will be able to relish the delectable sailor-style steamed mussels and might even experience “an awakening of the senses”, just like Child did when she first tasted the dish in France more than half a century ago.