Thursday, 8 March 2012

Eating out: A D Singh ~ forging the Olive brand

A D Singh: cheers to fine dining

A SPREAD of ochre flooring. Pure azure on slant tile roofing. Roughly daubed white walls, enhanced by random niches, antique furniture, incandescent chandeliers. Sunny blooms in a chunky mug. A bamboo thicket amidst a sea of white sand. 

           Cane chairs and random tables. Alfresco dining by candlelight. A classy bar that serves divine cocktails, choicest wines. The finest of global ingredients, rendered as New Mediterranean fusion cuisine, inspired by the kitchens of south Europe, Asia Minor and north Africa.

What do these translate into, in restaurant terms? Olive Beach. Launched in Bangalore on Nov. 2, it marks new vistas for India’s largest growing brand in the art of fine living. An offshoot of Mumbai’s famed, five-year old Olive Bar and Kitchen, conceptualized by restaurateur extraordinary A.D. Singh, it takes off from the Olive in a classic Delhi haveli. The latter, launched in 2003, was voted one of the world’s best new restaurants by the Conde Nast Traveller. That’s besides recommendations by the New York Times and BBC.

With brilliant interiors by Mumbai’s Nozer Wadia, the Olive brand fuses the talents of its partners. Henry Tham’s restaurant expertise (Mumbai reveres him!). Martin da Costa’s event management skills. Singing star Sagarika’s aesthetic eye. Sabina Singh’s originality. And, at the very heart of it all, A D Singh’s visionary style.

What is the essence of Olive? In an easy, pre-launch conversation at The Oberoi in Bangalore, Singh spells it out, “We’ve raised the bar, pushed the envelope, so that people are coming up with better products now. The first Olive took us 15 months, the Bangalore one took seven. The restaurant business is not about money or glamour. You have to work at conceptualizing, positioning, getting it all right. Then, your product will last ten to 15 years.”

What triggered this concept?  “My wife and I were at a beach at Phuket seven years ago, when we found ourselves returning to the same restaurant every day. Why, we wondered. It was because a lazy, timeless feel. Exactly what an urban environment needed.”

Back in Mumbai, the electrical engineer from Lafayette University and former Cadbury’s and TCS employee, chose to launch Olive in the western Khar suburb. Before Singh could spell lobster on mini bliny or kiwi soufflé, his sun-drenched restaurant had been adopted as a happening place by the Page 3 crowd.

But that was no surprise. Especially since Singh’s forte is ideation. He proved it with Party Lines, which he launched after an NGO stint ~ to organize corporate dos at sea. Then with Just Desserts in 1990, a jazz café that India Today termed the “phenomenon of the Nineties.” By 1996, he had launched Copa Cabana, Mumbai’s Latin bar with a buzz. Soul Fry and Soul Kadi, serving home-style coastal cuisine, followed in quick succession. Next came a landmark leisure concept, the Bowling Company.

As for the Olive brand, since 2000 it has done standalone Indian restaurants proud. “We’d like it to be a space where a customer can enjoy various facets of an evening out ~ drinking, eating or hanging out. Almost unknowingly, we tapped into a move away from formal dining, into more informal, casual dining, to relaxation without compromising on quality,” asserts Singh. “We’ve made sure our food is as good as any you’d get at Mumbai’s Zodiac Grill or Bangalore’s Jockey Club. Our service is customer-responsive.” He adds, chuckling, “We respect our clientele, but we can’t give them tomato ketchup with their pasta!”

How exclusive is upmarket Olive? “We’re the fussiest with our admissions policy. If you dress badly or wear chappals, you’re not respecting the space. Or if a group of drunks wants to make masti or tease women. I don’t like that,” confesses Singh. “When people go to a good restaurant, it’s to enjoy fine food, wines, malt, cigars and gourmet coffee. That’s why we’re strict about kids under ten during dinner, though I would allow infants. Besides, we’re a bar, so it wouldn’t be fitting for kids to hang around.”

Recalling the Delhi experience, Singh says, “We couldn’t get our liquor licence in time. Yet, from November to March, we were full every night as a gourmet food destination. And when we did open our bar, it was for members only, exclusively women ~ and free! By avoiding a rowdy crowd that might mess up the restaurant scene, we lost money, but created the right position.”

What gourmet notes mark Olive dining? “We use very high quality ingredients, be they salmon, lamb, beef, and top of the line local seafood. Very good oils and cheeses,” he insists. “The chefs at each restaurant can take the credit for the food. We’re not trying to standardize it. Because our food combines different influences, it’s difficult to maintain consistency. But we do have some signature dishes. Such as a shashlik-like dish from Portugal, dramatically served on a stand. And a pita platter with hummus, black bean hummus, baba ghanoush and so on. Even pizzas on a one-metre tray. I’m a big believer in table display…”

Since each Olive restaurant cost about Rs. 2.5 to 3 crore to establish, with a three year breakeven period, what essential aspects did the entrepreneur focus on? Singh responds, “Firstly, it’s important to create the idea. What is your concept, your positioning, your USP? It could be about breaking into the suburbs. Put your business plan together. Understand what the numbers are. Concentrate on your back end ~ the supply chain, the control systems, the fund flow. These are critical.”

What is the bottom line? “Most consultants have their own agenda. If you don’t have experience in the industry, bring in a professional,” he offers with deliberation.

Now that Olive is a restaurant brand the world is taking note of, with close to 500 staff, has Singh slammed the door on his former NGO self? Smiling, he replies, “At Just Desserts, we worked with the Sadhana school for mentally challenged kids. We did PR and raised funds for them over 12 years. Olive, Mumbai, contributes Rs. 4 from every bill ~ from our side, not from the customer ~ to support a school for the hearing impaired in Dehradoon. Over five years, we’ve raised almost Rs. 12-15 lakhs. In Delhi, we’ve either partnered with or given our space to many charities. By and large, I like to work with children.”

Among the glitterati who flit through his dazzling 100-cover Olive Beach, devouring exquisite canapés between sips of champagne at the launch brunch, A.D. Singh seems content. With reason. Because the southern metropolis poses a new challenge to his brand. A challenge he loves as an innovator.

            For he did declare: “My excitement in this business is the creation, the dreaming, the vision. Ideally, I’m trying to build teams that take the detailing away from me and allow me to ideate. I’d rather grow beautifully, than quickly.”

(Originally in The Hindu Business Line, November 2005)

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A touch of class
(This restaurant review appeared in The Hindu Metroplus, Bangalore, in December 2005)

SOME dining experiences are about great food. Some are about bonhomie over quick bites. But the experience of the new Olive Beach is a class apart ~ and worth several revisits.

By what gauge? Because its leisurely fine dining experience matches Bangalore’s laidback essence. Because its New Mediterranean fusion menu is superlative. And its table displays veer towards superior aesthetics. No wonder the brand’s earlier avatar in a transformed Delhi haveli, Olive Bar and Restaurant, was rated among the world’s best new restaurants by the Conde Nast Traveller in 2003.

Over a tasting array by executive sous chef Anuj Kapoor (previously at the Delhi Olive) from its bar snacks, a la carte and specials menu, we try to understand Olive Beach  flavours. They prove to be ultra-select, based on the choicest olive oil, cheeses, fresh seafood, meats, and vegetables. Warmed by a heady strawberry-kiwi margarita from the sunken in bar with all-round access, we take to the restaurant as shells do to sand.

It’s love at first bite with their signature dishes. Take the Mezzanine of nine gourmet dips ~ including black bean hummus, baba ghanoush, aioli, and an innovative   chilli jam. Served in ceramic containers on a wooden stand, we tuck into them with delectable crisps and special breads. The Chicken Espetada is as spectacular ~ melting chicken cubes presented dramatically on a vertical stand, pit-roasted, fragrant with juniper berries.  

The classic Vegetables en Papilotte arrives at our table in a gold-singed paper bag resembling a giant momo, slit to serve herbed fresh vegetables, nestling on tender pearl barley. Signature dessert notes linger on with a hot chocolate fondant accompanied by delicate licorice ice-cream with a divine balsamic glaze (yes, read vinegar here!). Even a diner who normally hates licorice succumbs to it.

We recognize that the Olive brand (which took Mumbai and Delhi by storm) devotes attention to impeccable detailing. Before the entrees, we wander around the alluring space with its ochre flooring, daubed white walls with surprise niches, muted candles mated sublimely with tiered crockery above pristinely layered table linen. Soothed by the muted indoor ambience, our eyes feast on a bamboo grove by pristine sands under the starry sky, where others dine.

Signature notes apart, chef Kapoor spikes his Caeser Salad with individuality ~ rich with thyme-roasted chicken, crisp bacon, anchovies, and Parmesan slivers. He transforms fresh field greens and feta brilliantly with shallots, sherry vinegar, a hint of mustard. The Meat Platter is plated brilliance ~ delicate Parma ham, dill-garnished Norwegian salmon, even Chorizo sausage, with pickled olives and mushrooms. As for the fried Soft Shell Crab with caper mayonnaise, it is a dream dish with spiced watermelon cubes and arugula greens.   

Among Olive’s soups, the Crustacean Bisque is outstanding, its definitive lobster, crab and shrimp flavours distinctly enhanced by cognac cream and anchovy oil (perhaps a hint of saffron?), though the truffle-scented Minestrone did not match the restaurant’s dizzying culinary benchmarks.

Of the entrees, the Zesty Thyme and Lemon Grilled Chicken is to die for ~ its  tangy accents redefining the tender chicken, presented as a colour-savvy food symphony. The Dorada (Mahi Mahi) Tropical transforms fish as seldom before, luscious with a jalapeno pineapple emulsion. The Lobster Risotto has tender Arborio rice fleshed out with succulent seafood and wilted arugula. The homemade tagliatelle is pasta al dente at its best, its zing stemming from bacon rashers, herbs and asparagus. But then, Olive’s Pizza Spinacci con Caprino is equally nonpareil ~ its thin crust impeccable, subtly layered with spinach, smoky tomatoes, even goat’s cheese.

Chef Kapoor even tweaks the desserts with flair. Winking at coffee lovers, the delectable Tiramisu is served with a shot of Espresso. And a rich pistachio Baklava crust is topped with a mousse of ~ take a deep breath! ~ figs and rose petals. Sheer palate magic! 

Olive Beach, currently open for drinks, dinner and Sunday brunch, will branch into lunch from January 16 onwards. It wafts fresh air into the Bangalore restaurant scene almost effortlessly. Through a trend-setting menu. An easy, stylish ambience over 4,000 sq. ft and 120-covers. And a fine dining experience that combats the debilitating urban rush, as a DJ plays muted world music and jazz, a backdrop to real conversations. It is, in a seashell, the ozone without the grit of sand.

*        *      *
How to up the ante on fine dining
(Originally in The Hindu Business Line in May 2008)
TO CHANGE and to change for the better are two different things, says a German proverb. The thought crossed my mind as we sampled Chef de Cuisine Manu Chandra’s just launched new dinner menu at a table for three at the upper crust Mediterranean-imbued Olive Beach restaurant in Bangalore. Outdoors, lights flickered over a bamboo clump as our glasses of superb Sauvignon Blanc clinked, lulled by a timeless feel, perfect within an urban hub.

But questions followed more quickly than courses. Can such a recognized brand, feted by the Conde Naste Traveller, BBC and the New York Times since its November 2005 southern launch, better its art of fine dining? Will its clientele morph in keeping with Bangalore’s evolving palate?

            On initial visits, Olive Beach won us over with its with classy ambience, impeccable service and Mediterranean fusion menu, especially signature dishes like the Mezzanine of nine gourmet dips or the dramatic chicken espetada on a stand. Today, hungry for change, it ups the ante in a dramatic, almost futuristic, leap.

How? Its new avatar menu, with slip-in sheets, has water-colour embellishments by French pop artist Xavier Hiquet, whose work Olive Beach shared with diners in November 2007.

Its pages translate into food as high art. Take the Essence of Tomato and Watermelon. A moulded tian of peppers, tomato, cucumber, and avocado fragrant with coriander leaves is placed before us in large-rimmed, oval-scooped bowls. As watermelon juice is poured on from a long-stemmed bottle, we find ourselves supping on summer distilled.

Three starters enhance the inspired mood. The classic French Tomato Tart Tatin, a medley of delicately herbed goat’s cheese, creamy ricotta, and fragrant tomatoes on a light puff pastry shell was seductive, drizzled with a pistou of garlic, olive oil and fresh basil. The raw Tuna Crudo was superlative: presented as a thin-sliced tender carpaccio balanced with a salsa of tomato/ capers/ olives, then re-invented with pine-nut and herb-rich dolma rice, transformed a third time with a tartar sauce with unusual zing. The three fragrant mounds, on a stretched, pristine platter, were visually enticing. Just as brilliant was the Pan-seared Foei Gras, distinctly from Rougie in France, with subtle notes of port, rich fig and prune, even arugula leaves.

Of the seafood courses, the Red Snapper en Cocotte in dainty ramekins was subtle, the fish cooked in lemon/ olive oil, balanced with a tomato-olive salad. The Atlantic Scallop was flavour-rich, intelligently paired with corn, red peppers and – a surprise here – pepper spatzle! Truly global fusion! Even more irresistible was the Crispened Manali Trout, seared on one side, balanced with a Provencale spring style barrigoule of artichokes and fava beans, aromatic with fresh thyme, lemon and garlic.

A nuanced, palate-tingling Lemon Sorbet with Champagne prepared us for the next treat: 8-Hour Lamb with 10-minute Polenta. The slow-braised shoulder of kid was impeccable, melting to the tongue and touch. It was perfectly offset by the mustard-rich, rosemary-scented, goat’s milk-enhanced polenta.

Even the Cheese Platter was surprise-edged. Between bites of olives, a ripe Brie and Edam, we discovered a delight – honeyed pistas with a whiff of cognac!

Could the desserts be as superlative? Incredibly, they were. The Valronha Chocolate Terrine was a sensory delight, berries sandwiched between chocolate mille feuille, topped with a dark chocolate plume on a painted platter. But the Port Poached Pear proved even superior. Its fruity enticement was enhanced by the warm Almond Financier, a springy, nutty cake with delicious honey mascarpone cream.

To round off the experience, Chocotini cocktails arrive. A dream come true for a chocoholic like me, the crème de cacao, Kahlua and vodka took a while to gain expression between smooth sips. Perfect as a foil to engaging the chef in a chat about cabbages and cocktails, supply chains and clientele! 

As expats, captains of industry and globe-trotters flock to Olive Beach for its culinary adventures and perfectly-sourced ingredients including organic Indian duck, our tastebuds clamour for a say. They agree that this menu on the move is distinctly a change for the better. We raised a cheer to that, with the chef’s homemade Limoncello liqueur, its high notes recognizably those of Bengal’s Gandharaj lemon. How’s that for a fusion grand finale?

(Olive Beach, 16, Wood Street, Ashok Nagar, Babgalore -560025. Tel  41128400/ 99455-65483)

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