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Whose Indian Food Really Stands Out?


Suvir Saran
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There aren't very expensive Chinese restaurants, Thai restaurants, German restaurants, etc. And you know why? People won't pay the really high prices for things like Tandoori. To get the really high prices you need to offer people unusual techniques and/or ingredients that you can't find elsewhere.

But this begs the question of "why" which is what this discussion (and ones we've had numerous times) is about. The average American diner (not you, Steve, or from what I guess the others who ate at Tabla) associates French dining with better dining. When we grew up, the people dropping big bucks on restaurants were going to French places. We associate Thai, Chinese, Vietnames, Indian with low-end dining brought to us by immigrants. (Not in a judgmental sense, but in a quality sense.) Amercans (Westerners in general?) are familiar with and understand the culture and granduer of Europe; we don't really know or appreciate the exquisite beauty of the Moghul court, nor are many of us familiar with the rich traditions of the Thai culture. So we, the average, begin from an assumption, conscious or otherwise, that we aspire to European high-class.

The fine-diner should break out of that mold and judge the cuisine on its own, separated from presumptions and assumptions about the quality of cuisine. You, Steve, believe you are doing that. Some here think that you're not, especially when so many of the "Western standards" you apply inevitably favor French technique. It's like the French/Japanese Iron Chef battle in which the Japanese judges loved the Japanese chef's vegetable preparations, but the French judges both thought they were undercooked. Whether intentional or not, the French judges were not using an even standard to compare the dishes.

Edited by Stone (log)
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The fine-diner should break out of that mold and judge the cuisine on its own, separated from presumptions and assumptions about the quality of cuisine.

Stone - one of the most thoughtful lines I've ever read on this board.

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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Stone - It doesn't beg any question(s). It is nothing more, or nothing less, then what people are willing pay for. The only people looking to ask the question of why, are people who aren't happy with the results of the survey.

People are always willing to pay for the same thing. Quality of materials, quality of preparation, quality of service and quality of name attached to a product. Consumers, in my experience are savvy. And they are quite discriminating about what they are willing to pay for. And before you act like the wool is being pulled over their eyes because they are missing out on the cuisine of the Moghul Court, you better demonstrate that they had the ability to try it and reject it. Or you better demonstrate that it was ever any good in the first place and it all isn't folklore. If I had a dollar for every food item that people used to think was good, but that actually sucked, I'd be a wealthier guy. I think you would find that most good things are not rejected by the public. They just get slottled into the continuum called fine dining at the pricepoint people are willing to pay for the level of experience it offers.

You, Steve, believe you are doing that. Some here think that you're not, especially when so many of the "Western standards" you apply inevitably favor French technique.

No I'm just applying the standards the market applies. They are the ones applying French standards, actually western standards. I'm just commenting that its the right approach. I do not see any Indian restaurants revolving around spice parsing. But I do see ones like Tabla and Tamarind (London) and Zaika showing up and charging a hefty price for a westernized version of Indian cuisine that they offer. That's the trendline. Spice parsing is losing out to luxury proteins that are mildly spiced in the style of Indian cuisine. And it isn't that I like it that way, INDIAN DINERS LIKE IT THAT WAY. Go see who is eating in those restaurants. Like I said, it's about 2/3 from the sub-continent.

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I hesitate to add to this, but I'd like to point out, dear Stone, that you're making some enormous assumptions about what average Americans grew up eating; what Americans aspire to; and what Americans think in general.

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I hesitate to add to this, but I'd like to point out, dear Stone, that you're making some enormous assumptions about what average Americans grew up eating; what Americans aspire to; and what Americans think in general.

Generalizations more than assumptions, in the interest of brevity and just to illustrate.

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Steve, you'd be on stronger ground if some of the things you were saying were true. But maybe you're just not saying them clearly.

The market, just sticking with the United States, puts French restaurants some way down the list of dining-out choices. That's the market considered as a whole. Indian restaurants haven't been tried and rejected - they just haven't had much presence across the country as a whole.

In New York, my research suggests that people will pay about as much for an Indian meal as for a comparable American or French meal. You want to compare what someone would pay for Tamarind with what they'd pay for Daniel - obviously an unfair comparison.

You may want to amend your claim to assert that the extremely small market segment which eats out at New York four star restaurants would not pay the same money for Indian food. If we had a four star Indian restaurant, we'd find out. The closest test is probably Tabla, which I agree is a Westernized form of Indian cuisine. People pay for that like they pay for Union Square Cafe, and the place is packed. Whether or not it is packed with people from the sub-continent tells us nothing about their preferences, unless people from the sub-continent have stopped eating traditional Indian food - which seems unlikely.

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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FG - good Montrachet is going to be more expensive then bad Montrachet or Puligny-Montrachet, sure I can see that as the 'Free market' in action. What I don't buy is ' Montrachet is more expensive then Sauternes (with a exception), therefore it is a "better" wine. Free market fails when faced with the un-familiar.

But the main reason you can't compare Montrachet to Sauternes are 1) they make what, a thousand cases of Montrachet and they makes tens of thousands of cases of Sauterne. So the supply side is way out of whack. They are also used differently with Montrachet being a wine drunk with the meal and Sauterns being drunk only with a Foie gras course or with dessert. So they are incomparable right there.

So they are incomparable right there.

Tah-Dah.

Sauternes also goes well with smoked fish, if the wine has some age on it.

Doubt they make tens of thousands of cases of the upper-level Sauternes and even if they did it still doesn't address the point that last year I bought a bottle of 1976 Ch. Climens for US$35, while you can pay a hell of a lot more for some terrible Montrachet or even Puligny-Montrachet.

The Free market is for tourists.

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Wilfy - But I thought I said to Stone earlier that it's the fine dining segment I am describing. That would bascially mean NY Times 2 to 4 star restaurants.

The real question here is, how come French is the only cuisine that gets 4 stars from the New York Times? And why is there not a single Indian restaurant, including Diwan, with more then 2 stars? Tabla has three stars, although I do not know if I agree with that.

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I hope I don't get drawn any further into a discussion I've been trying to avoid joining for months, but . . .

It doesn't beg any question(s). It is nothing more, or nothing less, then what people are willing pay for. The only people looking to ask the question of why, are people who aren't happy with the results of the survey.

I don't think anyone doubts that people are more willing to pay higher prices for French cuisine. But at most I think that translates into popularity, not quality. People paid over a billion dollars to Titanic, but that didn't make it a good movie. The question is whether people are applying unreasonable or unsupportable standards when they determine that French food merits higher prices. It's similar to questions over whether non-Western literature is properly judged by Western standards.

Consumers, in my experience are savvy.

Frankly, I don't believe you. You've made quite a bit of money by selling crap (I'm not being judgmental here) to people who are following trends. Olive Garden has convinced a lot of people that they sell authentic Italian food. Etc. Etc. Etc.

If I had a dollar for every food item that people used to think was good, but that actually sucked, I'd be a wealthier guy.

You do, just not for food items. (Ha!) But isn't this an admission that "quality" is subjective and changes with the times? People used to expect vegetables cooked through. Now they want vegetables fresher and crisper.

And before you act like the wool is being pulled over their eyes because they are missing out on the cuisine of the Moghul Court, you better demonstrate that they had the ability to try it and reject it.

Why? My point is that they haven't had the opportunity to try the top-end Indian cuisine. If people were surrounded by high-end Indian cuisine, offered in high-end dining rooms, and with respected critics, etc., raving about it, I think diners would follow and pay the higher prices. (I'm not arguing that 400 years ago the Moghul emporers ate great food.) My point actually is that most Americans are unaware of the Moghul tradition and therefore we don't associate it with the fineries of European culture and also we don't associate their food with anything more that peasant food. That if we didn't grow up with all the expensive restaurants serving French food, we wouldn't necessarily associate French technique with good. (Gross generalizations of course, but it's impossible not to generalize for purposes of trying to explain "why" "people" like certian "cuisine" better.)

Finally, I don't think the fact that Indian people eat at Westernized Indian restaurants proves all that much. It proves that they're just as curious about the food as Westerners. Or that they like it just as much. It doesn't prove that they think it's better or worse than ordinary Indian food. (Edit to add:) In fact, perhaps the reason Indians favor Tabla among the whole of Meyer's empire is because the do think that Indian spices are better. At Diwan, most of the diners I saw were Indian.

Edited by Stone (log)
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don't think anyone doubts that people are more willing to pay higher prices for French cuisine. But at most I think that translates into popularity, not quality. People paid over a billion dollars to Titanic, but that didn't make it a good movie

Never before have I had such a good setup for Plotnickiism.

Stone - No, Titanic was a perfect movie for the market of people who like those types of movies. In fact, no movie before it or after it can match its level of perfection. But of course it is not the perfect movie for the more discriminating filmgoer, i.e., a completely different market segment.

The question is whether people are applying unreasonable or unsupportable standards when they determine that French food merits higher prices. It's similar to questions over whether non-Western literature is properly judged by Western standards.

It's irrelevent. The market corrects itself with time. Sticking with Indian food, considering how many people of Indian and Pakistani descent are immigrating to the U.S. (I always feel like we give Pakistanis short shrift,) their cuisine will influence the market in certain ways. Look at how Italian wood burning pizza ovens caught on. Tandoors can catch on the same way.

Frankly, I don't believe you. You've made quite a bit of money by selling crap (I'm not being judgmental here) to people who are following trends

But that holds true for the people who sold Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Otis Redding, etc., all things that are exemplary popular culture for their time, whether they are good or not as art.

Why? My point is that they haven't had the opportunity to try the top-end Indian cuisine, and if they had it served to them, in nicer atmospheres, and with critics, etc., raving about it, the consumers will follow

But your point assumes that such a thing as top-end Indian cuisine exists to begin with! What gives you that idea? You have no basis to make that statement. You just think that it has to logically hold true. I disagree. I happen to believe that the most likely scenario is that it would be disappointing.

Finally, I don't think the fact that Indian people eat at Westernized Indian restaurants proves all that much. It proves that they're just as curious about the food as Westerners. Or that they like it just as much. It doesn't prove that they think it's better or worse than ordinary Indian food. At Diwan, most of the diners I saw were Indian.

Well it proves they haven't rejected the cuisine based on grounds of inauthenticity.

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Wilfy - But I thought I said to Stone earlier that it's the fine dining segment I am describing. That would bascially mean NY Times 2 to 4 star restaurants.

The real question here is, how come French is the only cuisine that gets 4 stars from the New York Times? And why is there not a single Indian restaurant, including Diwan, with more then 2 stars? Tabla has three stars, although I do not know if I agree with that.

Steve, you don't seem to understand how the rating system works :raz: . There is no Indian restaurant in New York shooting for four stars; there has been, therefore, no failure to achieve four stars. There is a whole sociology to why restaurants shooting for four stars almost always present themselves as French.

Your other comments simply support the facts I've already explained. Tamarind, Shaan and Diwan all have two stars. The first two of those restaurants are at least as expensive as many of the French and other restaurants in their categories. Diwan I don't know about. Dawat, at one star, is more expensive than many two star restaurants. This completely demolishes your theory about people not being willing to pay the same for Indian as for French and other cuisines. All I do is compare like with like, and it becomes clear that you're wrong. So we can scrub that one, then, can we?

Edited by Wilfrid (log)
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. . . waiting for Suvir . . .

Seriously, I'd really like to hear Suvir's input on this thread, as his knowledge of Indian food is unquestionable. I'm not sure whose position this supports, but if I'm not mistaken, isn't Indian food primarily a creation of the home kitchen that has only recently been transformed into restaurant fare? Whereas French food has long been prepared for restaurants, and before that, the aristocracy?

Just a mindless comment without much of a point, but it may have some relevance in this discussion.

I'll go back to my work now, please.

Edited by Varmint (log)

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I love Indian food, so let's get that out of the way. I was at dinner at Bread Bar the other night (my first time there), and I've been to Diwan twice - once for the egullet banquet, and one other time. I did like the food at Bread Bar better. It was "brighter," as Toby said. The food was more fun, the food made more sense to me, the flavors were more accessible. And the quantities weren't obscene. And I liked the room and the service better.

One reason people pay more for French food is because it's SUBTLE. The flavors sometime have to be discovered, worked to comprehend, and effort has to be made to appreciate the layers, the progression of flavors, the development in the mouth. Indian spices are in your face - right there on the tongue, right away. It doesn't take a lot of work to "get" an Indian dish, no matter how skilled the chef. It's the nature of the spices. I think it's the same with most spicy cuisines - the skill involved in the preparation of French food MUST be at a higher level than the spicy cuisines, because it doesn't have these bold spices to hide behind. The interesting tastes have to be milked, as it were, put forward with skill, and deliberately.

That's my first thought. I'm not willing to pay lots of money to have different kinds of cumin or turmeric or coriander play big roles in food - it's too easy to do it. I pay more for French food because it IS more complex, and it requires more of my brain to appreciate it...good French cooking can't bang me over the head with spice. Good French cooking can't mask its flaws with more hot peppers.

I cook more Indian food than anything else. I've been eating Indian food my whole life. I lived with an Indian for 6 years. I've spent loads of time with Indian families. It's a bold cuisine - but not worth the money that the subtlety of French cuisine provides.

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I think it's the same with most spicy cuisines - the skill involved in the preparation of French food MUST be at a higher level than the spicy cuisines, because it doesn't have these bold spices to hide behind.

I don't necessarily disagree with you, but what does this say about Keller's ubiquitous use of butter? Isn't he hiding behind one of the easiest and most universally enjoyable products?

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One reason people pay more for Indian food is because it's SUBTLE. The flavors sometime have to be discovered, worked to comprehend, and effort has to be made to appreciate the layers, the progression of flavors, the development in the mouth. Butter and cream are in your face - right there on the tongue, right away. It doesn't take a lot of work to "get" a French dish, no matter how skilled the chef. It's the nature of the dairy. I think it's the same with most Western cuisines - the skill involved in the preparation of Indian food MUST be at a higher level than the western cuisines, because it doesn't have cream to hide behind. The interesting tastes have to be milked, as it were, put forward with skill, and deliberately.

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gjohnson, I disagree about the butter and the cream on a larger scale - cumin is a bigger, bolder flavor than butter or cream. Butter and cream can be more about texture and mouth feel than flavor. Indian spices TASTE bigger than everything else, including the ingredients they're surrounding. French cooking (good French cooking - I'm not talking about lousy French cooking) - has to work to keep a balance, whereas Indian cooking, by its nature, has bold, big spicy flavors in the front, right away. It's easier. And that's why it costs less.

But if you're just going to make light of my comments in order to be obnoxious, I see no reason to participate here.

Edited by La Niña (log)
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It’s because cumin is a bold flavour that it has to be used with subtlety and restraint. Bunging a load of cumin into a curry is the surest way to ruin it. On the other hand it’s dead easy to make French food taste better by bunging in a load of cream. I know, I do it all the time.

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I don't think he was making light or being obnoxious. He was simply pointing out that your argument could be restated just as strongly in support of the opposite conclusion. He may not be correct, but that's not obnoxious.

Edited by Stone (log)
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Wilfird - No you have distorted my proffer. Let's see if I can get it right.

The reason there is no Indian restaurant in NYC shooting for four stars is that they couldn't get it. It makes complete sense to me that the top restaurants are limited to two stars, and why Tabla has three. I think there is an inherent weakness in the cuisine (which might be a function of how it is presented here) that prevents it from moving above that rating. Whether a different approach, be it the Tabla style westernization or the complex spice parsing that Fat Guy raised is the answer, that doesn't really matter. The traditional cuisine that we get falls short of the three and four star mark.

Now how does this relate to money? I'm not saying that all Indian restaurants cost less then every French restaurant, I am saying that if you take each cuisine and see where it tops out pricewise, a number of cuisines would be well above Indian. And I think it's a fair measurement because there is no shortage of supply. The only thing that makes a cuisine top out pricewise are the limitations within the cuisine. So if the average check at a top Indian restaurant in town is say $65 per person, and it is $90 at a place like Craft, and it is $135 at Daniel, that is telling information about how people value each dining experience. But the fact that Fleur et Sel might be $65 a person has no bearing on the measurement. It's where the preponderance of the top end restaurants by cuisine top out, that's what tells us something about how people value each cuisine.

Glyn - You are 100% correct about Indian cuisine needing to be subtle to appreciate the spicing. The problem is that it isn't subtle. Yes it is at Tabla. But it's not very subtle at Tamarind. And when I say subtle, I do not mean in relation to the other spices, I mean in relation to the proteins. In fact I wish an Indian restaurant would come along where the spices were balanced that way. But then you would say it was Frenchified :cool:.

That brings us back to the same question. Is a cuisine based on parsing spices a legitimate cuisine that we can build on? Or is it an outdated and outmoded concept, even though it is delicious in its own right, and is the way forward a more contemporary balancing of proteins and spices?

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I have absolutely no basis for what I'm about to write: But if Danny Meyer had opened Tabla in Union Square, with Chef Mathur serving Diwan's menu, but with Tabla's atmosphere, service, etc., I bet he'd get three stars. (O.k., I do have some basis -- Otto got 2 stars.)

That brings us back to the same question. Is a cuisine based on parsing spices a legitimate cuisine that we can build on? Or is it an outdated and outmoded concept, even though it is delicious in its own right, and is the way forward a more contemporary balancing of proteins and spices?

You lose me both with the use of the word "legitimate" (but I know what you mean) and the suggestion that anyone other than you believes that parsing spices is outdated and/or outmoded, especially since, for Western cuisines, "spice" is only first making itself known. (I should qualify this somehow because, of course, there have been spicy components in Western food forever.)

Edited by Stone (log)
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