Streets ahead

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 18, 2015

Fresh take: MG Road rubs elbows with the fashionable restaurants of Marais. Courtesy: MG Road

Punjabi rara gosht. Courtesy: MG Road

Naintara Maya Oberoi   -  BUSINESS LINE

And finally, an Indian restaurant that offers Paris a tasty respite from swampy curries, frozen kebabs and neon halwas

I don’t often miss Indian cuisine in France, but a prolonged bout of illness recently left me craving comfort food. But where would I find it, I wondered. In Paris, Indian restaurants are mostly uninspiring affairs where the food is dull and the interiors hallucinatory. I’d been to one once: a dim establishment in the 18th arrondissement festooned in brass, latticework, velvet and elephants. It had charming service, but appalling food: swampy curries, microwaved ‘tandoori’ starters, and a sticky, depressing neon halwa. Googling the place later, I was amazed to find that it had good reviews.

“The poor, misguided souls,” I said to a friend. “They just don’t know any better.” I wiped a tear for the locals who would never know that a better world was possible, and resigned myself to bullying people into ferrying frozen kebabs to me.

Then last year, the tide turned. A lassi bar appeared, followed by the very chic MG Road, reported to be an Irani café “just like in Bombay”. And then a hip restaurant, Naan, specialising in snacks and naan wraps, and Baranaan, a speakeasy serving “Indian tapas”. And all outside the traditionally South Asian district of droopy dosas and mysterious unlimited ‘bhaji’, around the Gare du Nord station. Bloggers were astonished, Instagrammers rapturous, and reviewers jubilant at the long-awaited arrival of “ la nouvelle cuisine indienne”.

But would any of the new lot live up to my high expectations? A celebratory occasion gave me an excuse to test the one-year-old bistro MG Road.

Far from Gare du Nord, MG Road rubs elbows with the trendsetting eateries of the Marais area instead. The small marble-fronted spot with its upcycled bric-a-brac, marble-topped tables, and almirah of Bhuira jams, Pearlpet spice jars and teas, is meant to mimic the Irani cafes of Bombay. But the pale, bleached interiors and exposed walls, punctuated by jewel-toned glass lamps, could be anywhere in the Marais (barring the Ganesha, of course).

We slid into our spot on a sluggish summer day, thankful for the retro brown ceiling fan, a rarity in Paris. Tables filled up for the second dinner service: an Indian couple, two French ones, a party of friends, and two colleagues, French and American, discussing a third co-worker in loud Franglish.

The name ‘MG Road’ doesn’t evoke appetising visions for anyone who knows either Delhi’s migraine-breeding Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road or the congested, unappealing Mahatma Gandhi Road of most other Indian towns. But it’s meant to signal the pan-Indian nature of the menu, which changes every three months. The spicing is gentle, to suit Parisian palates, and there is nothing so outlandish as to baffle — just classics, lightened and brightened. Of late, they have had chicken tikka, slow-cooked Kerala-style duck, rara gosht, meen moilee, shahi paneer, and Chettinad liver masala. The drinks menu offers lassi, nimbu pani, craft beers, India pale ale, and biodynamic wine.

“Malabar Monsoon filter coffee!” I squeaked. “And Mittal teas! And Old Monk!”

“You don’t even like Old Monk,” pointed out my companion.

“Yes, but it’s nice to know it’s there,” I said firmly. “In Paris.”

On our right, the waitress was explaining the chaat, their star attraction: “The coquilles soufflées? They are blown shells of dough with yoghurt, and a tamarind sauce.”

To my eavesdropping ears (the tables are closely-packed) this conveyed nothing of the tart-sweet-crunchy-creamy joy of chaat. But when our own crisp dahi sev puris arrived, they had lost nothing in translation, textures and flavours all bouncing gently off each other. Chef Manoj Sharma grew up in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, we were informed, but he knows his Bombay street chaat just as well. At €8 for four, however, these were some very expensive golgappas.

Our lamb sweetbread bhajiyas were firm but pillowy, creamy and crunchy — simply done, mildly spiced, very good. They came with a tart sauce of tamarind, mango, ginger and chilli, and a salad of fresh pink, white and green sprouts.

After these encouraging entrees, the mains were less exciting. The rogan josh was a light rendering of the popular lamb dish, well-cooked, succulent meat suffused with the savoury gravy of Kashmiri mirch and onion (and a heavy-handed coriander garnish). The butter chicken, a large piece of bird accompanied by pulao and an indifferent salad, was serviceable but I always find it hard to like that sweet, tomato-ey sauce stippled with cream. MG Road’s bestseller was too close to the standard for me, lacking the punch of a real reimagining.

Desserts were pleasant, and not too sweet: one a milky, dense, lovely kulfi with lurid rose syrup, and the other a ginger-spiced sweet yoghurt baked like a cheesecake. “Shall we share the cheese plate?” said the American half of the table next to us. The French half, who had been eyeing the kulfi, looked forlorn, but agreed to the cheese selection, which came with dry-fruit-stuffed naans and homemade chutney.

The prices are high, and the service lackadaisical, but MG Road knows what it’s doing. It resembles neither an old-school Irani café, nor the restaurants in India or elsewhere which have been reinventing Indian cooking for over a decade now. It’s Parisian in personality: polished, genteel and upscale. And they’re trying to introduce people to a new world, with lunchtime ‘tiffin’ deals (“like Indian bento,” as I overheard someone explain), a brunch menu, special meals for Holi and Diwali, and home delivery. Meanwhile, Desi Road, MG’s brand-new sibling, is offering thalis, plates to share, and desi-inspired cocktails. Paris might finally be en route to catching up with modern Indian cuisine.

Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in Paris

Follow Naintara on Twitter @naintaramaya

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Published on September 18, 2015
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