(Carried in The Indian Express, March 2006)
Brunch skeptics belong to the Bourdain faction or the Seinfeld faction. The first will quote chef Anthony Bourdain’s essay at you with grim satisfaction: “[It’s] a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday nights or for the scraps generated in the normal course of business.”
I belong to the second group–like Jeannie in Seinfeld , we’re puzzled by the only portmanteau meal on the menu: “So what’s the deal with brunch…i f it’s a combination of breakfast and lunch, how come there’s no lupper or no linner?”
Never mind if no one understands it, everyone’s doing it anyway. And while it’s marketed as the most decadent meal of the day (obligatory jazz band, sparkling wine, caviare sprinkled like dhania over everything), what it’s become is the most fiercely competitive meal of the moment.
In Delhi , The Taipan’s venerable dimsum brunch trolley has been challenged by the exotic offerings at threesixty (also at The Oberoi) and The Hotel Nikko’s mystic east-meets New Orleans spread on Sundays. The Claridges has a fabulous Sunday spread; Tonino in Gurgaon makes sure that the punters in the suburbs get their pasta fix and sparkling wine; and Olive in Mehrauli just pulled out a brand new brunch menu that plays around with the baguette-and-cheese routine. (Most of these charge between Rs 900 and Rs 2,000 per head, but places like Q’ba and Vasant Continental’s Eggspectations offer cheaper variations.)
In Bombay , Zenzi and Basilico offer serious competition to Indigo’s signature Sunday brunch, while the Taj and the Hyatt do their best to keep up. And while coffee and idlis haven’t been forsaken in Madras, I’m told by a foodie friend that places like The Cedars and restaurants at The Park and The Taj have successfully introduced decadence to the city.
With the distinction between brunch and lunch becoming thinner than Mallika Sherawat’s spaghetti straps, a writer friend, let’s call him the Dillitante, and I head off to Olive one Sunday to see if they still do brunch the New Orleans way. And they do, if you’re willing to overlook the absence of crullers, mimosas and heavily hungover musicians.
I like the Taipan’s selection of dimsums and threesixty’s premier coffees, but brunch should feel like a picnic. It’s the one meal you should eat outdoors if you can. This is probably where places like Claridges, Tonino and Olive score over the equally fine food at the Nikko or the Oberoi.
The Dillitante and I are both veterans of brunch in friends’ homes and brunch as the dismal meal it was circa Delhi in the 1980s. (Salads wilting in shrill marinades, limp shrimp, indigestible mousses that were, back then, often spelt mouse and tasted the same way, warm juice and wine which offered menace instead of sparkle.) But we arrive at Olive just as brunch is kicking off; the white gravel in the courtyard looks shampooed; the jazz band is warming up with Stardust, These Foolish Things and other standards. The waiters are the attentive-not-adhesive kind, there’s fresh-baked baguettes and fresh fruit, and the Dillitante looks around with surprised approval. This might be because of the size of the wine glasses into which generous quantities of Chilean red and Californian white are now being poured, but it’s also the ambience.
Olive turns out to be the perfect place for ambience for the most basic of reasons: you do brunch for the atmosphere more than the food. We’ve arrived the week after a restaurant review that trashed Olive’s menu brought Olive loyalists out with banners of support, but my previous experiences with the place have lined me up alongside the food critic rather than the True Believers.
Given that, both the Dillitante and I concede that Olive’s done itself proud. The spread includes the usual mousses, dips, salads and starters (do not go near the parma ham wrapped around banana or the broccoli-and-cashew pate, but the babaghanoush, a clever salmon seviche and a very fresh prawn salad compensate). Then there’s the live pasta station, which seems to be replacing the eggs-to-order counter at brunches everywhere. And the live grill, with fabulous jumbo prawns in a simple lemon-parsley-butter marinade and good tenderloin; and the fresh oysters.
Three hours later, we’ve wiped the cheese board clean, given the food a curt nod of approval and the all-important Ambience an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The jazz and the wine were equally smooth, the Dillitante pronounces. Yesh, I say, having overdone both ever so slightly. We exit stage left, having contemplated stealing the baguettes at the next table, conscious of leaving finer, better human beings than we were before. I’m willing to concede that brunch rules, for the moment; now the next thing is going to be locating the meal Homer Simpson claimed to have invented—the meal between breakfast and brunch.
(Carried in The Indian Express, March 2006)