The vibe is cheery casual. The décor cosy chic. The food interesting yet comforting. While a lot of city restaurants may lay claim to similar qualities, there’s something about NRI that’s already made it Mumbai’s latest ‘it’ eatery, even though it officially opened its doors to the paying public only yesterday.
The wow factor may be the man behind the menu, Chef Atul Kochhar, who has had Michelin stars bestowed on two restaurants he’s been associated with in London (first Tamarind and then his own Benares in tony Mayfair in 2007). Now, more than two decades later, he’s back on Indian shores, hoping to make his mark on the city’s foodscape.
When I first met him in early September of 2015, the 3,000 sq ft space at Maker Maxity in the Bandra Kurla Complex that he showed me around was just a dream yet to take shape. Today, when I visit for a sneak peek, it’s the warm and vibrant NRI (short for Not Really Indian), bursting with possibilities.
Just as he promised at our last meeting, NRI is very different from his super luxe Benares. Here’s a space that isn’t created to impress but include. Be it the sharply dressed corporate executive, the matronly matriarch of a traditional family, the well-heeled hipster pitching a start-up idea or the cute collegian celebrating a special day, they’ll all feel quite at home here. The design, brightly lit by day and cosily enticing by night, has been conceptualised by Andy Lampard from the UK and executed by architect Udayan Bhatt. The accessible show kitchen makes NRI even more interactive and interesting.
Kochhar’s menu for NRI draws from the extensive dining memories of the Indian diaspora. It’s the recipes that Indian migrants took with them to diverse parts of the globe and recreated using the local produce. The dishes now fly full circle, returning to their country of origin like a gaggle of NRIs returning to roost in winter.
For now, there’s a small bill of fare with less than 20 dishes to choose from (not including the fantastic desserts that come to your table on a trolley). Chef Kochhar tells me, “We’ll have a more extensive one up in February. But it’s always going to be a liquid menu that will keep changing, as I believe strongly in using a lot of the local produce that’s in season.”
The Dalim Shakkarkandhi is exactly that. Besides being a stunning salad, both in appearance and taste. The earthy smokiness of the roasted sweet potato is pepped up to perfection by juicy red pomegranate pearls and white yoghurt foam swirls. A smattering of moong and a dash of tamarind relish (good ol’ imli chutney), give this dish the texture and tang of dahi-puri. A sophisticated version of a tasty street-side snack, this one is perfect for both day and night diners, food that offers both refreshing coolth and warm comfort at the same time.
The Jerk Spiced Chicken Salad, served with grilled iceberg lettuce and a bright raw papaya salad, is also a delightful option for a warm Mumbai afternoon. The fresh and spicy Passion Fruit Chutney Martini balances both these excellently. As does the lip-smacking non-alcoholic drink called Affandi, a tasty tango of qumquat, green tea and orange juice, laced with galangal.
Meanwhile, the hot and buttery melt-in-your-mouth Malay Butter Mushrooms, cooked in a liberal swathe of Indonesian sweet soy sauce and spices, go really well with the Mumbai Martini, which is redolent of curry leaf too. The Phaldaari Chaat from the robata is a souped up fruit chaat, with slices of apple, tomato, star fruit and pineapple marinated and then grilled, giving them an added tinge of a roasty tawa taste. This is complemented quite perfectly by the non-alcoholic Durban Cooler, a cinammony concoction of grilled pineapple, orange juice, honey and lime.
I find that the vegetarian Pind Da Hummus is sensational but in an oddly subtle way. You look at the falafel served with it. Ho hum. The pickled veggies? Nothing remarkable there. But then you scoop up some of that hummus using a pickled carrot. Hmmm… Looks slightly darker than normal. Eyebrow raise. Then, another bite with the tikki-like falafel and you’re all glazed eyes and mouth open like Anton Ego, the food critic from the film Ratatouille, transported back to his childhood by a deceptively simple dish. All Kochhar has done is to take your typical pindi chhole and ground it into a hummus. But what a terrifically tasty twist that small sprinkle of kala namak and the Indian masalas create on the tongue!
I also sample the Mauritian Creole fried chicken nuggets with a very French Rougaille Sauce, that’s largely chilli and tomato with butter, and the steamed Sri Lankan Potli Murg served with String Hoppers but find that both are less exciting than what I’ve tasted before and what comes next.
The Bunny Chow, as expected, steals the show as soon as it appears on the table. And you can be assured that everyone visiting NRI will order this at least the first time, if not every time! This South African staple is evidence of necessity being the mother of invention. The story goes that Indian immigrants who worked on the sugarcane plantations around Durban in the 1940s came up with this novel method of carrying their lunch to work, pouring curry into hollowed out loaves of bread. Like the original version, the one I order is vegetarian, made of perfectly cooked kidney beans and potato curry inside a cunning cylinder made of bread, topped with a fresh, finely chopped salad that sits pretty under a conical bread ‘lid’. NRI also does a very tasty lamb one, in the true South African tradition.
Whichever one you pick, it’s really most satisfying to dispense with cutlery and tear into the insides of the bread that’s soaked up the curry. As I eat with my hands, enjoy the familiar flavours and feel right at home, I think how, NRI is just like the Bunny Chow, global on the outside but with a warm Indian heart.
Where : NRI – Not Really Indian
Maker Maxity, North Avenue 2,
Bandra Kurla Complex, Bandra East, Mumbai 400051;
For reservations please call: 022-30005040.