Note: I put an unfinished version of this live on the afternoon of the 6th of June. I often put stuff up before sharing it on social media; I find seeing it as a reader will see it (rather than in a Word doc) a helpful way of fine-tuning. But someone visiting the blog read it, and asked whether I’d paid my way. I hadn't shared the piece on social media and was still working on it because I was uncertain about how to frame this question. I was not invited in to review Gaggan, but I did mention I was a food writer, and when we asked for the bill (after two tasting menus and accompanying wine pairing) we were refused. This didn’t sit easily with me (I wanted to write about the place!) so in the end I left a cash tip of 6,000 baht (a single tasting menu costs 6,500). This is (of course) significantly less than the average punter would pay. Let it colour your view of what follows accordingly, but for what it's worth I’d gladly pay full price (and more) for what we ate and drank.
There’s a scene in the 2008 lost-minor-classic Role Models that I think about more than I probably should. In the movie, Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play deadbeat energy drink salesmen who are required to mentor two vulnerable young charges as part of a community service order. In the scene, Scott’s character Wheeler is introducing the younger boy, Ronnie, to the music of KISS, via the track ‘Love Gun’. With the chorus – “You pull the trigger of my / Love gun” – blasting out of the stereo, he turns to the boy, eyes bugging, and enthuses: “You see, Ronnie? His *dick* is the gun!”
There is a lot of dick, a lot of gun, in modernist cuisine. Ferran Adria’s dictum that “creativity means never copying” may have meant ElBulli continued to ask interesting questions of food conventions until the day it closed, but it also undeniably resulted in some pretty disastrous imitations. What started as novel and ludic in Catalonia swiftly became warped in other kitchens – liquid nitrogen smoke and mirrors to disguise the fact there may not be anything that tasty or interesting going on. This resulted in a subtler sort of rockstar-chef-deification than the Bourdain-led paradigm of the 1990s: then, chefs were rockstars because they got drunk and fucked hot chicks; post-Adria, chefs were rockstars because they saw the grown-up, serious, adult world for what it was – bullshit, maaaan. Who says you have to use knives and forks? Who says you have to use plates? Who says you have to play classical music and jazz when Led Zeppelin have a back catalogue ripe for ‘Immigrant Song’-style pillage? The Twitter handle of one Anglicised Andria acolyte – @hairmetalchef – makes the elision pretty clear. For those about to cook… we salute you.
There’s a worrying amount of dick, a worrying amount of gun, at Gaggan. The menu is presented as a 25-course column of emoji, its length practically a visual phallic provocation; in the same spirit of broish (sorry, bröish) iconoclasm, conventional cutlery appears only once. An early course features a plate of three different smeared purées and the exhortation – also in edible purée – to “Lick It Up”; with sledgehammer subtley, the KISS song ‘Lick It Up’ plays while you do. Later, a dish of crab curry wrapped in banana leaf is ignited by chefs dual-wielding blowtorches as AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ shreds through the pitch darkness; later still, a pre-dessert shaped like roses is presented with not one but two musical cues. If you guessed that those cues are ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ and ‘Kiss From a Rose’, you would be correct.
It’s a high-stakes play. These provocations genuinely could land horrifically badly in 2018, when we are finally coming to terms with the fact that a male chef pursuing his desires and interests and which way it pleases him may not be unquestionably good news. But it works. Gaggan is extraordinary, and thrilling, and all the more so because it succeeds where so many places like it fail. It’s avant garde without indulging in novelty for novelty’s sake; there’s a sense of personality that doesn’t topple over into egocentrism; everything looks ravishing but crucially tastes even better. The pacing is pitch-perfect: aside from a slight delay as the kitchen limbers up for the final service of the night, it feels like a seamless progression, the tasting menu as musical symphony or five-act drama, dishes flowing into and basically overlapping with one another in a way that suggests affinities, shared backstories, thematic commonalities.
The Season Two Chef’s Table episode that brought Gaggan to the attention of a wider audience outlines a few of them, but it’s interesting to rewatch it in the wake of dinner there and realise how much the place has evolved in just a few years, too. Back then there was a palpable anxiety over how Indian food could represent “fine dining” in the modern, Western, Chef’s Table sense – Gaggan Anand himself referring to the food of his homeland first and foremost as “comfort food”. This has the nasty corollary that fine dining is fundamentally about being transported away from feeling tranquil or content – and maybe some of the restaurant’s earlier provocations were indeed first and foremost about rejecting tranquillity and contentment in favour of disruption, about pursuing the determination to be “the elBulli of Indian food” above everything else.
But that certainly isn’t the case today. There is comfort to spare here: in a steamed bun dyed a lurid green by spinach juice and stuffed with immaculate lamb mince (posh keema pao); in a blood-red, rich, sweet rasamof Kintoki carrots; in a vindaloo-inspired black garlic momo; in a chicken tikka masala “sandwich”; in that banana-leaf king crab paturi. All of these dishes would scan and pass muster as “fine dining” in any restaurant in the world, such is the precision of the execution and prettiness of the plating. And yet take a bite and the depth of flavour is the sort of thing you’d expect from long, slow, careful home-cooking: nothing attenuated or pared away in an attempt to curry favour with Michelin.
This is not to say the kitchen is lacking in lightness of touch. Another evolution since the Chef’s Table days seems to involve a broader acceptance of other global influences, many of them incorporated and executed with startling delicacy. Most obviously, given the plan to reopen and / or relocate to Fukuoka, is the role that Japan plays: here is Hokkaido uni, laid over daikon as the top layer of a two-tone “taco”; here is chutoro, the core component of a dish intended to represent Gaggan’s memories of eating sushi in Japan, a perfect slab lacquered in soy, perched on a dashi meringue, offset with wasabi and yuzu.
It’s misleading, ultimately, to talk in terms of dichotomies. The best dishes at Gaggan are everything at once: comforting and finessed, India and global, simple and showy. The signature chaat-spiced yoghurt “explosion”, a blend of elBulli technique and Indian staple; a tandoori aubergine cookie; that lamb bun; that soup; that momo; a ghewar-inspired sweet-savoury tartlet of foie gras, eaten from a palm (your own!) freshly spritzed with aromatic, thrillingly tart yuzu juice. There’s a conventional curry; there’s also a raw one of coconut and scallop that is every bit as satisfying. There are ultra-premium ingredients; there are also dishes – prawns heads filled with tom yum mousse; ice cream cones stuffed with a riff on catfish and green mango salad – in obvious dialogue with the street food of the restaurant’s surroundings.
Somehow, this is all not just a pleasure to eat, but actively fun. Fun, of course, can be one of the most dangerous words in a restaurant context – like clever, it’s one that chefs seek to bombard you with sometimes, almost always to disastrous effect. And – see above, and dicks, and guns – there’s no denying that if every element of the overall offering weren’t quite so on point, this could be an awkward, jarring experience. It doesn’t always pay off – after the pyrotechnic intro, the merely-very-nice crab curry is a bit of a damb squib – but the determined informality of it all is essential to the overall experience. It’s not like KISS thought they were being subtle when they wrote their lyrics; they knew they were making a particular kind of statement by speaking purely in single-entendres. Similarly, here, having something as genuinely, knowingly-stupidly non-formal as the ‘Lick It Up’ course so early in the meal is an inspired way of shaking inhibitions from even the staunchest, stodgiest sourpuss; you may begin snorting in incredulity and cynicism but the food is so dependably good that by the end you cannot help joining in, laughing with, not at. Like the list heavy on painstakingly imported natural wines, or the shunning of cutlery, these mini-ruptures reinforce the place’s unspoken philosophy, which is that formal pomp and circumstance have no bearing on the truest barometer of a kitchen’s quality – actual enjoyment of whatever it produces.
“Fine dining” can never – by its very nature, its practical economic realities – be democratic, but within the context of a meal costing hundreds of pounds a head this is surely as close as you’ll ever get to a menu alive to the truly universal potential of food. Boring, unhelpful binaries – serious and fun, high and low, East and West – are forcibly, deliberately erased in practically every course; all that matters is the perfect jewel-box in front of you, and how astonishingly good it tastes. It may not be an everyday indulgence, but dinner at Gaggan achieves something that precious few tasting menus can carry off: it makes you glad to have a life, and an appetite with which to enjoy it.