Indian-inspired Brittany lobster broccoli cocoa (with khichidi-spiced cocoa powder)
Aaaah, Switzerland… A land famous for its lakes and its mountains, its banks and its chocolate, its cuckoo clocks and its Indian food. Its Indian food? Well, perhaps not quite yet – but if Anupam Banerjee, the chef at Rasoi by Vineet at Mandarin Oriental, Geneva, has his way the city will soon become the focus of attention for curry-lovers across the Continent.
‘I would like to get things to the stage where we’re accepted as being one of the best modern Indian restaurants in mainland Europe,’ says the Calcutta-born chef. ‘We’d like to make Rasoi by Vineet a name to be reckoned with.’
The entrance to Le Sud and Rasoi at Mandarin Oriental, Geneva
In order to achieve his goal, Banerjee will have to walk the rice paper-thin fine line between establishing himself as a chef with his own reputation for creating innovative, appealing dishes and being the man in charge of a restaurant named after a chef who has already achieved culinary renown. As followers of upmarket Indian restaurants are no doubt aware, Vineet Bhatia’s London-based Rasoi restaurant is already famed for its sophisticated take on traditional Indian flavourings and cooking techniques. Bhatia has already deployed his skills overseas, opening restaurants in Mauritius and the Gulf States, as well as consulting for British Airways, but this is his first joint European venture.
Banerjee and Bhatia had, in fact, met many years ago, when they both worked for India’s Oberoi hotels. ‘I started off at the Oberoi School of Hotel Management, but I was always interested in cooking,’ says Banerjee, who has the solid, comfortable look of a man at ease with himself and his choices in life. ‘In those days it was the smartest kid on the block who was supposed to become a chef – and I was always curious about what Mum was putting on the table when I was young. Her food was just the best, and I always wanted to know how she made it.’
Inside Rasoi’s kitchen
So Banerjee graduated from hotel management to the kitchens of the Oberoi chain, where Bhatia was already honing his skills prior to his move to London. The life of an ambitious Indian chef is clearly a peripatetic one, because Banerjee, too, left his native country in the late 1990s, initially to work at Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, before moving to London to work at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London.
After nearly seven years in London, though, he felt it was time to move on. ‘I needed a new challenge, so it was good to be offered the opportunity of starting up somewhere where I would have the chance to put my own stamp on the place,’ he explains.
Prior to the Geneva restaurant’s launch in the late spring of 2008, Banerjee spent some time working at Rasoi HQ, fine-tuning the recipes he would be using in his own restaurant. Once he’d got to grips with that task, he moved into his own kitchen and began the process of adapting Bhatia’s dishes to the local palate. ‘When we were doing our food trials before opening the restaurant, we started off at a medium level of spicing, but we discovered that the Swiss aren’t used to hot food,’ he explains. ‘Now the idea is to keep the flavours strong but the spicing subtle.’
Fennel-baked baby pineapple with clove, cranberry and ginger ice cream
The delicacy of Banerjee’s spicing is something that is immediately apparent to anyone tucking into the Keralan-inspired roast sea bass whose creamy coconut ‘moille’ sauce tempers any residual heat from the gentle kick. The tandoor-cooked chicken breast is served afloat a piquant tomato sauce, its flesh stained black with squid ink and its crust of gold leaf as striking as a Rothko canvas. It also packs a mellow punch of spice that doesn’t send you reeling for the nearest glass of water but leaves you with a warm afterglow that lingers on your palate for minutes after your last bite.
The striking visual presentation of Banerjee’s dishes is no accident. Although his background and training is rooted firmly in his Indian homeland, his career has led him to experience work in some of the world’s most famous kitchens. ‘I’ve worked with Alain Senderens, Charlie Trotter and Jean Fleury,’ says Banerjee, ‘and in some ways it influences the way I cook Indian food. The flavours are all Indian, of course, but the presentation owes something to the European tradition, as do many of the ingredients I work with.’
This marriage of Indian and European influences results in the kind of dishes that can be calibrated not only to the palates of the restaurant’s diners, but also to the changing seasons. ‘Everything depends on market availability,’ says Banerjee. ‘We’re currently in the process of changing the à la carte menu to give it the right feel for the season – with truly authentic ingredients for this time of year.’ The lunch menu, which changes every two weeks, gives him even more scope for distilling the elusive essence of the different seasons.
Crèmes brûlées with roasted pistachio, rose petal, passion fruit, mint tea and lychee
In fact, Banerjee has been pleasantly surprised by the ease of access Geneva affords to all but the most exotic of ingredients. ‘There are some spices that Vineet has to bring with him when he flies in once a month to see how things are progressing,’ Banerjee admits, ‘but otherwise you can get the very best here. The lamb comes in from the Limousin and the duck from Châlons, while my fish is flown in fresh from New Zealand – the halibut is caught on Saturday night, is on the plane by Sunday morning and reaches Geneva in time for Monday’s lunch service.’
Of course Geneva’s sophisticated diners demand not only the finest ingredients and world-class cooking, they’re also rather partial to top-notch wines. Luckily, Rasoi’s sommelier, Arnaud Lesage, is in a position to indulge them – he wields control over a wine list of some 400 bins.
Although Lesage’s background is every bit as international as Banerjee’s, with stints at Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, a luxury hotel in the Maldives and a couple of years in the Caribbean under his belt, working with an Indian menu provided him with a novel challenge.
‘Finding the right wines to match the food hasn’t been easy because of the spices,’ he admits. ‘I’ve had to do a lot of tasting with the chef to find wines that work. You can’t have wines that are too acidic or too tannic because they clash with the spices. Wines with lots of oak are out, too. We’ve ended up looking for wines with lots of fruit and freshness, wines that will refresh diners’ palates and leave them wanting to take another bite of their food.’
Rasoi’s sommelier, Arnaud Lesage
Wine is also an important element at Mandarin Oriental, Geneva’s second restaurant, Le Sud, which has an extensive glass-walled wine cellar as a decorative centrepiece, and an excellent selection of wines by the glass. This is appreciated as much by the Genevans, who love to stop off for a glass of wine and a plate of something to nibble at on the way home from work, as it is by hotel guests. As a result, the brasserie is lively and buzzing from morning to night. There’s a constantly revolving clientele of businessmen – and women – enjoying breakfast meetings over Bircher muesli and croissants, ladies who lunch stopping off for a simple salad or plate of pasta at midday, and restaurant guests and locals alike dropping in for a bite of something more substantial of an evening.
Le Sud’s glass-walled wine cellar holds 1,500 bottles
Le Sud is a more informal restaurant than Rasoi, but it shares the large plate-glass windows that open out onto a terrace overlooking the swift-flowing, teal-green waters of the Rhône and, on the opposite shore, Geneva’s historic centre. Upstairs, the hotel’s seven new roof-top suites also look out on this grand view, and those who simply can’t leave the comfort of their suite sip cocktails and enjoy the hotel restaurants’ fine cuisine on their private terrace.
The Rhône provides a link with Le Sud’s origins: further downriver, three-Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse, fêted for his restaurant L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, has scored another culinary success with a small but perfectly formed chain of brasseries based in the city of Lyon. The four brasseries, named after the points of the compass, each celebrate a different aspect of French cuisine.
‘Le Nord is cuisine grandmère, traditional hearty peasant food; L’Ouest is the cuisine of the islands; L’Est is a traveller’s cuisine, which ties into the fact that the restaurant is located in a station; while Le Sud celebrates the cuisine of the Mediterranean,’ explains Benjamin Ansart, the young chef of Geneva’s version of Le Sud. ‘We could have chosen to work with any of the four concepts, but in the end we opted for Le Sud because we thought those flavours would appeal most to our Genevan clientele.’
Before he was promoted to head chef at the newly opened brasserie, Ansart spent several years working in the hotel’s previous restaurant, the Michelin-starred Le Neptune, under the guidance of executive chef Franck Ferigutti, a man who was to become his professional mentor.
Seasonal fruit salad at Le Sud
‘I owe Monsieur Ferigutti a huge amount because he’s taught me so much,’ smiles Ansart. ‘I do miss working at Le Neptune, but I appreciate the opportunity to run my own restaurant. I’m doing my best to benefit from the experience and to pass everything I learn on to the young kids who work with me in the kitchen – they’re the future, after all.’
This tradition of passing skills from one chef to another works right across the generations. Ansart travels to Lyon several days each month in order to hone his skills on the menus developed by Bocuse and his business partner, Jean Fleury, and learning how to maintain the high standards set by these éminences grises of the kitchen world.
‘Working in Lyon on a regular basis ensures that I’m kept in touch with what’s going on at home base,’ he explains. ‘We have exactly the same menu here as the brasserie in Lyon, although we present our plates a bit differently, and Monsieur Bocuse has already been here a few times to check what we are doing and how we’re doing it.’
On the basis of the food I was served during my visit to Le Sud, Monsieur Bocuse has little to worry about. A starter billed as eggplant caviar arrived as a mound of silky roast aubergine paste spiked with the punchy flavours of garlic, tomatoes and pesto and some crusty bread on which to spread it. The main course, a tagine made with poulet de Bresse, confit lemons and orange-blossom water and served with a comforting side of raisin couscous, brought some welcome sunshine to a rainy evening.
Layered grilled vegetables, Parmesan canneloni, mesclun salad and balsamic reduction
Within the confines of the NordSud Brasseries formula, Ansart has got a welcome bit of wiggle room to flex his own culinary muscles. ‘To keep doing the same thing day in, day out would become boring in the long run,’ he admits. ‘But we get to change the main menu three times a year and I get to use my creativity with the dishes I put on the daily menu. It’s a way of allowing me to express myself while staying within the framework established by the original Le Sud in Lyon. It also means I get to work with some of the wonderful local produce we have here in Geneva,’ he continues. ‘We’re really spoiled for ingredients – and as for the cheeses and charcuterie, well, this city is a chef’s heaven.’
Ansart pauses for a few seconds, lost in thought. ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘Monsieur Bocuse has a saying, “Le bonheur est dans la cuisine” [happiness is in the kitchen]. I think he’s absolutely right.’
Although I’m sorry to disagree with both Ansart and the esteemed Monsieur Bocuse, I happen to know that le bonheur, in this instance, is to be found in the twin dining rooms of Mandarin Oriental, Geneva.