Colourful, quirky, unique. That's what Atrangi, the name of the Dubai restaurant headed by Ritu Dalmia, translates as. The Indian celebrity chef, who is best known for her restaurants Diva in Delhi and Cittamani in Milan, will launch the venue at the glitzy Jumeirah Al Qasr hotel mid-July.
Dalmia, who owns 10 restaurants in India and Italy, says she did not immediately buy into Dubai's growing grandeur. Until now, she has only done catering jobs and pop-ups in the emirate, despite “many invitations” to launch a restaurant in the UAE.
But now, says Dalmia, Dubai has evolved a lot, and offers chefs a lot more creative and quality control.
Dubai, she adds, had a lot of restaurant franchises “when I first came here, but I was not willing to do that. I was only willing to come here when I knew I could control the quality”.
The wave of world-renowned chefs venturing into the UAE is also a welcome development, she says.
“People are more quality conscious now. They want value for money, they want good food and they want an experience. You can't mess around with the clientele in Dubai any more,” says Dalmia. “This is the change I've observed in the last three or four years. That is why it's time for us to be here now.”
This calculated approach encapsulates Dalmia's journey as a restaurateur. She opened her flagship Italian restaurant Diva in 2000. The brand now has seven venues in Delhi and Mumbai, and she also owns three dining spots in Milan. In the process, Dalmia has also written several cookbooks and starred in cooking shows in India.
Although Diva is the mother brand, the chef says all her restaurants have unique identities and different menus. The Dubai one, too, will have its own character. While it will serve Indian cuisine, Dalmia is harnessing her expertise in Italian cooking to create a menu that she describes first and foremost as “honest”.
The goal, she says, is to provide diners a feeling of post-meal satisfaction. “I want people to rub their bellies and say: 'This was good.'”
One way to do this, the chef reckons, is to not make dishes appear intimidating “by adding too much”.
“What's interesting about Indian cooking is the amount of spices available to us,” she says, “but the real challenge is to use them intelligently.
“I don't want to prove how clever I am by using 50 different spices in a way that will have your eyes pop out of their sockets,” says Dalmia, who co-created the menu alongside chef de cuisine Aniket Chatterjee.
“I want to use one spice that will stand out, and make people really taste what they are eating rather than getting confused with an entire array of flavours in a single dish.”
Aside from ingredient variety, Dalmia also wants to capture the diversity of India as a country, while taking inspiration from the different communities that exist in the South Asian nation – from the Sindhis to the Kayasthas. She says Indian cuisine is “not just about the North, South, East or the West, the food is also based on the communities it comes from”.
Chef-recommended dishes at Atrangi include Dalmia's version of Indian street food chole bhature (spiced chickpeas with puffy fermented bread); duck galawati; kappa meen curry; and curd rice topped with cashew nuts.
“I like playing with textures and flavours,” says Dalmia.
Dalmia is adamant she's not here “to win a million awards”, alluding to the growing competition among the UAE's chefs and restaurateurs, especially with the arrival of award-giving bodies such as the Michelin Guide and World's 50 Best.
In the recent Michelin ceremony in Dubai, Indian fusion restaurant Tresind Studio earned two stars, while Indian fine-dining spot Avatara was awarded one.
Although Dalmia is proud and inspired by such achievements by Indian chefs, her hope for Atrangi is rather simple, she reiterates: “To provide diners with a great food experience.”
The chef is also honest about her business intentions, saying it's crucial for Atrangi to be sustainable. “If you can't make money, you can't sustain your restaurant. If it's not sustainable, how are you going to get a star or other award?” she says.
This straightforward mindset has helped Dalmia grow her network of restaurants over the years, while also maintaining the quality of each venue, as in-the-know diners attest.
“Diva has been around for a while, more than 20 years, but it's still my go-to place because of its quality and consistency,” says Abu Dhabi resident Shyam Krishnan who visits the restaurant every time he is in the Indian capital.
Dalmia hopes her first dive into gastronomy in the Middle East only cements her reputation.
“The thing with a restaurant business is if it doesn't work, there is no salvage value; your entire capital is gone,” she says.
“And the dent that puts to your reputation is significant. A chef is only as good as her reputation.”