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From tandoori dhaba to Versace

Anuradha Shenoy | June 22, 2005

From tandoori chicken to Versace tiles is one mighty leap. That's what restaurateur Amarinder (Tony) Singh Kohli, 53, has done. He says he likes the amalgamation of east and west -- a concoction that's also translated into his business.

So next time you see chicken with oregano or curry flavoured mayonnaise on the menu, you can be sure it is from the kitchens of the Pritam group of hotels.

Today, there are four restaurants and a hotel nestling under the Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million) group and Kohli plans to have four more in the next five years. But unlike most restaurateurs, he doesn't believe in setting up a chain of hotels. In fact, each of his hotels is a stand-alone unit.

Mumbai has three restaurants. Flagship Pritam-da-dhaba, set up by his grandfather, is ensconced in the nub of central Mumbai since 1966. Alongside is the residential Hotel Pritam, while Mumbai Masala which serves "typical Mumbai fare" is further down.

Indyaki, an Indian and teppanyaki blend, is based in Pune. Nirvana is Kohli's year-old venture in Toronto, Canada for Punjabi food. By next month, lounge bar Page 3 will also be open.

At the same time, Kohli will begin marketing Versace bathroom fixtures to his Bollywood clients. The tag? Rs 9.5 lakh for a bathroom. He claims the "big coup" is the Versace certificate that will be given to those using original Versace fixtures.

"Indians spend a lot of time in their bathrooms," says Singh, who chanced upon the idea while glancing through a magazine.

Singh does not want to be the run-of-the-mill restaurateur. That's why Indyaki involves the making of Punjabi food and naans right at the dinner table.

And Page 3 appears to be a lounge bar with a difference. It is positioned as a meeting place for the pre-dinner and the post-party crowd. The emphasis here is on carb-free foods and "new rage beverages" like flavoured teas, herb teas, decaff coffees and power juices.

Nirvana, in Toronto, is a restaurant-cum-art gallery where works of Indian artists are displayed on the walls. With investments of Canadian $600,000 from a Canadian bank and a local investor, Kohli says the biggest challenge there was educating locals about the cuisine.

"Indian food has been badly misrepresented in the West. All foreigners are hooked onto mango lassi when they go to an Indian restaurant. Also, instead of a stand-alone dish, a samosa for them is a cocktail snack as it is microwaved and thawed for cocktail parties. It's hard to rid a foreign clientele of these preconceived notions," he laments.

But his favourite is Pritam da dhaba which he has painstakingly upgraded. Earlier, the clientele was largely taxiwallahs. To move up the social hierarchy, in came the air-conditioner and table linen as food prices chugged upwards.

Juggling a career in managing his hotels does not preclude Kohli from another passion: teaching. He is a visiting guest faculty member at Mumbai's Catering College. And now Kohli wants to expand his base to newer terrain -- like the United States.

Singh's ambitious plans include a restaurant every 18 months in the US. There's also a new buffet for the domestic market. The menu includes Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, West Bengal and Orissa.

Does he think Punjabi food would be as successful in New Delhi as in Mumbai or Canada, given that Delhiites eat Punjabi food at home anyway?

The concept will be tweaked to make it more locally relevant, reveals Kohli. But Punjabi will be the dominant cuisine in Hyderabad and West Bengal.

"It is like a kaleidoscope with the very same pieces of glass, but with every twist there are a variety of designs and angles. It's the same with my expansion plans. It's the same food, but the twists in ambience are what will change to cater to local culture."



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