Food 09 Jul 2024 7 MIN

India’s coolest meals right now are not in restaurants

A new wave of hosts is winning diners over with unusual settings and a traditions-be-damned approach to cooking, serving, and entertaining

Every couple of months, Renjie Wong’s art-laden home in Mumbai’s Colaba is transformed into a private supper club. Here, he regales six diners, strangers to each other and to him, with a multi-course Singaporean meal that he cooks himself. 

For a seat at this coveted table called Salon Colaba, you have to slide into the account’s DMs on Instagram. The first six to snag a spot gather round a wooden table and break ice over umami broths, tea-infused rice, nostalgia-steeped stews, fruity aperitifs, and soupy desserts, while RJ, as he’s known among Salon regulars, shuttles between the table and his open kitchen, to snip, sauté, stir, and serve. 

Wong, who works for the Singapore Tourism Board, does not have a specific culinary resumé, but started hosting these dinner parties in Mumbai almost a year ago, “as a way to connect with different people and share my homesickness with them”. He serves up flavours of Singapore that matter to him, and rich stories of the city that raised him. “I wanted to go back to the 18th-century concept of a salon, where the French literati would meet to talk and debate over wine and food—it made the dinner table the critical site of conversations and negotiations,” he explains.

Come together

In April this year, just a few metres away from Wong’s Colaba home, 40 guests found themselves seated at a long table, smack in the centre of TARQ, an art gallery. Here, photographer Prarthna Singh and writer Snigdha Poonam’s multimedia exhibition, 2024: Notes from a Generation, was accompanied by a sumptuous potluck. Dynamic portraits of India’s youth looked down at a table heaving with conversation and close to 30 dishes ranging from toddy shop chicken and Bengali mustard prawns to mango pistachio cake.

Neighbourhood, the community potluck venture that hosted this dinner-at-the-gallery, was born in Mumbai in 2017 as a manifestation of founders’ (Neysa Mendes, Bhavana Singh and Prarthna Singh) passion for food and obsession with potlucks. It was revived post pandemic with TARQ as its first event. 

Community, culture, and food are the drivers of Neighbourhood, where each edition unfolds at a ‘vibey’ public space, like an art gallery, in the midst of art, live music, script readings, and so on. “It’s an extension of how we live our lives. It’s about the enjoyment of food, the culture of the city—and it’s done for massive amounts of fun,” says Mendes. Neighbourhood is free to attend, and that, according to her, is the “crux of why it works”. 

Getting your feet wet, literally

At a time when new restaurants pop up as frequently as flyovers, fatigue has consumed the discerning diner who’s hungry for fresh perspectives not on offer at traditional brick-and-mortar spots. Luckily, the post-pandemic years have proved the viability of breaking from tradition. 

Stepping out of restaurant walls, making a main dish out of a mezze, using window panes to display a menu, making guests cook and (occasionally) serve, and letting go of telephone reservations in favour of DMs, emailers, and app alerts—new hosts are freely flouting dining codes, and guests are relishing their made-up ones. 

Fazenda Cazulo’s Floating Feni Experience in South Goa is a great example of this traditions-be-damned dining approach. In each session, 25 guests muddy their bare feet in a natural spring, where a table is laid for what is arguably India’s most unique alcohol-tasting experience. In this lush setting on his family-owned estate, Cazulo owner and experience host Hansel Vaz takes his rapt crowd through the brand’s three feni expressions—coconut, cashew and dukshiri. The environment is as much of a draw as the local spirit. “Location uniqueness is what we’re chasing,” explains Samyukta Ranganathan, founder of Urbanaut, a curated experiences app that peddles immersive food and lifestyle events like this one. 

Urbanaut’s offerings, which range from such wild Goan adventures to orchard dining in Jodhpur, are designed to feed the modern diner’s curiosity. Its annual event, The Feast in the Fields, a confluence of heritage, culture and storytelling, is set in a scenic coconut grove flanked by paddy fields. Here, you’ll see 100 people partaking in a ‘Goan landlord’ spread with aged sorpotel, peixe balchao (kingfish), and kazrachal pulao (with Goa’s short-grained giresal rice). “Dining in a paddy field while rice is being harvested around you—four-walled establishments can’t offer you that,” says Ranganathan, who hosted the first edition of this packed table with Vaz in November 2022. 

These events are popular with regulars who’ve come to expect novelty. “Restaurants are pretty one dimensional,” moans Sunny Amlani, a serial supper club attendee. “For a night out, our options are usually restricted to a bar, a movie or a restaurant, but we’ve all done enough of that.” These unconventional experiences are also becoming popular choices for birthdays and other special celebrations. 

The new friends with benefits

Unlike fine-dining kitchens where there’s often a disconnect between guests and the people making the food, the new tribe of hosts are liberally seasoning their meals with stellar social skills. Before Wong moved to Mumbai, he debuted Salon in San Francisco—again to try and make connections in a new city through food. “The funny thing is that Renjie started Salon to make friends, which makes perfect sense because food really does bring people closer. But all of us have in turn left Salon making new friends,” says Ela Das, a regular at Wong’s dinners. 

There’s a level of conviviality at such events that restaurants just don’t provide. “What I love most is that sense of community here,” says Heena Punwani, a Neighbourhood faithful. “They [the hosts] take care to curate a balance of people and I’ve always met like-minded folk.” The inherent vetting that comes through hearing about these events from friends makes them easier to trust; people arrive knowing that even if they don’t know the person next to them, these events will be intimate. 

A restaurant rarely allows this intimacy or the space to sit and talk about different value systems (and walk away unscathed). “When everyone brings something to the table, the camaraderie just flows from there,” says Mendes, adding that because Neighbourhood is a potluck, it’s “your event, too”.  

“It feels great to be in your city, eating at a totally unexpected place, with people you don’t know but instantly fraternise with thanks to the food,” says Amlani, who has gathered a fair number of friends at such events. Everyone, it seems, loves a good tale at the dinner table. “When there are six of us sitting around with bowls of warm noodle soup, you can’t help but bring your own stories and experiences to the mix. It’s the perfect trigger to share,” says Das. “When do you ever talk to people at the next table in a restaurant?”  

It's the unexpected venue, the curious mix of people, and fabulous spread that draw most people to such offbeat dining experiences. “We’re selling an experience, not a product,” clarifies Vaz. “People want to learn, they want stories, they want to be immersed in culture,” he adds, saying he always has new feni stories for returning guests. 
 
At these out-of-the-restaurant experiences, there’s an intentional informality that the hosts are not willing to forego, no matter where you transplant them. “Eating at fine-dining restaurants or Michelin-starred ones is like a theatrical experience and the meal is the ticket for the production,” shares Wong. “[But] I want my food to feel like a warm hug. It’s about sustenance and restoration in this overstimulated world. Everyone who leaves Salon says it felt like eating at a friend’s home, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”