Changing times call for new measures, which is exactly what the Taj Mahal Palace’s management has successfully achieved. As dancing while dining began to lose its popularity in the late 1980s, guests started to pine for a quiet space to stimulate long conversations. Understanding this need, JRD Tata advised his team to create a quiet Grill Room, and that’s how the idea for the Zodiac Grill was born – the aim was to create a small, exclusive restaurant serving Western cuisine.
Before this new restaurant could be opened, the kitchens had to be contemporized. The whole team, led by executive chef Hemant Oberoi and then general manager Subir Bhowmick worked late hours, travelled abroad for appropriate equipment and renovated the kitchen to suit the needs of the new menu. They started out with about 300 dishes and then zeroed down to 35 signatures, some of which are still popular today. The steamed Camembert Dariole Soufflé, the Kahlua Mousse, the venison, the Vietnamese Mekong River Basa and Norwegian Pink Salmon dishes and the five varieties of caviar – ZG loyalists still swear by their consistent flavour and quality.
For the ambience and décor, the finest table linen, china, silverware and crystalware were sourced. Everything had to be exclusive – even the uniforms. “After trying several local tailors, I went abroad to get a prototype and then got them made here,” recounts Bhowmick. Bhowmick’s senior, Ajit Kerkar, ensured that the restaurant opened only after everything was absolutely perfect. ‘…Because once you start a restaurant, you can’t close it for any old reason. The day you tell me that the chefs can cook these dishes with their eyes closed, I’ll allow you to open.’
It was Kerkar who came up with the idea that guests could pay whatever they wished, when the restaurant launched in 1989. The guests was to be told that their patronage was priceless and that they should pay whatever they felt was right. “So that’s how we started – and, believe me, it worked like magic. The Zodiac Grill was the topic of discussion everywhere. It created a sensation. From day one, we had people queuing at the door to get in – up to 150 an evening, whereas we like to serve no more than 60”, Bhowmick adds.
So, this month, with plenty of love and nostalgia, the big daddy of fine dining in Mumbai is celebrating its legacy – and raising a toast to an even better future.