Widely considered to be one of London’s classiest restaurants, the 25-year old Bombay Brasserie has just been given an opulent makeover, leaving Rani Singh with a lasting impression Tucked away in London’s trendy South Kensington, the airy feel of Bombay Brasserie is presaged by a roomy reception and modern bar with huge comfortable chairs where customers are always greeted with a smile and often by their names.
Arun Harnal makes sure of that.As the restaurant’s General Manager and Director of Operations, Arun himself exudes an air of class, one of the reasons he was fittingly awarded the ‘Best in Britain’ Front of House trophy.
Arun Harnal has been running the Bombay Brasserie for over 20 years and has been with the Taj/Tata group for three decades. Nurturing and evolving the restaurant, he has given an extraordinary lengthy service. Despite people trying to poach him, he said that he has a “feeling of belonging” with the historic house of Tata.
“Taj is part of the house of Tata and the work culture and the way they look after people is second to none, whether you deal with the Managing Director or the chairman Mr Tata. It wasn’t always about the money, it’s just that the temptation to move wasn’t really there. You are so well looked after.”
With a complete overhaul after 25 years, the restaurant has retained the best features of the past while incorporating a new, uplifting refurbishment. A large, capacious dining room sits next to an area with relaxed seating, a show kitchen and a private dining room with lounge.
“When we first opened the restaurant, it was the days of The Last Pavilions and Gandhi, which worked a treat for the 80s and 90s,” explains Arun.
“Now we have got rid of the wicker chairs and the fans. The conservatory is more contemporary with a winter garden feel and we also give people the comfort of a palace dining room. We are two different restaurants in one. No other restaurant in London, especially Indian, has this kind of space, ambience or height of ceiling.”
Meticulous care was taken in the inception of the Bombay Brasserie, when it first opened its doors 25 years ago. Great pain was taken over the menu, which today is overseen by the Grand Executive Chef of the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, Chef Hemant Oberoi. Many still argue this authentic menu is one of the secrets of the restaurant’s success.
“Since we are part of the Taj Group, when we started out we went to each region, spent a lot of time getting recipes and going to peoples houses to see how they cook. The aim was to keep it as authentic as somebody living in that region would cook at home. So home-style was a word we started back in 1982. We even had a housewife from Goa who we called Aunty working with us for 25 years and all she did was make the Goan dishes as she would for her family. She’s 65 and has retired now.”
Arun explains how the growth spurt in British ‘Indian’ restaurants followed on from there.“From the early days we served authentic food. There were Indian restaurants, which weren’t really selling Indian food at all. [Their dishes] were unknown in India, so when we introduced authentic regional cuisine our biggest compliment was when people blankly copied our menus without even knowing how to cook those dishes.”
Arun points out that there was, however, a knock-on effect in the growth of the Indian food sector.“In the 70s and early 80s with small takeaways and small restaurants, it did spark an interest in the public for Indian food, but everybody was doing the same thing. Then along came Bombay Brasserie, which offered so much more.”I wonder if there had been a change of clientele over the years, and whether or not their tastes had changed too. “While the décor and the presentation of the dishes may have been updated, the flavours and taste remain the same,” Arun insists. “And 80% of our customers are repeat clientele. Looking around me now, out of 10 tables, I personally know six of them.”Arun says that certain guests even have regular tables, giving a ‘clubby’ atmosphere to the place. That, combined with clean surroundings, ambience, great service and a consistently high food quality, contributes to the reputation and popularity of the restaurant. But, he says complacency should never set in. “Once you reach the top, that’s where the challenge comes in, for its difficult to stay there.”A mark of a great restaurant is having the great and the good visit, and Bombay Brasserie has consistently set the bar. HRH the Prince of Wales, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Cruise all enjoy Arun’s company. He says that guests feel a sense of privacy on account of the spaciousness and then there’s word of mouth.“Billy Crystal said Ringo Starr told him to come here,” says Arun. “Then there’s Paul McCartney, Will Smith, Bob Geldof, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Harrelson and Michael Bolton.” As he lists other regulars, he singles out Reverend Jesse Jackson as being extraordinarily friendly with the staff.With more Taj hotels in the pipeline, there are plans for international growth.“We have tremendous plans for expansion,” Arun says excitedly. “There’s something like 14 in the next 18 months or so and a good percentage of those will have Indian restaurants. There are two hotels opening in South Africa, Jo’burg and Cape Town, five opening in the Middle East, two in China, Vietnam is on the radar, two in America and a couple coming up in Morocco.”Arun Harnal has his own ideas for new locations for restaurants. “Moscow, Tokyo and Beijing. With the Russian Federation opening up, we get many Russians in here, so Moscow would be great place.”On his days off, Arun and his wife, who is the daughter of Indian food magnate Sir Gulam Noon, prefer Japanese, Chinese or Thai cuisine. But he is indispensable from the Bombay Brasserie and it seems part of him now. It would be unimaginable to have one without the other. Together, they make a winning combination and a magnetic draw for those who love the finest of Indian food.