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A pan-Indian regional cuisine restaurant, 29 draws out the best culinary traditions from India’s 29 states. Tucked in a quiet nook in Kemps Corner, it is the brainchild of ex-P&G whiz Nishek Jain and chef extraordinaire Prakash Dhanmeher. With the intent of introducing Mumbaikars to authentic food from different parts of the country, 29 opened its doors in 2015. Here are excerpts from an interview with the founder, Nishek Jain.
How did the idea of ‘29’ come about?
I was 33 years old when I had Litti Chokha at Patna airport for the first time in my life. It felt like a waste, not having tasted a great dish from my own country. That’s when the idea hit me, what if I offer the authentic Bihari Litti Chokha to a Mumbai audience, with the luxury of a fine dine experience? And why limit it to Patna? What if I offer Rajasthan’s Pyaaz Kachori, Maharashtra’s Dalimbi Usal, Delhi’s Tokri Chaat and so on. By the time my flight landed in Bombay, I had the plan ready in my head. I started exploring the hospitality industry, and after seven months of rigorous work, 29 was ready for launch.
Tell us about the challenges you faced on this journey.
As an engineer trying to enter the hospitality industry, I did face quite a few of them! I knew Chef Dhanmeher was just the man for this venture, but he was retired after long years of working all over the world. Convincing him to enter the kitchen again and take this risk with me was my first big challenge. Then finding a ‘clean’ property in Mumbai (one with no BMC hassle, no landlord interference, a good location) took some time but we found the perfect spot. Another big issue for me was the service quality offered to the diners. I was not going to pass off Dal Makhani and Paneer Butter Masala as Indian food and this meant lots of training for my support staff.
How did you go about finding the best dishes from all over India?
Well, I started with visiting all the states, with the exception of Rajasthan – which is my home state, Gujarat – because through my upbringing, I have been eating Gujarati food and Madhya Pradesh, where work had taken me enough to know the food culture. I came back with 200 odd recipes, which were shortlisted down to 56 by Chef Prakash and the team [based on] the preparation time, commercial viability and palate of the diners here in Mumbai. All these 56 will be served at 29 eventually.
In a place like Mumbai where new restaurants open up faster than diners can try them out, how do you plan on keeping your patrons coming back?
Our aim is to try and get diners here at least five times a year. We will do this by offering a summer menu and a separate winter menu, not just for variety, but also because some dishes such as Sarson ka Saag use seasonal ingredients. Also, every 16 weeks, we will offer a thali kind of meal drawing from a particular region of India. Currently, we are offering the saapad, which is a sumptuous South Indian meal served on a banana leaf with dishes from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Starting 3rd April, we will bring our diners a different special meal.
Dilli Tokri Chaat, spiced to absolute perfection.
Litti Chokha & Baigan Bharta, the baigan (eggplant) being a 29 improvisation to make the dish less dry.
Kanpuri Tikka Pulav, a yakhni delight for vegetarians.
Sultani Phal ki Toffee, made delicious with banana and orange zest.
Kesar Malai ke Laddoo, melt-in-the-mouth beautiful.
Visit 29 to delight in India’s culinary diversity and meet Nishek who is bound to visit your table at some point in the meal, and not so much to check on what’s good, but what can be made better!