At his new Chinese restaurant, slightly cut off from the continuous bustle of Suhaim Bin Hamad Street in Al Sadd, Indian hotelier Anjan Chatterjee sits across the table in one of the 10 dimly lit private dining areas and anticipates the question moments before it would face him.
“You would ask me why Doha, why not Dubai or anywhere else in the Gulf,” he says, referring to the first Gulf branch of India’s largest fine-dining chain of Chinese restaurants, Mainland China, which throws open its doors to the people of Qatar today.
“We were looking at entering the Gulf market and had considered Dubai as well. But somehow I sensed that the opportunity here in Doha is promising. Both Qataris and expats here are very discerning; they understand Chinese food. And then, when I saw P. F. Chang’s and Hakassans of the world coming in, I understood that there’s a huge market for Chinese food here. At the same time, the market here is not too crowded. All we need to do is ensure that we can compete and have a product which is equally good,” the Kolkata-based food entrepreneur tells Community, just days before the big launch.
Located on the first floor of Barwa Towers in Al Sadd, Mainland China offers around 88 dishes that range from dim sums to desserts. The ambience is soothing, the lighting is mellow, and the décor serves as an arena for instant teleportation to China – a trail of lemon grass aroma perennially suspended in the air only helps.
There’s plenty of room what with the restaurant packing in around 160 seats. As for the private dining areas, they are sufficiently isolated. “When I spoke to lots of families here in Qatar, I learnt that the locals prefer private dining areas. So we had to incorporate this facet. It’s important that one unlearns everything that one knows and understands the culture of the place and works things out accordingly,” Chatterjee says.
The most popular India-based Chinese restaurant is spread across 27 cities back home and now by debuting in Doha, the time has come for the brand to go truly international. “That’s because we truly believe service-wise, food-wise and standard-wise, we are at par with the best,” Chatterjee says.
It was in 1992 that Chatterjee started Speciality Restaurants Limited; it’s first brand being Only Fish in Mumbai – which would later be re-branded Oh! Calcutta, four years later. Today, his company runs nearly 120 outlets of which around 100 are restaurants and the rest are confectionary stores.
Around two decades ago, Chatterjee, aided in no small measure by his background in advertising, did a little research and learnt something interesting. “I figured that standalone Chinese restaurants of that time weren’t good enough to give the kind of palatable meal that one would expect. For instance, there would be no duck or broccoli or exotic vegetables available then. So we planned on giving a menu which will come in from all four provinces of China – Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong that is Canton, and Shanghai. Next, we wondered why not have Chinese chefs plan a menu for us,” Chatterjee recalls.
Once Chatterjee locked the idea, he figured that rather than focusing on what was already popular in India, the Sichuanese food, “the slightly spicy variant with the red paste”, it would be interesting to look beyond that. As he sat down with top chefs from China to devise a menu based on the four regions of China, the name sprang right at him – Mainland China.
That was 1994. The first Mainland China opened in Saki Naka, Mumbai, and did exceedingly well. “In a year’s time, we learnt that there’s an opportunity to expand it. My plan was to roll out a multi-locational chain of Chinese restaurants because such a concept didn’t exist back then and also we wanted to test our ground with the Food Consistency Quotient (FCQ), which we look at very closely. Since it’s a la minute cuisine, we wanted to see whether the branches in other cities match with the cuisine of Mumbai. So we immediately opened a Mainland China in Bangalore, and then in Hyderabad, Calcutta, Pune, Chennai, and the rest is history,” Chatterjee says.
Right from the start, Chatterjee’s vision has been to offer a five-star dining experience, in terms of food and service, at non-five-star prices. “If you look at the prices on the menu here, you will be surprised – pleasantly,” he says, “The cost for two, for instance, is about QR120 to QR140 for a proper meal.”
Of course, the menu has gone through some key changes. “This is a different market. You can’t have the exact same menu as India’s, especially not the same spice levels,” Chatterjee reasons, “From getting licenses and permissions to nailing the taste profile, nearly two years of work has gone into putting this restaurant together. For months, we have been conducting food trials internally.”
Chef Rajesh Dubey, backed by his nearly three decades of experience and a lot many months in China, explains that considering the local taste preferences, they have toned down the dishes and chosen more of Cantonese food. “China being a very vast country boasts of different specialties in different provinces. If you go to Canton in Guangdong, the food is very mild, geared more towards steamed and stir-fried. They use minimum spices. Since it’s close to the sea, the freshness of the food is very much maintained,” he says.
Whereas if you go to Sichuan, which used to face hostile climate for years on end, Dubey explains, a lot of the food stuff used are preserved ingredients. “The spice levels of Sichuanese food are very high as it helps in preservation of the food. And when you go to Northern China, towards Beijing and Shanghai, you have more wheat-based dishes, like more noodles and dumplings. Mainland China’s menu is very balanced and has picked popular delicacies from all over China. In Doha, our stress is on the freshness of the food. We have chosen more stir-fried and flavourful dishes that are closer to Canton. The trick is in combining the flavours to create something memorable.”
Chatterjee seconds Dubey. “I am quite confident that the kind of standards we have created are very hard to keep, and that means we have to work harder. Almost all the things are now in place for Mainland China in Doha,” Chatterjee says, “It’s basically the concept of differentiate or die. If I give you the same food as other Chinese places here serve, I won’t survive. So our menu has rare dishes like crackling spinach and corn chilli pepper – innovative and flavourful.”
For Chatterjee, the most reassuring comment came from a local blogger who recently tried a full-fledged meal at the restaurant. “He said that he goes to a top Chinese restaurant in Doha once in a while. But after having a meal here, and experiencing the ambience and seeing the price, he would never go there again because the food here is equally good or better for a lesser price,” Chatterjee says, “That means we are on the right track.”
Anjan Chatterjee, centre, flanked by Chefs Lin Hong Bo, left, and Rajesh Dubey at Mainland China, Doha. Photo by Anand Holla