Chet Sharma is getting his excuses in early. “I’ve not tasted this one for a long time,” he remarks as I’m presented with one of Bibi’s key launch dishes, a roasted langoustine sitting in a shallow pool of bisque-like sauce flavoured with dozens of different spices, but most prominently saffron and kewra (pandan leaf extract).
Garnished with a piece of lettuce grilled with aged beef fat and lemongrass, it’s a staggeringly good bit of cooking with an intensely-flavoured sauce that somehow manages not to obliterate the delicate flavour of the langoustine. Yet Sharma – who is giving a sneak peek of his about-to-open Mayfair Indian restaurant - doesn’t seem happy.
“We’ve only just started to use the grill. We’re still getting used to where the hotspots are. It’s soft and succulent on the inside but it needed more char on the outside.”
Anything else? “Having now eaten the dish a few times it needs an element of texture, perhaps something crisp. And a little herbaceousness would be good to clear the palate between bites. There’s a lingering heat, which is pleasant, but there needs to be something that cuts through, perhaps herb oil or herb leaves. We might also look at lightening up the sauce by giving it a whizz in a Bamix.”
"I'm from the Mark Birchall school of cooking
in that I'm never happy with anything I serve"
He's right, of course. The difference between simply very good and excellent can sometimes be difficult to discern but not – it appears – for Sharma.
"I'm from the Mark Birchall school of cooking in that I'm never happy with anything I serve,” says Sharma, who worked with Birchall in the early days of Moor Hall as development chef (the Lancashire restaurant won a Michelin star in the 2018 Michelin Guide within six months of opening).
"After the ceremony the team and the investors were super happy, and the champagne was flowing. Mark turned round to me and said, 'but how are we going to get to two?'. I told him we should enjoy the evening and talk the next day. A few minutes later he came over with his notepad and started telling me all the things he wanted to change. He always wants to improve and move things on. Hopefully I've got a bit of that in me too."
Set to open on 9 September, Bibi marks the 30-year-old’s transition from being the chef behind the chef to chef patron. JKS Restaurants co-founder Karam Sethi identified Sharma as a major talent shortly after he finished at Moor Hall.
It’s not difficult to see what Sethi – who has a spotless record when it comes to picking future stars with JKS Restaurants also backing the likes of James Knappett, James Lowe and Nieves Barragán Mohacho – saw in Sharma. His skills as a development chef have been in high demand since he swapped what would doubtless have been a distinguished career in science for a career in kitchens.
"When I started at Gymkhana, I used to get nose
bleeds from tasting so much spicy food”
Since then, he has held key development roles at hyper-creative Spanish-three-star Mugaritz and, closer to home, The Ledbury and Simon Rogan’s Umbel Restaurant Group.
Since 2018, Sharma has been working with Karam and his siblings Jyotin and Sunaina developing menus for JKS Restaurants, most notably its top-end Indian restaurants Gymkhana and Brigadiers. This experience has proved extremely useful for Bibi, he says.
“My family is Indian, and I grew up with the cuisine, but it’s been a good opportunity to re-educate my palate. When I started at Gymkhana, I used to get nose bleeds from tasting so much spicy food.”
‘Like Nik Naks on steroids’
While not completely satisfied, Sharma seems happier with the other dishes that are served at his mini-preview of the North Audley Street restaurant. Highlights include a yoghurt macaroon containing a disc of cold chicken liver parfait encrusted with fried lentils and flavoured with shredded curry leaves and other ingredients reminiscent of Chettinad and a deep-fried sweetcorn dish that Sharma accurately describes as being like “Nik Naks on steroids”.
With an aesthetic and punch that’s more reminiscent of street food than fine dining, the snack is dusted with a spice mix containing no less than 23 different ingredients including dried tomato, green mango powder, cumin, coriander, and black salt and served with an emulsified dip made with the cob of the corn and a specific – it’s always specific at Bibi – type of dried yellow chilli from Kashmir.
“Given my CV, I think there's an expectation that Bibi will be classical, very refined fine dining. Yes, there will be a lot of technique behind what we do, but the food will always be delicious and approachable. Creating dishes that are based on things people already know is a big part of what I do. It might not say Indian Nik Naks – which are actually our take on a popular brand of corn puffs called Kurkure - or fancy Coco Pops on the menu, but that’s what we will be going for.”
Other dishes in Bibi’s enticing looking launch menu include Wookey Hole papad; Nashpati bhel with Conference pear granita; ex-dairy goat kaktori kebab; and raw Orkney scallop with a dressing inspired by the popular Indian soft drink nimbu pani.
Bibi translates in Urdu as ‘lady of the house’ and is used as a term of endearment for grandmothers. The restaurant will be inspired by Sharma’s paternal and maternal grandmothers, who both played a key role in the formation of his culinary identity by cooking big family meals.
While the food is billed as being dynamic and progressive, the acid test for Sharma is that every dish served must be recognisably Indian and tell a story about an Indian dish or ingredient.
The interior of Bibi follows suit with a feminine design that is the antithesis of the gentlemen’s club, colonial-inspired aesthetic favoured by many Indian restaurants, not least JKS Restaurant’s own Gymkhana and Brigadiers. Modern Indian art hangs on the walls and the fabrics are inspired by one of his grandma’s collection of pashminas.
Sharma rightly points out that top-end Indian fine dining can be quite samey. “I love butter chicken, but we won’t serve it here because there are plenty of great versions of that dish in Mayfair.” Bibi will be magpie-like in its approach, with a mandate to highlight lesser-known aspects of Indian cuisine that contrasts sharply with the majority of its high-end Indian peers, which tend to offer high-end versions of Indian dishes that are already well-established on these shores.
Rethinking the Indian kitchen
It makes sense then that Bibi's tiny upstairs service kitchen bears little resemblance to those of other Indian restaurants. It's a fully open setup with a counter that puts diners in touching distance of the chefs and contains almost none of the kit you'd see in a traditionally-run Indian restaurant, or even the more aspirational Indian venues within the JKS Restaurants portfolio.
The only piece of equipment Bibi has in common with the likes of Gymkhana and Trishna is the fryer. And while nearly all Indian kitchens are reliant on high-powered gas burners the restaurant will have a single portable induction hob. Instead, its primary piece of cooking kit is an expensive looking multilevel charcoal grill, inspired by but not identical to a traditional sigree grill, upon which another batch of langoustine carcasses is slowly cooking.
"I love butter chicken, but we won't serve it here
because there are plenty of great versions of that dish"
There's not a great deal else to see. Adjacent to the grill is another charcoal-powered device that resembles a box with an upturned wok on top that's used for cooking rumali roti and other Indian flatbreads.
"We don't have a tandoor. We were keen to get away from the idea that the only Indian bread is naan," he says. "It's a great bread. But much like butter chicken, if you want to have a good naan in Mayfair, you're not short of options.”
Along from this is the induction hob, a PolyScience Control Freak. "Our head chef Keiran Mustafa (previously of Chez Bruce and The Harwood Arms) likes to joke that it's named after me. I think that's fair," grins Sharma. "It's a flexible piece of kit that allows you to be specific about temperatures when you're cooking proteins. It also doubles as a waterbath and allows you to poach things slowly in oil."
Five chefs will run the kitchen at peak times - two on the grill, one on the fryer and larder section, one on the sauce section and one on the pass expediting and doing most of the plating up.
Bibi is small - 34 covers - but that still feels like a tall order given the tightness of the space and the complexity of the menu, especially as the team will eventually have to cater for Bibi’s 20-cover terrace.
Though not initially, the plan is for Bibi to soon open for lunch and dinner seven days a week and potentially be open right through the day at busier times.
Exploring Indian ingredients
Bibi's second, subterranean kitchen is much larger with roughly the same square footage as the whole of the restaurant upstairs. Hundreds of neatly labelled plastic boxes line the walls. A few contain well-known Indian ingredients, but the majority are unfamiliar.
"India is a huge country. It follows that we're going to have far more products in the kitchen than a European restaurant. I estimate we have up to 10 times as many different ingredients."
As we venture further into the kitchen this at first unlikely sounding claim is borne out. Sharma possesses - for example - no less than nine different types of peppercorns.
"I love pepper," he says with a level of conviction that leaves little room for doubt. "It's important to me that we represent it in its truest form. There was a time that it was more valuable than gold. It upsets me that people have stopped being respectful of it. It has become a commodity. We're using some salted, fermented peppercorns for our take on Keralan beef pepper fry, which uses raw beef instead of cooked beef."
The basement kitchen is roomy and cool, providing the team with a welcome counterpoint to the cramped, largely charcoal-powered space upstairs. With a ceiling so low as to preclude extraction, only a little 'proper' cooking will be done down here (kit includes a pair of pressure cookers and a combi-oven with a special hood that allows it to be used without ventilation). The space will largely be used for mise en place, plating up desserts and menu development.
Working on a molecular level
Above one station are stacks of boxes full of the ingredients associated with the molecular gastronomy movement and food processing - including stabilisers, emulsifiers, and texture improvers - but Sharma is clear that despite his scientific background he is not planning to create an Indian version of The Fat Duck or Alinea.
"We're not going to be a molecular gastronomy restaurant. But I've spent time at restaurants such as L'Enclume where these ingredients are used in a subtle way to intensify flavours and textures. When you know Trisol (a wheat-based dextrine) will give you a crispier finish on fried foods than plain flour it's difficult not to use it."
It's not geekery for the sake of geekery, then. The science will be in the background at Bibi and will be used to accentuate the unusually high-quality ingredients the restaurant will use. This highlights another key difference between Bibi and other high-reaching Indian restaurants in the UK. While the likes of Gymkhana and its Michelin-chasing peers use good, sometimes even great, produce, they are not ingredient-led restaurants.
Bibi will be. Sharma and team will have sourcing policies comparable to the likes of L’Enclume and The Ledbury, working closely with small-scale UK suppliers to secure tiny volumes of very high-quality produce and will also work with an India-based agent to secure artisan produce including chocolate, coffee, semi-dried spices, pickled chillies, and heritage grains from the Subcontinent.
"The ambition is to have a menu that's far
less static than most Indian restaurants"
It follows, then, that Bibi will be far more seasonal than other Indian restaurants on these shores with a menu that changes constantly. For example, the deep-fried corn snack will leave the menu before the end of September as the British sweetcorn season draws to a close while a West Sussex tomato salad dish will be even more fleeting.
"The ambition is to have a menu that's far less static than most Indian restaurants,” Sharma says. “We want to keep things moving in terms of development and I want to get to the point that our suppliers in both the UK and India are calling me about small amounts of great produce. We will also have to be willing to take things off the menu if we can’t get exactly the right produce.”
No more Mr Rice Guy
There will also be a strong ethical angle to Bibi’s sourcing policies. In fact, Bibi was nearly an Indian restaurant that didn’t serve rice. “I wasn’t quite brave enough to open without rice,” says Sharma, who concedes the omnipresent grain would be an especially good match for the langoustine dish.
“But we should be moving away from rice as much as possible and championing lesser-known grains such as millets and sorghums. The central region of India is becoming dryer and dryer, which is making it harder and harder to grow. I might take rice off the menu some point. It's something we should be making a statement about.”
"I wasn't quite brave enough
to open without rice"
Bibi will only buy Indian produce that can be shipped via sea and will work with UK growers including Namayasai in East Sussex and Flourish Produce in Cambridgeshire to obtain fresh produce that would typically be airfreighted from the Subcontinent. It will also look to support Indian farming projects that have an ethical approach; for example, Bibi’s chocolate is being sourced from a supplier in Pondicherry (in Tamil Nadu) called Mason & Co that only employs women and guarantees them a fair wage.
The tasting menu conundrum
Bibi was originally intended to be a la carte only, but Sharma now looks set to offer a tasting menu too. "Having now spent time working with the people that are ultimately going to be serving the food we've realised that the complexity of the menu and the regularity with which it changes means we are going to need some sort of tasting option.”
“I don't like the term tasting menu or set menu for Bibi, but there needs to be something that makes it easy for people,” he continues. “When I'm on my day off I generally don't want to have to think that hard about what I'm ordering. I like the idea of something that guides people through the best of what we have that day.”
"The complexity of the menu and the regularity
with which it changes means we are going
to need some sort of tasting option”
What shape the tasting menu will take and what it will be called will likely be a focus of Sharma’s upcoming tasting with the JKS Restaurants siblings and some other key staff, but the price will likely be between £65 and £75. This is a relative bargain given the post code, Sharma’s pedigree and the quality of the ingredients.
Update: Bibi will offer a 'chef's selection' menu priced at £35 at lunchtimes and £55 at dinner. Both menus feature some fixed courses and some courses where diners are able to choose between dishes.
Despite his plans to tweak all the half dozen or so dishes that have been served he’s confident about the meeting. “I’ve done at least 30 tastings with JKS Restaurants across the different brands and we’ve already done a fair few for Bibi. They know what the style of food will be at Bibi and I know what each of their favourites are likely to be. Food is subjective. Karam, for example, loves spice. He and I have different palates, but we have a similar way of looking at food and working out what the guest wants.”
As ever, it looks like the hardest person for Sharma to please will be himself. “Are you happy?” ventures Bibi's public relations person. "We'll get there," he smiles.