Designing eateries is an art. It is here that one needs to link the content with the containers, says M.A. Siraj

When people dine out, they don't merely eat, they also breathe in an ambience. Art, décor, aesthetics, shrubbery and lighting… every single element going into the creation of an ambience lends a dash of palatability to food. It is where one needs to link the content with the containers.

Bangalore has seen the emergence of a series of restaurants, eateries and juice bars in the recent years that bring together authentic dishes and the ethnic ambience. Be it the Egg Factory restaurant on St. Mark's Road or Kanua on Sarjapur Road or Counter Culture in up-market Koramangala, they all have a common strand i.e., trash the synthetics and bring in the authentic traditional material. To boot, some of them have sourced the building material from old mansions, and recycled timber from factory sheds and Mangalore tiles from godowns. And the man blowing the new soul into all of them is Rajesh Pai.

Basically wood-rich, Rajesh's creations have their own identity, guarded zealously both in terms of form and content. Enter Egg Factory restaurant near Ashirvadam junction, the eatery exudes not merely those friendly aromas from the grandma's kitchen, but an ambience totally put in place by skilled hands of carpenters. Serial lights burn inside egg shells. An old screw driver resting on two legs has been used for the door handle. The teak tables, benches and chairs loudly proclaim their reincarnation from beams, pillars and rafters pulled out of dwellings or yore. And the food is all centred around the humble egg. Says Pai, “We serve 92 kinds of dishes where egg is used. And you know egg dishes cannot be stored. They have a lifespan that can allow them from the frying pan straight into the tummy. We do not even use instant mixes or ready-made masalas. All of them are ground in the morning and must be exhausted by the evening.”

A mechanical engineer by training, Rajesh Pai heads a firm called Red Earth based on the philosophy of going back to roots in matters of design, style, content, flavours and manner of serving. “In short, you can call it contemporary-classic in interiors,” says Pai. “The whole idea is to use the traditional material for modern applications,” he adds. Nearly all the restaurants designed by Pai have made minimal use of cement. Lime-washed mud walls, red oxide floors, clay tiles, wooden furniture and windows for fresh air predominate.

Wood and clay

Pai says the Kanua restaurant on Sarjapur Road used wood and clay tiles retrieved from an old factory godown. Door frames were incorporated with some modifications. Menu cards were created out of hand-made paper prepared out of rice husk and banana fibre. With nearly 140 seating capacity, Kanua sells no aerated beverages, serves no buffet, and does not allow birthday bashes. Kitchen waste goes into a compost pit. The restaurant has no fans too and says a strict no to air-conditioners. Large windows provide fresh air and a scenic view. Takeaways are packed in bags made out of old newspapers. CFL lights illuminate the interiors. Speakers are made out of waste drainage pipes. “When there is power failure, we thank the government for providing our guests the opportunity for a candle-light dinner,” Pai remarks, adding that the whole effort was more to provoke imagination.

Hailing from the famous Pai clan of Manipal, Rajesh had his mentoring under Vijay Shenoy, the legendary founder of the Hastashilpa Village at Manipal. The success of Egg Factory and Kanua launched Pai into full-scale restaurant designing. And it was not confined to edifice and interiors alone. Pai says, “We design everything from exteriors to interiors and from menu card to food items.”

The Egg Factory came up in 2005, and there was no looking back since. The firm was soon asked to conceptualise Habenaro, a Mexican eatery, in Whitefield. Shortly thereafter he was engaged in a couple of restaurants in Koramangala and Whitefield signifying the philosophy of Red Earth. ‘Oye Amritsar' engaged him for designing their two eateries in Church Street and Koramangala. In between these, a couple of juice bars, ‘Canola' and ‘Real Cane,' and a restaurant ‘Café Cuddapah' (in Cuddapah in Andhra Pradesh) were designed, all in line with the original concept of going back to the basics.

Pai says it is atrocious not to benefit from Bangalore's salubrious weather. “I rue the fact that offices and restaurants cage themselves into glass edifices. When glass, false ceilings, venetian blinds and carpets heat up the indoor atmosphere, air-conditioners are deployed. Power failure results in buying power back-ups. When even power back-ups fail during long power cuts, generators are brought up to aid the lighting and ACs. All these rob the people of the inexpensively cool natural air. Blind adaptation of synthetics and imported styles are turning our buildings into gas chambers.”

Asked if the traditional and ethnic material does not add up to the cost, Pai says, “Yes, initial cost may be more. But it is easier to maintain and long-term benefits are more in terms of low power consumption. A good quality timber has the capacity to survive for even three centuries, which is fourfold longer than the life of any concrete structure. Moreover, wood is amenable to replacement in bits and pieces. It provides employment to traditional artisans like carpenters.”

The high quotient value of designing has won Kanua several awards, with Time Out magazine ranking it one of the best designed restaurants.