"Do you have time to listen to a story?" asks Manish Sharma, owner of Molecule Air Bar and Viet:Nom. Since it is what we do too, we settle in. "I was doing a family trip in Europe a couple of years ago, and while roaming around in Hamburg, I saw a line of people waiting outside a tiny restaurant. While the place must have held about 20 covers, there was a line of around 40-50 people," recalls the 36-year-old restaurateur.
Sharma waited in line for two hours to taste the food at that Vietnamese restaurant, and the next day he brought his entire family. "Everyone in my family loved that food, across generations and tastes. That's what led me to open a brand like Viet:Nom," grins Sharma.
Of course it was not as easy as it sounds. "I did a lot of driving and listening to music as I conceptualised the idea. That’s something I have done since opening my first restaurant in Noida," says the restaurateur, adding, "When I am alone, driving in my car, listening to my music, that’s when I get peace of mind. That's when I can think and plan and dream."
And Sharma has had plenty of dreams over the years. "My first restaurant was in Noida and called Masakali. My next venture was in Hauz Khas Village, called The Pink Room. Both were different from each other and both were thought up during my solo drives," muses Sharma.
But it is with Molecule Air Bar that he first tasted success. "Back in those days, molecular gastronomy was really popular, and I figured a molecule is the smallest of particles, yet in everything. That was the initial concept of the restaurant in 2015 when it opened," explains Sharma, adding, "Of course it was a passing fad back then, but the brand has continued to flourish, even though we no longer do anything molecular. No liquid nitrogen, thanks."
While they may have eschewed the chemical smoke and mirrors, Molecule Air Bar is still going from strength to strength, like a bouncing atom, according to its founder. "We have four outlets in places like Agra and Lucknow, with three more opening soon in other parts of India. Those are doing amazingly well, and I am glad we have managed to create demand through our brand. So many other companies from Delhi have since moved to Tier-II cities, but it’s amazing that Molecule Air Bar is doing the best, just going by numbers," he said.
Bouncing back to Viet:Nom, Sharma admits it was not as easy. "My chef and consultants went to Vietnam to taste the authentic cuisine and report back on it, but we found it was underwhelming to the Indian palate. I then went back to thinking and researching, and found that the largest number of Vietnamese restaurants are in Germany, which is where I had first tasted that Vietnamese cuisine!" laughs Sharma, concluding, "Delhi in particular, and India in general, has thrived on an American version of Chinese cuisine that we thereafter co-opted into Chinjabi. I guess it makes sense that we enjoy Vietnamese courtesy the Germans."