I think Delhi has better food. But - here's the twist - as the restaurant scene hots up, Bombay may well be gaining an edge. Is it my imagination or are people in Bombay more obsessed with the Bombay-Delhi rivalry than people in Delhi?
All the people I know in Delhi are fascinated by elements of the Bombay experience (the film industry, the sea, the tall buildings, etc.) without feeling at all threatened by the city. In Bombay, however, it is still fashionable to rubbish Delhi, to say how small townish, how unsophisticated and parochial it is, etc. etc.
One aspect of the Bombay-Delhi rivalry that nearly always crops up when the issue is discussed is the restaurant scene. Having now lived in both cities and having studied the subject at close quarters for many years, I think the answer is clear. Delhi has better food. But - and here's the twist - as the restaurant scene hots up, Bombay may well be gaining an edge.
Over the last month or so, I've been to three new (or newish) restaurants in Bombay and all three have been pleasant surprises. The big boy on the list is Otto Infinito largely because of its pedigree. It is owned by Kishore Bajaj who made his reputation in men's tailoring (Bada Saab) and his fortune from real estate before venturing into the restaurant business.
Bajaj owns the Bombay Hakkasan, part of the global chain of glitzy upmarket Chinese restaurants and his Yauatcha (part of the Hakkasan group) must rank as one of my favourite restaurants in India's commercial capital. It is bright, buzzy and cheerful, and serves dim sum all day. When it opened, there were teething problems but these have now been largely sorted out and it is a fun place that is usually packed.
Otto Infinito is next door to Yauatcha in the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), but differs from Bajaj's other ventures in that it is entirely his own, not part of some global chain. The idea is to run a happy Mediterranean restaurant that can be different things at different times: it does snappy breakfasts for financial analysts who can't wait to check on the Tokyo market; light lunches for people who work in the area; food-on-the-go for those in a hurry; and casual but elegant dining at dinner time.
As with all of Bajaj's places, Otto Infinito will get better with time but I loved the concept, liked the restaurant and was impressed by the snackier elements of the menu (panini, pizza, cheesecake etc.). The pastas have caught on too and the raviolis (chorizo or truffled mushroom) are especially popular. Now that Bombay is cooling down, Otto Infinito will offer al fresco dining, which will be nicer. Better still is that unlike Bajaj's other places, prices are surprisingly low for food and ambience of this quality: a basic pizza for under `300; sandwiches at around `220 to `375; and a full breakfast (eggs, bacon, hash browns, fruit, yoghurt etc.) at `275. My favourite breakfast dish was the Moroccan Berber Omelette at `250.
Bombay Bites: I was impressed by the snackier elements of Otto Infinito’s menu
Far more ambitious than Otto Infinito is Ellipsis, many months in the making, located in the heart of South Bombay and aiming to give you a meal as good as anything you would get in New York. The site has been the graveyard of many good restaurants, most of which made so little impression on me that I barely remember their names (Villa something, Many Flags, etc.). But my guess is that Ellipsis will break the jinx.
The restaurant was recommended to me by Brunch's Rachel Lopez, who is pretty obsessed with the Bombay-Delhi rivalry herself and who rated it as one of the have-to-go-to places in Bombay. I went for lunch (dinner is fancier) and though I was told that the main chef was off that day, the food was still pretty amazing. The pork buns, sandwiches, burgers and the like were world class and I can't wait to go back for dinner to see how that can possibly be even better.
I sneaked into Umame, a restaurant on the first floor of the Eros cinema building without a booking and for most of my meal remained entirely anonymous. So I can tell you that though the place had its share of celebrities (S Ramadorai of TCS, Rita Mehta, the founder of Cine Blitz, etc.) the waiters treated everyone with the same politeness and attention.
The food is a mix: pop Japanese (sushi, spicy rolls, etc.); fun Chinese (crispy aromatic duck); basic Thai (curries); and some Western. I thought the Japanese was okay (basic conveyor-belt quality sushi with pellets of tightly-pressed, very cold rice) though it may be a good idea to clean the fish more thoroughly (it is not nice to find a fish bone in your sashimi). Chinese soup dumplings were fun if slightly doughy (but then you've got to keep the soup in); and the Massaman curry was tasty and authentic (though it could do with something for texture: peanuts or potatoes perhaps). But the standout dishes were the scallops wrapped in bacon (not sure the quality of the scallop lived up to the quality of the bacon; the dish would work as well and have a lower food cost with prawns) and an outstanding pork belly.
It is a fun place to go to with a pleasant ambience, reasonable food and good service at prices that are not excessive, so I would recommend it.
Which brings us back to the Bombay-Delhi rivalry. None of the newer places I've been to in Delhi over the last month lived up to the standards of the Bombay restaurants. What was most noteworthy about them, I thought, was that they had opened in parts of Delhi that I have always regarded as gastronomic wastelands. And that alone is worth celebrating.
You don't usually expect to have great meals in Okhla or even at a Crowne Plaza hotel so I was astonished to find that the food at the Okhla Crowne Plaza was so good. This may have something to do with the fact that the Intercontinental group, having thrown away its historical brand advantage in India, is now determined to recover its lost market position by managing all of its Indian properties itself. (Crowne Plaza is an Intercontinental brand.)
Delhi Delights: At China Doll, I had the best and most authentic Chinese meal I’ve eaten in India in ages
Sometimes this takes the form of bizarre concepts. The menu at ChaoBella (their spelling, not mine) describes it as "an authentic Chinese Italian restaurant", thereby robbing the word "authentic" of any meaning at all. It is actually a multi-cuisine
restaurant with Italian and Chinese menus not some idiotic fusion place.
The restaurant is proudest of its Chinese food (the dim sum chef worked at the Oberoi's Taipan) and everything I had from his menu was fine. But they need to take more pride in their Italian food (cooked by Indian chefs) which I thought was better than the Chinese. But, no matter which of the two cuisines you choose, it is nice to get authentic hand-pulled noodles and fresh tagliatelle in Okhla. Who says Delhi's food scene is not changing? And Intercontinental finally seems to be getting it right.
Just a month or so after I complained that it was impossible to get a good meal in Delhi's South Extension. I had the best and most authentic Chinese meal I've eaten in India in ages at a new restaurant, on top of the Croma store.
China Doll is run by the family which runs the (not very nice) Moti Mahal Deluxe in South Ex but it marks an attempt by the new generation to go upmarket and do something different. The room is airy and high-ceilinged and the décor is tasteful.
But the food is the real star. The kitchen relies on Sanjeev Goswami who used to run the late, lamented The Chinese in Connaught Place and who owns many Indian restaurants in China. Goswami has imported a team of chefs from Hunan who serve the sort of food they actually eat in China. I had a pork belly that was dripping with chilli flavour, velvety, spicy fish, deliciously sour beans, and much more. Nobody in Bombay serves Chinese food this authentic and even in Delhi only two restaurants do Chinese dishes that are as good (the capital's branch of Royal China, and China Kitchen).
The problem is that the service is terrible - as bad as Moti Mahal Deluxe South Ex. Waiters don't know the food, managerial staff are functional illiterates, and everyone seems to have been trained to wander around the restaurant avoiding looking at customers. Given how brilliant the food is, it is crazy to run this restaurant so badly.
With a bit of luck they'll get it right soon enough. And once they do, I'll go back. As must you. Food this good is hard to find.
From HT Brunch, November 11
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