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Are Delhi restaurants successful only because of their chefs?

More and more of Delhi’s restaurants seemed defined by their chefs. Now, even the guys with sure-fire concepts are investing in – and publicising – their chefs, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Nov 16, 2013 20:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Rahul Akerkar, Bombay’s best-known non-hotel chef about the restaurant scene in Delhi. I didn’t want to get into that whole Delhi-Bombay thing all over again, I said to him, but it struck me as interesting how so many Bombay restaurants seemed entrepreneur-driven while more and more of Delhi’s restaurants seemed defined by their chefs.

There’s Ritu Dalmia, of course. But there are many, many others. Chez Nini is all about the eponymous chef. Tres is about the passions of Julia and Jatin, its two chefs. Le Bistro du Parc is entirely dependent on the ingenuity of its chef. Each time a new restaurant of any consequence opens in Delhi, it is the chef who is the star.

Even the guys with sure-fire concepts are now investing in – and publicising – their chefs. TK’s is one of the Delhi Hyatt Regency’s most consistent successes. But by hiring Achal Agarwal (ex-Wasabi, ex-Megu) and pushing him to the forefront, the Hyatt is trying to provide a more chef-driven experience. Zambar was a successful mini-chain long before Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal of Lite Bite Foods hired Arun Kumar. But they’ve allowed him to reinvent the menu and the restaurants themselves.

All in his hands By hiring Achal Agarwal (ex-Wasabi, ex-Megu) and pushing him to the forefront, the Hyatt (Delhi) is trying to provide a more chef-driven experience at TK’s

Rahul is due to open a massive outpost of his flagship Indigo restaurant in Delhi in a few weeks. Like all Bombay chefs, (Ananda Solomon, before him, for instance), he has been fed a lot of nonsense about how Delhi audiences consist largely of unadventurous Punjabis who want to eat chicken four times a day. But he agreed with me when I said that if the caricature was valid, then the new chef-driven places would not all be successful. (I’ve reviewed them all here over the last year or so and am pleased to see them booming.) Once Rahul opens Indigo in Delhi, he will set the bar even higher (he intends to run the kitchen himself for several months) and I hope the chef-driven places are up to the challenge.

Shortly after Rahul and I had our little chat, a friend suggested I visit Uzuri. Like many recent openings, this is a venture driven entirely by the passion of two young chefs, Rishim Sachdeva (executive head chef) and Guy Clark (head chef). The food is modern European with an African theme which is reflected in the décor.

Dynamic Duo: Uzuri is driven entirely by the passion of two young chefs, Rishim Sachdeva (executive head chef, right) and Guy Clark (head chef)

Uzuri is in the M Block market in GK-II (the Diva-China Garden market, in foodie terms). There is a main dining area on the second floor (don’t worry, there is a lift) and an open deck one level higher. I did not get to see the deck but I liked the dining area, which was pleasant without being overly pretentious. I can’t judge the service because I was busted the moment I walked in by a manager who had previously worked at Chez Nini and the Taj.

I liked the menu because it attempted (like Bistro du Parc) to do interesting things to simple ingredients. My lamb starter was good and the fish cakes, which apparently drew inspiration from the cuisine of the Malays who live in South Africa’s Cape region, were great.

I had two beef mains, both made with buffalo meat and proof, if any were needed, that a talented chef can work wonders with this relatively inexpensive meat. The steak had a coffee crust but I was more impressed by the skillful use of sous-vide cooking techniques. This process is now the norm at many Western restaurants but unless the chef knows what he is doing, the meat can lose all texture and taste like wet rubber. Here the steak was tender and sliced neatly and easily.

A gluten-free burger, with a polenta cake taking the place of the bun, was skillfully put together though I would have preferred a little more beef fat in the patty to keep it from drying out in the middle. There was only one dud dish. I like my pork belly nice and crispy on the outside and fatty and piggy on the inside. The belly at Uzuri was neither and I sent it back. To the credit of the chefs, they conceded that they had been trying something different, which had not worked out as planned. With no alcohol (they are yet to get a proper licence), lots of Diet Coke and dessert, my bill was around `4,500. It’s not cheap as restaurant bills go. But for cooking this adventurous, it is well worth it.

All done by numbers Café 88, a new restaurant in Mehar Chand market, served one outstanding dish – mutton over rice

Not everything in Delhi is chef-driven, of course. I went some Sundays ago for lunch to Café 88, a lavishly decorated restaurant in Mehar Chand Market, a stone’s throw from Chez Nini. They’ve spent a lot of money on the two rooms (there is an upstairs and a downstairs) and they clearly mean well. But I thought that the restaurant looked like the set of a Simi Garewal show, all in white and a bit soulless. It did not help that the place was mostly empty, giving it the air of a dining hall in a newly renovated grand hotel in Darjeeling during the low season.

Service was cheerful but inept and the menu resembled the sort of multi-cuisine mishmash that the old Connaught Place restaurants used to serve: Oriental stir-fries, sandwiches, Indian curries, cakes, pasta, fish pie, nachos, ratatouille, and God alone knows what else. Of the many dishes I tried, the sandwiches were so-so, the Oriental stuff was distinctly mid-market Indian-Chinese style, and the desserts were poor. But there was one outstanding dish: mutton over rice. This comprised tender mutton chunks in a curry sauce with rice. I’ve never eaten this version before and it had a vaguely Raj-era air about. It did make me feel more warmly towards the restaurant. But it also fixed the dining-room-in-a-hill-station-hotel image in my mind.

It is ages since I’ve been to Shahpur Jat. And in the interim, the area has grown – in the sense that Dharavi has grown, for instance – to the extent that it makes the Hauz Khas Village look like a paragon of urban cleanliness and sophistication. But Shahpur Jat has its quirky little places, one of which is the clothing shop, Les Parisiennes (to get a feel of the ambience, think of a middle-aged French woman living in an Indian haveli while the world crumbles around her) which is charming and eccentric.

All the back of the shop you will find Le Café, a tiny place (seats about 20 or so, I would guess) that serves good coffee, hot chocolate and Frenchified sandwiches like the Croque-Monsieur. There’s a nice warm chocolate fondant that captures the spirit of Bournvita. But at `200 or so it is good value as is nearly everything else at the café. It is a nice escape from reality if you are in the area and feel like coffee. Though, by the time you have negotiated the streets and alleys of Shahpur Jat, you will need something stronger. I wandered into Sakae Sushi, hidden in a corner of Delhi’s Ambience Mall, almost by accident. It claims to be a branch of Singapore’s largest sushi chain, part of a collaboration between the Singapore owners and local Indian truck-owners. All of which is fine, except that I’ve never been to any of the Singapore branches so I have nothing to compare it to.

Coming soon: Rahul Akerkar is due to open a massive outpost of his flagship Indigo restaurant in Delhi in a few weeks

Judging by the décor though, the idea must have been to open a conveyor belt-sushi place in Delhi. And judging my experience there, they’ve ended up with just another Pan-Asian restaurant. The menu includes such dishes as honey chilli potato, classic chilli chicken, crispy konjee lamb and golden fried baby corn. These are dishes you are more likely to find in Ludhiana than in Tokyo. So I’m guessing that massive concessions have been made to local tastes.

I stuck to the Japanese, however. And I was surprised by the quality of the cooking. The nigiri sushi had a conveyor-belt quality to it (well, what did I expect?) but the other dishes were well executed: perfectly-fried prawn tempura and Tori Karaage, delicate pork gyoza, and good Japanese rice.

The chef used to work at Izakaya and the manager cut his teeth with Lite Bite. Given that serving staff are not terribly enthusiastic or smart, my guess is that the chef and the manager keep the place going. Ask for one of them and order a real Japanese meal, if you do go. You won’t be disappointed.

But everything in Ambience mall will change by the end of this year when another Bombay import arrives in Delhi. Yauatcha is all set to open at Ambience, and already the existing restaurants are running scared. It is easily the best Chinese restaurant in Bombay so it should shake up the local market here. Indigo and Yauatcha opening at the same time? Yups. The restaurant wars in Delhi have just begun.

From HT Brunch, November 17

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