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HindustanTimes Thu,31 Jul 2014
The happening world of Delhi restaurants
Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
May 17, 2014
First Published: 12:50 IST(17/5/2014)
Last Updated: 19:04 IST(17/5/2014)
Columnist Vir Sanghvi

The Delhi restaurant scene keeps changing. New places open. Old places get new management. And celebrated restaurateurs separate from their groups and start new places on their own. Plus there are the places with new menus and new names.

Let's start with Smokey's. This is a relatively new restaurant in Greater Kailash II, opened by Shiv Karan Singh on the site of Delhi's first Smokehouse Grill. Shiv Karan was one of the original partners (along with Riyaz Amlani, the majority owner and Harmeet Bajaj) but as Smoke House has flourished and grown into a massive chain, Shiv Karan has separated to start something of his own. Smokey's is really Son of Smoke House and a second outlet is due to open in Gurgaon's CyberHub in June.

Shiv Karan is a nice guy so it would be nice to see him succeed. I went for dinner on a night when Delhi had one of its unseasonal storms. And so it was not a good evening for Smokey's. The restaurant has a restricted access, which means that you have to park some distance away and walk the rest of the way. This may be okay on most days. But it can be a real pain when it is raining. The restaurant was mostly empty (only three other tables were occupied) and the manager told me that the storm had led to a flood of cancellations.

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The Smokey's concept is an American-style grill and Shiv Karan has done most of the menu himself which means that his own obsessions - smoking and marinating - are reflected in many of the dishes. There's a terrific, reasonably priced wine list but on the night I went, the two wines I wanted were out of stock. Eventually, the manager brought a few bottles, put them on the table, and said: choose from one of these. I picked a basic Louis Jadot Burgundy which was spoilt (as so many Jadot wines seem to be in India for some reason) but eventually I found a Barolo I liked.

I ordered lots of food, some of which was very tasty. I liked a mixed sausage platter which came with a delicious sauce; the pizza was good; an Andhra-style hot dog (I kid you not!) was fun and a portion of pulled beef was excellent. The problem, I thought, was that the ambition of the menu vastly exceeded the competence of the kitchen. A very tasty lamb stew was let down by poor cooking: the meat should have been more tender. A plate of slow-cooked ribs had not been slow-cooked enough: the meat clung stubbornly to the bones. And the burger was betrayed by the patty, which fell apart and was under salted. A restaurant like Smokey's is really about American staples like ribs and burgers so it is important that the kitchen gets them right. 

READ: A TALE OF TWO CITIES, FAVOURITES FROM DELHI AND MUMBAI

If you live in Delhi then you may have seen rave reviews across media for a new Italian restaurant called Artusi in GK-II (not far from Smokey's, as it happens), which is named after Pellegrino Artusi, one of the founders of Italian cuisine. The PR is handled by my pal Pareina Thapar and judging by the praise Artusi has garnered, she has done a brilliant job. I was careful to go without letting her know but was rumbled by the manager soon after I walked in.

The restaurant is run by an Italian-Indian couple, of whom Gurpinder Balcon (the Indian half) is the owner, while her husband Oscar (an Italian ex-banker) has no formal role but helps his wife. The chef is Romina Lugaresi, who has worked all over the world and but who comes from the same village in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy as Oscar.

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The Balcons are a fun couple: passionate, well-travelled foodies who want to run a restaurant that they themselves would like to eat in. I'm not sure why they chose GK-II to open in or why they selected this low-ceilinged room but they've done their best to cheer it up though I thought they needed to re-examine the lighting.

The Artusi menu is vast: some Emilia-Romagna dishes, some Italian standards, lots of pasta, lots of fish and lots of meat. They could, in my view, dispense with about half the dishes on this menu and focus on what they do well. And perhaps they will. Oscar wants the restaurant to have a slow-burn beginning and does not plan a big-bang launch till after the monsoon, by which stage, they will have got the food right.

I thought I'd start with some of the most-ordered dishes at Italian restaurants all over the world to see where they were pitching their food. Their Rigatoni Carbonara was unusual - a Carbonara sauce usually accompanies a long pasta - and interestingly presented with crisp slices of bacon. I was not so convinced by their pasta with ragu, a sort of more authentic take on the Bolognaise sauce that is now a global staple. Oscar says that this is how his mother makes it - in which case, she eats a lot less salt than the rest of us. A fresh pasta was simple and home style though not particularly delicate.

Mains were less successful. They do a Chicken Milanese because they can't find good veal in India. This is fair enough (Maritime in Bombay does a perfectly acceptable chicken version of the dish) but on the night I went, the plate should have been intercepted at the pass and never allowed to leave the kitchen. The frying was wrong and the crumbed surface was covered with black burnt splotches. There was nothing wrong with a Bistecca Fiorentina (US beef of some kind though I'm not sure it was really US Prime) but I'd ordered it medium rare and it was over cooked by the time it got to my table. My guess is that it was fine when it left the grill but kept cooking on the journey to my plate.

These are teething problems. In time, the chef will get the frying temperatures right, will adjust the seasoning and will work out how much a steak continues cooking once it leaves her kitchen. The restaurant had hardly been open for a week when I went and the kitchen will take time to settle down. Plus, all the other eminent critics who have raved and raved about it must have had better experiences. So perhaps I was just unlucky. I do hope though that the Balcons can get their act together. Delhi needs more standalone restaurants like Artusi. And at these prices, there isn't much room for error (I paid just over Rs. 13,000 for two including a bottle of Chianti)

READ: FRESH ON THE MENU

You may not have heard of Elan. The restaurant has a somewhat chequered history. It was originally called Lodhi when the hotel it is located at was called The Aman. Now, DLF has sold the Aman chain but has kept the Delhi property and renamed it The Lodhi. So obviously, they've had to rename the restaurant - hence Elan. There have been other changes too. First, the Aman's Spanish restaurant became On the Waterfront and was run as a separate operation from the hotel by Prasanjit Singh and the team from the (also DLF-owned) Set'z. Since Prasanjit has moved on to become a restaurant mogul in his own right, DLF has combined all of the hotel's food and beverage operations along with Set'z. They continue to be run by Prasanjit's old team, including Suveer Sodhi, who I have known and admired from his days at the Hyatt's China Kitchen.

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Suveer and team have turned On The Waterfront around. I had a delicious lunch there two weeks ago and though nobody in the kitchen still knew how to operate the robata grill properly, the desserts were better than ever: a Floating Island was a thing of beauty. They've had to work harder with Elan which is part Indian-restaurant and part coffee shop. Of the coffee shop stuff, a plate of bangers and mash was good and comforting but there was so much wrong with the Shepherd's Pie that they should not even bother to improve it but should just take it off the menu.

The Indian food was hit and miss. The kebabs were a mess (sort of sub-Kwality levels of cooking) but a lasooni palak, a tadka dahi and some missi rotis were all good.  The standout dish however was a duck khurchan (they called it Tawa Duck or something like that) which I've never had before anywhere else. Desserts were a flop:  kulfi masquerading as Indian cassata, etc.

The problem, I think, is that Setz was never known for its Indian food. This team has limited Indian food expertise and though it is doing its best, it will take a little while to find the right balance. Till that happens, go to On The Waterfront. It is a lovely restaurant and the kitchen really is firing on all cylinders.

From HT Brunch, May 18

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