After I claimed, two Sundays ago, in this column that Bombay was now getting ahead of Delhi when it came to Western food, I have had angry responses from Delhi loyalists who insist that their city still remains the capital of good food. Plus, they point out, there is no maniacal cop with a hockey stick who runs around terrorising citizens in Delhi, and the liquor laws are far more sensibly enforced. (You don’t need a permit room or a permit itself to enjoy a drink in the capital.)
I’m not taking sides in this debate but in the interests of justice, I’ve spent the last week checking out new places in Delhi. My well-travelled friend Vikram Doraiswami told me to go to Chez Nini. He was sure I would like it. Ever since I met Saurabh Khanijo of Kylin at the launch of a collection of columns by Sonal Kalra, the foodie who is editor of HT City, I meant to visit one of his establishments – and last week I finally did. When I tweeted about eating at Chez Nini, somebody tweeted back recommending Rara Avis, another new French restaurant in South Delhi so I duly went off to have lunch there as well.
So, first of all, here’s what I consider the find of the week: Chez Nini. It is a small, new, bistro-type restaurant located in Mehar Chand market (no, I hadn’t heard of Mehar Chand either; it is between the Habitat Centre and Lodhi Colony market). I had no idea who ran Chez Nini or what their credentials were, but once you get there, it is hard to miss the chef-owner Nini who emerges periodically from behind the range (you could see her cooking from my table) to go up and introduce herself to guests at each table.
Even though she did come up to my table and chat, I’m afraid that I can tell you very little about her except that she clearly grew up in Quebec, or French-Canada at the very least, because she recommended poutine, a dish that involves smothering perfectly good French fries with cheese and brown gravy and is ubiquitous in Montreal (I think they even serve it at McDonald’s there.) My son goes to university in Montreal so I’m quite willing to praise the city of Leonard Cohen and McGill University but I do draw the line at poutine…
But long before Nini came up to our table, and an hour before poutine was even mentioned, I did a kind of double-take when I entered the restaurant. It is small, has lots of sunlight and the furniture has clearly been designed by somebody who cares about comfort and aesthetics. The whole room is un-restaurant-like and you can tell that no hospitality industry professionals were involved in its conception which, frankly, is a relief because it means that the restaurant seems fresh and different.
I hadn’t booked in my own name so I think I went in under the radar but service was friendly, welcoming and efficient. We ordered from a small menu and from a blackboard of daily specials and I went a little overboard so I could taste as much as possible. We started with a poached egg, crisply deep-fried in batter, served with fresh asparagus. Poached egg and asparagus is a classic combination and the dish was flawlessly executed, but I could have done without the Russian salad type thingie that cluttered up the centre of the plate.
Of the mains, there was an excellent duck confit, among the best I’ve eaten in India (only chef Nick at Setz can match Nini’s effort), a wonderful pork belly, melting on the inside and nicely crisp on the outside, and a home-style Coq au Vin, without the bacony taste that haunts restaurant versions but with a light mustard tang. A side order of mushrooms was terrific too.
The standout dish was a daily special from the blackboard: a duck burger. I’m something of a bore on the subject of burgers but my least favourite versions are those made with chicken (yuck!) or goat (never quite right). There was no beef on the Chez Nini menu so the burger was made with minced duck to a recipe that I’ve never come across before (I suspect it might be the chef’s own). I thought the burger was perfect in every respect and the bun, in particular, was perfection personified.
Later, when Nini emerged from the kitchen (where, no doubt, she had spent a large part of the afternoon cooking my massive meal!), I asked her how she managed to source such excellent ingredients. The answer was that she made the effort to go out and find local suppliers. Almost everything in the restaurant was fresh. Nothing had come from a packet, a can or a bottle and the few things that were imported (the enoki mushroom in the side dish) could usefully be eliminated from the menu.
The duck was not from Delhi’s French Farm, suppliers to most high class establishments, but from a lesser-known local supplier. The pork came from a farmer. The eggs had actually been laid by chicken that clucked and danced around, not by battery hens. And all the bread was home-made. Ah yes, I said, but what did she do about her French fries? Surely, those were imported? Not at all, she replied, she had found a farmer who supplied the restaurant with potatoes that were low in sugar and perfect for frying. I looked sceptical so she suggested I try the fries. (It is at this stage that the Canadian influence let out a tiny squeak: she offered me poutine, only to retreat when I looked horrified.)
So I tried the fries. They worked but were nothing like your average McCain or Lamb Weston frozen chip. Instead they had a character and texture all of their own. And yes, I would order them again.
It is so rare to find a restaurant run by a chef who is so passionate about local ingredients that I was prepared to forgive Chez Nini even if the food had not been very good.
But there was nothing to forgive. This is the best bistro-style European (or French-Canadian or whatever) food in India. It beats the hell out of anything of this kind in Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, Madras or wherever. Unlike Chez Nini, Rara Avis is pretty clearly a product of catering industry professionals. It is a large (compared to Chez Nini at least) room on the second floor of a building in GK-II Market. My first impressions were not favourable. Though only one other table was occupied, there was no one to greet us and we hung around uncertainly for a bit. When we finally found a table, we had to quickly abandon it because an insect had already occupied the space. Nobody apologised for the insect or cared that we had to move. The man who took my order did not understand the menu and seemed obviously ill at ease.
To while away the time till the food came, I fell into conversation with a man who appeared to occupy a senior position in the restaurant, though he was playing no obvious role in the management of the dining room. He told me his name was Rajiv Aneja and that he was one of the three partners behind Rara Avis. The other two, Laurent Guiraud and Jerome Cousin, were French, he said, and boasted impressive pedigrees: Olive, Manre etc.
I was beginning to wonder about the pedigree when suddenly the energy in the room changed. More people started coming in. And a Frenchman (Laurent, I later discovered), arrived and took charge of the dining room with an air of calm, sure-footed assurance. He checked all the orders, came to my table and said “You’ve ordered a lot of food. Are you sure you need so much?” I indicated that yes, I was sure. He shrugged, smiled and wandered off.
Then, the food began to arrive. We started with a Pissaladière, a Provençal tart that is well-known to well-travelled rich Indians from La Petite Maison in London, a restaurant that is pretty much Indian-Central in the summer months. A Pissaladière is, essentially, a Frenchified pizza but the Frenchmen at Rara Avis have decided to cross the border and abandon France for Italy. Their Pissaladière was basically a thin-crust pizza. That said, it was also very good though I’m not sure they would have got away with serving it in Nice.
Next came a very nice duck confit that suffered by comparison only because I’d eaten the excellent Chez Nini version two days before. Then they served a perfectly acceptable steak, though at the prices they were charging, this had to be Indian produce, not some fancy imported cut. And there was also a terrific burger, a bit messy to eat, but all the more delicious for that.
The standouts though were the desserts. The warm lemon tart was irresistible and the crêpes stuffed with chocolate were so good that it was hard to stop till the plate was empty. All this, with some Diet Coke, came to Rs 3,800. I reckon two people could eat very well for between Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 if they did not order as many dishes as I had.
Later, Laurent came to our table as part of his rounds and I was able to ask him about the food. The steak and burger were indeed local; Rara Avis had taken a deliberate decision to pizzafy the Pissaladière ; the desserts were made in house; the duck was French Farm; yes, the wine list was boring but it was still a work in progress; and his partner Jerome, who looked after the kitchen, was unwell so all the cooking had been done by the Indian cooks, which suggested that cuisine standards are high even when the chef is off.
By the time I left, the restaurant had filled up with locals and regulars. Many of the guests greeted Laurent warmly and knew what they were going to order even before they saw the menu. Considering that Rara Avis is only about two months old, this is quite an achievement. I asked Laurent about the guest profile. He said that he had been astonished to find that even though diners came mainly from Greater Kailash and its neighbourhood, they all wanted to eat snails, steak and confit. Many guests had complained that there were no frog legs on the menu. History will probably remember Laurent and Jerome as the guys who taught Punjabis to eat snails and lust after frogs.
Clearly Delhi is changing faster than we realise. Another example of the change is the alacrity with which Japanese food has entered the standalone mainstream. Saurabh Khanijo runs Kylin Premier at the Ambience Mall in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj so he can hardly charge five-star prices. Even so, his restaurant has no difficulty making money; it is packed out night after night with locals who enjoy his sushi and his teppanyaki grilled meats.
Unlike Chez Nini and Rara Avis, where I wandered in as just another paying customer, I was a guest at Kylin Premier. Nor was this an average night. Saurabh had flown in a teppanyaki chef from Osaka and wanted me to try his food.
I won’t attempt to do a full-fledged review because I did not get the average guest experience (I was there with Saurabh) and the Japanese chef will probably be gone by the time you read this.
Even so, I will say that I liked the restaurant. It is tastefully decorated with little alcoves and an open terrace area, which must work wonderfully well when the weather is nice. The staff are experienced and knowledgeable. The Indian chef who cooked for me had worked at Olive and TK’s before. My server was a girl I knew from Sakura where she held the service together and dealt expertly with smiling Japanese and demanding Korean guests. (This time she told me that she was off to the homeland, not meaning Manipur where I thought she came from, but Israel. When I looked mystified, she said that many Kukis – like many Mizos – believe that they are part of the lost tribes of Israel and that she was a practising Jew. I took care to say Shalom to her after that).
When he is not employing the lost tribes of Israel, Saurabh takes trouble over the wine in the restaurant. The chef cooked with Sula but guests were offered excellent Fratelli wines by the glass including a very nice Merlot. There was also an extensive cocktail menu.
As for the food, well, of course it was good: a visiting Japanese master chef was cooking. We had black cod, pork chops, lamb cutlets, vegetables and fried rice, all cooked in front of us on a griddle by a Japanese chef who knew very little English but certainly knew his food.
I had told the chef that I would eat omakase (a Japanese term that translates roughly as “I’ll leave it to you” [the chef] ) and so he kept turning out course after course, pausing only to ask, in sign language, if we liked the dish. This method of communication worked for the most part but was open to misinterpretation. For instance, at the end of the meal, he stopped, looked directly at me and made a gesture near his belly to indicate a very fat stomach.
I wondered if this was a comment on my figure but it turned out that he was only asking, “are you full?” (At least, that’s what I was told he was asking). I liked Kylin Premier. But I liked what it represented even more. Its success – along with the success of such places as Rara Avis and Chez Nini – shows us that the old catering industry consensus that Indians will only eat “Moghlai” or “Punjabi-Chinese” is dying. A few yards from Kylin Premier, Zambar was serving excellent Kerala food and people were queuing up for tables. Across the hall, the queue at Chili’s (a table-service international burger joint) was even longer. So, let’s forget for a moment about the Bombay-Delhi rivalry. Let’s just celebrate the opening of the Indian palate. Just as India is now more international and adventurous than ever before in our history, so too is the Indian restaurant industry. Finally we are getting world class meals – outside of the hotel sector – at neighbourhood restaurants in our big cities.
That alone is something worth celebrating.
From HT Brunch, July 1
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