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If you live in Delhi, then you’ll know Khan Market. But even if you live elsewhere, you may well have heard of it. It’s become quite trendy these days. It wasn’t particularly fashionable when I first started visiting its shops some decades ago. It was a simple neighbourhood market with some advantages. There was Delhi’s most adventurous subziwalla (all the foreigners would flock to him for exotic vegetables), a good chaat shop, my local chemist (Crown Drug Store), an interesting bookshop and India’s finest dentist (Dr Siddharth Mehta).
In recent years, two different and seemingly contradictory things have happened. The first is that parts of the market resemble nothing as much as an open drain. The roads are dirty, the paths are broken down, and parking is impossible. The second is that despite the urban squalor, Khan Market has suddenly become a trendy place with high rents, expensive shops and dozens of restaurants.
All the reasons I once had for visiting Khan Market are now vanishing. The Crown Drug Store and the chaatwalla have closed shop and even Dr Mehta has relocated to the more salubrious surroundings of Vasant Vihar.
That said, Khan Market is not a total loss. There are some nice shops (Good Earth, Anokhi and Dayal Opticals, though nearly all of them have nicer branches elsewhere) and a few good restaurants (Mamagoto, Amici and Smokehouse Deli, though they also have branches elsewhere). Even so, I would not shed too many tears if the earth split open and swallowed up many of the nouveau riche emporia and eating places that have transformed the character of this market.
In many ways, Soy is your typical Khan Market restaurant. It aims to appeal to anyone who is passing by: shoppers, visitors, locals, etc. Foodwise, it is an Oriental (Chinese, Thai, etc.) restaurant pitched halfway between Punjabi tastes and the real thing. I don’t think you can afford to be entirely authentic in Khan Market so Soy makes no claims on that score. But if you tell the kitchen that you want the food to have more of the Orient and less of Ludhiana, the chefs are happy to oblige.
I enjoyed myself and think it’s probably perfect for large groups where one person can have chicken sweet corn soup, another can eat Hakka noodles, and the third can enjoy a perfectly acceptable Thai curry.
Despite also undergoing a degree of gentrification, Defence Colony market offers less variety when it comes to food. The only two places I regularly visit are Jayaram Banan’s operations, Swagath and Sagar. And there is the takeaway option of Roll Mall.
Two new openings suggest that things may be looking up. The first is Diva Kitsch at the edge of Defence Colony. This is Ritu Dalmia’s attempt to recreate the magic of Café Diva in a more upmarket environment at slightly higher prices. Ritu has gone the South-East Asian route but she is clear that this is not a Thai or a Malaysian restaurant. Hers is a chef-driven place where the kitchen reinterprets classic dishes through the prism of Oriental flavours.
I loved her Bang-Bang Chicken and the chunks of tender lamb that had been simmered in a Massaman-inspired curry. Her fastest moving item at the moment is the steak with fried egg and exotic mushrooms, which is amazing. (She uses buffalo meat so I guess she could call it Bhains Holstein.) The last time I went for dinner, the food was terrific but then Ritu knew I was there so I won’t pretend that I had the same experience as the average diner. On the other hand, the restaurant was packed with prosperous locals who seemed to be enjoying themselves.
If Ritu can maintain this high standard – though she says the food will get even better because the menu is a work in progress – then Defence Colony will be the gainer.
Ritu has only to live up to her reputation but the folks at Bistro Du Parc have pulled off the real surprise. I don’t know who runs this little restaurant across the patch of unkempt lawn in front of Flavours but they deserve to be congratulated for their enterprise.
The décor is French bistro (though the tables are packed together much too tightly) with the menu on a blackboard. I tried the bacon tart which was a winner with large chunks of bacon and first-rate pastry rather than some anemic recreation of quiche Lorraine. A ratatouille was packed with flavour, though the potato salad starter was less successful. (I don’t think the cabbage worked.) The stand-out dish was a ‘risotto’ made with bits of cauliflower, studded with earthy morels. It takes skill to pull off a dish like that with such confidence.
Overall, the cooking was fresh and inventive. More important: the chef produced great dishes from such humble ingredients as the cauliflower and did not depend on fancy, high-cost imports. Bistro Du Parc is clearly a huge success. It took me two days to find a table and I only got in at lunchtime.
I’ve written about the boom in mall dining before and about how Ambience in Vasant Kunj is becoming a food hub. My favourite restaurant in the complex is Mistral, next to the Director’s Cut cinema. It’s owned by Ajay Bijli of PVR but it’s run by Delhi’s most accomplished restaurateur, Prasanjit Singh, who has now moved on from Set’z and its various offshoots to do his own thing.
Prasanjit is currently fixated on deli sandwiches so Mistral’s menu is strong in that area. But my advice to punters is: stick to the Indian stuff. It is brilliant! You will find good sandwiches at other places as well. But the Indian food here is special.
Mistral has the best stuffed paranthas you will find in any Delhi restaurant. My friend, Deepak Ohri, who had dinner with me went back to Bangkok and dreamt about the egg parantha for weeks afterwards. But the keema, onion and gobhi paranthas are also outstanding. You can eat them with raita, but I like to dip them into Mistral’s light and garlicky yellow dal. (You can tell I am not a Punjabi.)
I’ve been there thrice and on the last occasion, I ate the biggest meal I’ve had in months: the paranthas, chicken dalcha, seekh kebabs and even butter chicken. All this leads to one question: how come Prasanjit never managed Indian food of this quality when he was at Set’z?
Not that Set’z is doing badly in its post-Prasanjit phase. Two of the best front-of-the-house people I know from the original team – Suveer Sodhi and Pankaj Joshi – are in charge and though I haven’t been to Set’z in months, sales figures have held up. On the other hand, Cha-Shi, the oriental café that Set’z runs on the ground floor of Emporio, is actually doing even better than before. I ate there recently and the food was outstanding.
Auma, on the first floor of Emporio, has always lived in the shadow of Set’z. I finally went there last Sunday and found a lovely restaurant with nice outdoor seating and smooth service.
The menu is a strange mixture of Italian and Thai with many vegetarian options. I tried the Italian food first. The mushroom pizza was good with a perfect topping and though I am not sure you’re meant to add basil leaves to spaghetti aglio olio pepperincino, the combination worked well.
Sadly, the Thai food was a disaster. The Chicken Kaprow came as a sort of curry with flavours out of whack and the fried rice had the consistency of a khichdi. I am assured that Auma has a Thai chef so perhaps he is adapting his cooking to what he thinks are Indian tastes.
Below Auma, next to Cha-Shi and much emptier than both is the Cavalli Café. I went for dinner when it had just opened and the food was good. But over the last few months, the café has had a sad, forlorn look while Cha-Shi has buzzed. I think I now know why this is so: the food has declined dramatically.
For purposes of comparison, I ordered the same Italian dishes that I had tried at Auma. But the Cavalli pizza had the texture and consistency of a wet kitchen towel and the spaghetti had been badly under-cooked by a chef who did not understand what al dente meant.
In the café’s defence, service was efficient and gracious. And perhaps the food was so bad because I went at 3pm on a Sunday and the chef may have been off. But unless the café returns to the cuisine standards it exhibited when it opened, I think this venture is in serious trouble.
From HT Brunch, September 1
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