As I wrote some weeks ago, I’m never sure which side to take in the great Bombay vs Delhi food debate because my loyalties are divided between both cities. When I’m in Bombay, I listen sympathetically to friends who tell me that Delhi restaurants are too fancy, too expensive and too full of rich and powerful people intoxicated by their own wealth and importance.
And when I’m in Delhi, I smile politely as restaurateurs and hoteliers complain that the clientele in Bombay consists either of vulgar vegetarians or of Botoxed women with dyed hair, coloured contact lenses, expensive but tasteless handbags and wads of their husbands’ money.
In truth, both caricatures are probably unfair – but not entirely inaccurate either. Yes, there are a lot of self-important people in Delhi. And there are a lot of vulgar people in Bombay. But my guess is that the differences between both cities are narrowing more quickly than either side is willing to admit. As people get richer and richer in India (and sometimes I am astonished by how much money people – and kids, even – are willing to spend on food and wine these days), conspicuous consumption becomes the great leveller.
That said, both cities have their strong points. For instance, I like Delhi chaat but I cannot bring myself to love it. For my money, there is nothing to beat Bombay
or other street food. (Though both Delhi and Bombay lose out in the panipuri/golgappa category to Lucknow or even Calcutta). Equally, most North Indian food in Bombay is rubbish. You can’t get good Avadhi food unless you pay through your nose (at Dum Pukht or at Rahul Akerkar’s Neel). And, almost by definition, Delhi, as the de facto capital of past-Partition Punjab, has the best Punjabi food.
Where Bombay does score is in the South Indian/coastal food area. But even here, the city is oddly disappointing. You would expect to find small joints serving good Goan food in every locality. Malvani food is a Maharashtrian cuisine so you would think that it would be as ubiquitous in Bombay as Punjabi food is in Delhi, but good Goan or coastal (or even South Indian) restaurants are few and far between and most people swear by Trishna, possibly the only tourist trap in the world that is also patronised by locals because they don’t know any better.
That said, the Bombay restaurant scene is looking up though the top new entrants are nearly all in the international category.
This time I went to 212, a popular new restaurant in Worli that is much loved by locals. I was nobbled from the moment we wandered in for lunch so I won’t comment on the service but I liked the room and was impressed by the wine list.
The food was ambitious and interesting if occasionally heavy-handed. A dish of baked Camembert worked well but a small pizza with truffles failed because the base was a little too limp and soggy. (I scraped off the top and put it on a piece of bread as a topping and it worked much better.) A porcini risotto was okay if a very dairy-rich risotto is your thing but speaking for myself, I prefer a lighter dish where the starch is derived from the rice itself and not from a nearby cow.
The chef recommended the Bistecca, a steak dish that is associated with Florence where huge slabs of beef are cooked on an open fire but which, in most restaurants these days, is essentially a sliced T-bone steak. The best such steak in the country is at Le Cirque in Delhi. Given that this version is cheaper, I lowered expectations and thought it was fine though everybody else at my table found it unevenly cooked. Desserts were boring (profiteroles, a raspberry cheesecake-type thingy) and not particularly good. Overall, I thought the restaurant was nice but hardly the huge culinary breakthrough that people in Bombay seem to think it is. I have been to The Table once before but that was for lunch and the talents of the chef Alex Sanchez intrigued me enough to go back for dinner and try his full menu. (Lunch is more small plates and burgers.)
I was glad I went. The Table is a nice two-storey restaurant near Apollo Bunder which draws a Thai Pavilion-type crowd – decent, sophisticated people who want to eat out on their own money, not on expense accounts and don’t have access to wads of undeclared cash. Plus there is usually a smattering of vaguely high-profile or glamorous people in attendance. (The first time I went I was hosted by Mukul Deora. This time Conde Nast Traveller’s Divia Thani Daswani held court downstairs.) I must have eaten the whole menu (we were a table of five) and here’s what I liked: white asparagus in a sauce, Brussels sprouts, a salad of lentils (masoor dal to you and me), lobster and shrimp cakes, kohlrabi cooked in the style of a Boeuf Bourguignon (the waiters called it ‘Kolaveri’ but I think it was probably shalgum or a close relative), excellent French fries, a lamb shank, a crab risotto in which every mouthful tasted of crab and the best desserts in all of Bombay. (I doubt if I will eat a better cheesecake this year.)
Here’s what I didn’t like: the wine list (because I had to struggle to find two bottles I wanted to order – but wine lists are a subjective business at the best of times), the pork belly (not crisp enough), the rib-eye steak (cooked to the texture of a semi-moist artificial sponge) and the service.
In fact, the service is probably the most pressing issue. The waiters are helpful, decent sorts but there aren’t enough of them. The upstairs room needs at least one more server given that the restaurant is always full. Plus waiters need to be taught how to open bottles of wine. I felt like reaching out and hugging our poor server who looked distraught as he struggled for several minutes, in full public view, to extract a single cork. And somebody should teach the waiters to write down orders and to not commit them to memory – that way they won’t get confused.
If The Table is the restaurant of choice for people who want good food at prices that are not excessive, then Vetro, at the Oberoi, is the canteen for Bombay’s rich and famous. The night I went, a procession of expensively dressed people kept arriving, greeting Rohan, the manager, by name and ordering bottles of pricey wine, each of which cost as much as a whole meal at The Table.
But, in this case, at least, the rich know what they are doing. Vetro is one of the Oberoi chain’s two collaborations with Rome’s Hassler Hotel and – as of now – the food is better than at Delhi’s Travertino. The chef, a jolly Luca Brasi-lookalike called Vincenzo Di Tuoro, knows his ingredients: delicious bacon, wonderful farm-fresh eggs with orange yolks, light home-made pasta and a thick Dutch veal chop.
The flavours are authentic too. My lamb shank in an intense wine reduction came with textbook-perfect risotto. But the single best dish was an orange souffle so light that you feared that it might float up and hit the ceiling.
The last time I went to Yauatcha, I thought it was a work in progress. I’m glad to say that the restaurant has finally reached its target. The service issues have been (largely) resolved and the food now approaches the standards of the London original.
Though the cooking at Yauatcha’s sister restaurant Hakkasan is still better, this is the place that I think will really take off. Prices are not as stratospheric as in Hakkasan, the vibe is happy and cheerful, the room is bright, airy and stunningly designed and the idea of an all-day restaurant where you can drop by for an excellent Chinese meal at four or five pm is an appealing one.
If I have a criticism it is about the menu’s over-reliance on chicken for the dim sum. If I want a char siu cheung fan, I want it made with pork. And as much as I love the Bombay’s Yauatcha’s riff on the original venison puff, I would prefer it if they didn’t make it with chicken.
That said, the food was good this time. The dumplings are finally coming out as they should: little balls of delicately flavoured meat wrapped in a translucent skin. The stir-frying is as good as ever: we had beef in black pepper, double cooked pork and Singapore/Malaysian style street noodles.
Kishore Bajaj who is the Indian franchisee for both Hakkasan and Yauatcha (and is one of Bombay’s greatest foodies with a passion for gastronomy that verges on the obsessive) now plans to open a large Italian/Mediterranean informal restaurant next to Yauatcha. The Bandra-Kurla complex is crying out for a good European restaurant so I don’t see how Kishore can fail – though this venture is his own outside of the Hakkasan umbrella.
So, where does that leave us on the great Bombay-Delhi divide?
I am still not taking sides but I think it is fair to say that more good restaurants have opened in Bombay over the last year than have opened in Delhi.
From HT Brunch, March 4
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