People often ask me how much the eating out experience has changed in India’s metropolitan cities over the last five years or so. When I say that it has been transformed beyond recognition, they say things like “only at the five star hotels” or “perhaps this is because of the new malls” or “it is only true of the new fast food chains”.
And the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’. But there is something much more significant happening than these glib responses would suggest. Of course, the launch of new hotels means that new restaurants will open; malls do offer quality real estate options to restaurateurs and the fast food chains are certainly altering the way Indians eat. However, this is not the full story.
Let’s take my own experience. I moved to Delhi’s Defence Colony in 1996. It was then a vast gastronomic wasteland. Over the years, things changed, but only slightly. There are now loads of restaurants in the colony but few that I would eat at with the exceptions of Swagath and Sagar. Nor was South Extension, which is next door, any better. If you drove from Def Col towards the centre of Delhi, the situation got no better till you reached the heart of Lutyens’ new city.
South Ex is still a disaster area for eating out. But somehow, it does not matter. So many excellent dining options have opened in the last five years, all within a 10 to 15 minute drive from my flat, that I am spoiled for choice.
The change began with the opening of China Kitchen at the Hyatt. I went back last week for the restaurant’s fifth anniversary celebrations and was pleased to discover that the food was even better than it was five years ago.
China Kitchen is, famously, the restaurant that taught Indians how to eat and enjoy Peking Duck, setting up its own local duck supplier so that the quality of the duck was perfect. But the chef’s real skill lies in his pork cooking: smoked bacon, crispy spare ribs and spicy Sichuan-style French beans with minced pork.
Last week I had a superlative double-cooked pork and the chef turned out Hunan-style pork dishes so flavourful and teekha that they nearly blew the roof of my mouth off. Delhi now has other good Chinese restaurants (The Chinese in Connaught Place remains a personal favourite though road works in the area have kept me away) but few offer an experience as satisfying as China Kitchen.
A few minutes from the Hyatt is the new Leela Palace, for my money the best hotel in Delhi in purely F&B terms. Great chefs (Glenn Eastman, Mickey Bhoite etc.) and the city’s most accomplished F&B supremo, Rajesh Namby, ensure that the hotel serves the sort of international cuisine that was almost impossible to find in Delhi five years ago. The last time I went I tried the extremely sophisticated Saturday brunch at Le Cirque. The coffee shop Qube already does Delhi’s best Sunday brunch so it must have been a challenge to do something different with the Le Cirque Saturday offering. But they’ve managed it by going the a la carte route and eschewing the standard brunch buffet.
Ten minutes away from Def Col / South Ex in the other direction is On The Waterfront, located on the Lodhi Road side of the Aman Hotel but not managed by the Aman. On The Waterfront is the second big-time venture from Prasanjit Singh and the
team behind the massively successful Zest (or Setz or whatever the new name is).
Rather than replicate the Zest formula, Prasanjit and his team have opted for a relaxed, casual, more upmarket restaurant with an easy, lazy feel. I liked the dining room and when I went for lunch with two ex-colleagues from my old Sunday magazine days a few weeks ago, we tried out the outdoor conservatory area, which is surrounded by greenery, but is air-conditioned nevertheless – useful given how hot Delhi is these days.
Prasanjit’s restaurants always have good service, so with Suveer Sodhi, Pawan Nair and Pankaj Joshi minding the front of the house, it is no surprise that the restaurant is so well-managed. What’s surprising though is the food. I go to Zest for the European
cuisine, but On The Waterfront’s claim to fame is the Oriental menu – Japanese robatayaki, light cheung fans and other dim sum and wonderful Thai stir-fries and salads. My ex-colleagues who had never been there before said they loved it and were pleased that it felt like a stand-alone rather than a hotel restaurant.
I’ve written before about Chez Nini, which is also 10 minutes away from my neighbourhood so I won’t repeat my praise. And though Ritu Dalmia’s Caprice-comes-to-Punjabi-Delhi operation (Café Diva) is a little far for me (around 15 minutes on a good day), it is worth the journey – assuming of course that one can get in given that it is always full for lunch.
And now there’s yet another great restaurant near my neighbourhood. I went to Tres in Lodhi Colony market just days after it had opened and before it got its booze licence. (It should have one by the time you read this.) I did not have a number for the restaurant and so wandered in without a booking. It was packed (it is small – around 40 or so covers) and I waited for 25 minutes till a table finally became vacant.
Tres (which means three in Spanish) gets its name from the three people behind it: Chefs Julia Carmen Desa and Jatin Mallick and Fatima Lobo. Here, I have to declare a personal connection: I’ve known Ronnie and Fatima Lobo since the early days of the Taj Mansingh (Ronnie opened Machan and went on to become general manager in the 1990s). They are friends and that was one reason I went unannounced, without telling them I was coming. I’ve known Julia for years too – I first ate her food at the Aguada in Goa in 1986, and have followed her career (which includes a stint at Zest) with interest and admiration.
When friends open a restaurant you’re always a little worried about what to say if you don’t like it. Fortunately, I loved Tres. The food (Modern European with a hint of Spanish) is serious and world class – you could be eating in any European city rather than a South Delhi market. The stand-out dish for me was a slow-cooked lamb so tender that I ate it with a spoon. There was an excellent sous-vide pork belly but it suffered in comparison to the brilliant lamb. Starters were also terrific: home-made pulled pork, Spanish style chicken croquettes and an outstanding chorizo with broad beans. The bread (made on the premises) was crusty and delicious.
All this came at prices that were far lower than those at hotel restaurants even though the cuisine was significantly better than the food at most five star hotels. Each dish was cooked with passion; the restaurant is stylish and elegant; and the vibe is happy and cheerful.
So, that makes six great restaurant destinations only 10 to 15 minutes from my flat – and four of them are stand-alones while three have women chefs (Café Diva, Chez Nini, and Tres). Only five years ago, who would have thought it? I would have been stuck with Akasaka in Def Col. Or Moti Mahal Deluxe in South Ex.
What more proof do you need that the food scene is changing!
A few clarifications about last week’s piece on vegetarian food. I wrote that Nepali Hindus seemed less worried about the sight of blood than Indian Hindus. Anjoo Mohun, who lived in Kathmandu for years, says that I should have referred to Dakshin Kali or Bhairav temples where mass sacrifices were conducted rather than Pashupatinath.
Also, I should have been clearer about the source of rennet, the enzyme that is used in the making of cheese. I said it was extracted from the stomachs of dead cats. Actually, rennet can be extracted from the stomachs of any animal that has not been weaned. The rennet in cheeses made from cow’s milk, for instance, comes from the stomachs of young calves. Many thanks to @psnide who tweeted me about this.
Also, I need to clarify that Jairam Banan’s nephew, who is opening a chain of Sagar-like restaurants, is doing this independent of Jairam. So yes, the restaurants will be run by Jairam’s family but I suspect that rather than being delighted by his nephew’s progress, Jairam is actually quite worried about the competition!
From HT Brunch, August 26
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