This year’s awards come with the same qualifications as always. These are not the most popular restaurants in Delhi. They may not even be – on an objective basis – the city’s best restaurants. But, for better or for worse, these are the places I go to. And the personal awards are for the people who have impressed me most over the last year.
Best Chinese (Hotel Restaurant): The China Kitchen, Hyatt Regency
Ever since it opened half a decade ago, China Kitchen has rewritten all the rules for Chinese restaurants in India. Created by global Hyatt chefs along the lines of the chain’s successful restaurants in mainland China, the outlet broke with tradition by staffing its kitchen with a brigade of chefs from the People’s Republic.
The menu (especially under the current chef) leans towards the spicy food of Hunan and Sichuan but the restaurant’s stand-out dish remains the same: a killer Peking Duck, with skin and meat so good that you should really eat them on their own without bothering with the pancakes. Best Chinese (Standalone): Royal China, Nehru Place
The Royal China group in London is a loose federation of separately owned properties, some of which are very good and some of which are just so-so. It is the same in India. The two Bombay Royal Chinas opened well but have slid into dull mediocrity. The Delhi outpost, on the other hand, has different owners from the Bombay branches and standards remain high.
The restaurant’s strengths remain the dim sum brunch and the quality of the cooking. Its weakness remains the location: an ugly office block in Nehru Place. But prices are reasonable for food of this quality and, so far at least, Royal China has successfully negotiated the fine line between serving authentic Chinese food and giving Delhi’s Punjabis what they want.
Best Indian (Traditional): Bukhara, ITC Maurya
Is there anything left to say about Bukhara that Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bruce Springsteen and all of the restaurant’s other celebrity guests have not already said? It is the most famous Indian restaurant in the world with a menu that has remained largely unchanged since 1978. Whenever a restaurant is this famous, there is bound to be a backlash and indeed it is fashionable to say that you know a little place (in GK /Chanakyapuri/ Gurgaon/ Noida etc.) which does much better kebabs at half the price. And perhaps you do. But it is hard to beat the Bukhara experience or the consistency in the quality of those famous kebabs.
The Oberoi group has no reputation for Indian cuisine. The old Mughal Rooms were Kwality-clones and the Kandahar menu consisted of dishes stolen from ITC. So it made sense for the chain to rethink its approach to Indian food and to refuse to open new Indian restaurants at some properties (the Delhi Oberoi, for instance). Instead, the Oberois are now experimenting with modern Indian, partnering with the likes of Vineet Bhatia in Bombay.
But the best Indian restaurant in the Oberoi group is easily Amaranta at the Gurgaon property. It has not had the success it deserves because a) 361, the hotel’s main restaurant is such a hit and b) because Gurgaon is not exactly the capital of nouvelle Indian cuisine.
But the food can be exceptional. The restaurant is proudest of its fish, freshly flown in from the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and the quality of its presentation. For me, however, its real success lies in the updating of South Indian flavours (especially the Syrian Christian food). Best Japanese: Wasabi, Taj Mahal Hotel
Though Digvijay Singh leaves the Taj Mansingh early next year, his place in the hotel’s history is ensured: he is the guy who transformed the image of this 1970s-style business hotel (which the Taj, bizarrely enough, is fighting to hold on to) with his emphasis on faultless service and the re-invigoration of its F&B. Until the Taj opened Varq and Wasabi, the hotel was dead. Now, it seems contemporary again.
Wasabi came to Delhi after a sparkling debut in Bombay and expectations were high. There was already formidable competition from Sakura and then, the much-hyped Megu opened at the Leela. But Wasabi has managed the difficult job of living up to expectations and seeing off the competition. Some of this is due to the excellence of the menu, a collaboration between New York’s Matsuhira Morimoto and the Taj’s Hemant Oberoi.
But mainly it is because the restaurant’s real star is the low-profile Vikramjit Roy, the single most innovative Japanese-cuisine chef cooking in India today. Best Brunch: Qube, The Leela Palace
The best brunch award is a difficult one to select. I’m still partial to the Machan brunch, brilliantly run by Tapash Bhattacharya, but the restaurant itself looks so dated and so much in need of a make-over that it is hard to give it an award.
These days, I end up going to Qube most often. I love the look and feel of the restaurant with its air of peace and tranquility, sunlight lazily streaming in through the windows and trees all around.
But mostly it is the food that keeps me going back, again and again. The buffet is superb but it is the specialty counters that are the most impressive: world class sushi and sashimi (from the Megu team), surprisingly authentic Thai, wonderful live desserts and the best steaks in India (not part of the brunch but worth paying extra for) from the Leela’s super-chef Glenn Eastman. Best European: Tres, Lodhi Colony Market
I knew Tres would be good even before it opened: the chef Julia Carmen Desa, a Taj veteran, is talented and versatile and co-owner Fatima Lobo, also an old Taj hand, has a real feel for quality in the areas of food, wine and hospitality.
Even so, a part of me feared that this team would disappoint because my expectations were so high. Fortunately I was wrong, Julia’s Spanish-accented European menu has been a great hit from the day the restaurant opened and Tres is packed out night after night.
The success is well-deserved. Tres is the kind of neighbourhood restaurant we so desperately need in India: small, friendly, run by the owners (one of whom slaves behind the stove) and with real character. It is not five-star so service can occasionally go wrong and Julia can, when she is distracted, overdo the saucing. But that’s all part of the charm of Tres.
Best European (Hotel Restaurant): Le Cirque, Leela Palace
When Le Cirque opened, I was sceptical. I’m no fan of the New York original which saw its best days when Ronald Reagan was President, and where snobbery is the service policy. But against the odds, the Leela has pulled it off. This is an exceptional restaurant with high quality, no compromise food, outstanding service, and is easily the most elegant dining experience in India. It is a shame that you have to mortgage your house to eat here but look at this way: it is cheaper than the New York Le Cirque and the food is better.
Integral to Le Cirque’s success are two men: Mickey Bhoite, an Indian chef who was raised in Italy and brings a lighter, more cerebral, approach to Le Cirque’s traditional, stodgy global menu with a take-no-prisoners personal style and Prateek Swarup, who must be Delhi’s best five-star restaurant manager.
The two – backed by a formidable kitchen and service team – ensure that diners have a superlative experience (right till the moment the bill arrives when it’s high-blood-pressure time) and have raised standard for European restaurants in India by several notches.
I don’t think there has ever been a European restaurant like Chez Nini in India before. The owner cooks every single meal, goes up to tables to check how guests are doing and sources her ingredients from organic local producers.
Obviously this approach has inherent problems: chiefly what happens when the chef-owner takes a well deserved break? (The answer: standards sometimes drop so consistency is a worry at Chez Nini.) But for the most part, the formula works brilliantly. The food is French-Canadian so it might seem a little unfamiliar. But standards are high and the love and attention lavished on each dish reflects in the flavours. Best All-Day Dining: 360, The Oberoi, Delhi
In my wilder moments I sometimes think of 360 as Augusto’s Sushi Bar. Ever since the restaurant first opened, Augusto Cabrera has been the restaurant’s sushi and sashimi chef and is, I guess, the man who introduced Japanese food to South Delhi’s high society. Though Augusto is from the Philippines, I’ll take his sushi over the stuff served up by many over-hyped Japanese masters.
Threesixty is a phenomenon. It is the most successful hotel coffee shop in India, still smart and sophisticated after all these years and still packed out every lunch-time. As is true of Jay Rathore’s Oberoi as a whole, the service is perfect and the ambience coolly luxurious. Food standards had slipped some years ago but under the hotel’s massively talented chef Soumya Goswami, 360 is back on top form.
A restaurant like this comes along once in a decade.
Best Multi-Cuisine: Setz, Emporio Mall, Vasant Kunj
I’ll be honest with you: I never thought Prasanjit Singh could pull it off for so long. Though Prasanjit now does many other things, Setz, the restaurant he runs for Moscow’s Keshav Bhagat and its ultimate owners, the DLF group, remains his flagship. And it is still full, still re-inventing itself, and still serving many different cuisines with great distinction. Its two offshoots, the excellent ChaShi and the Café, both on the ground floor of Emporio, continue to flourish.
I used to go to Setz for the European food but these days I prefer the Oriental. The Chinese food is reliable (they have finally got the Peking Duck right) and the Thai food is easily the best in Delhi. Desserts continue to be exceptional: great home-made ice-cream and the best Napoleon pastry in India.
Best Bakery/Deli: The Delicatessen, The Oberoi
If you need proof that India is changing, consider this: when the Oberoi closed down Kandahar, its Indian restaurant, and opened a deli in that vast space, who could have imagined that the Deli (which has very few tables) could beat Kandahar in revenues?
I’m guessing that Biki Oberoi, ahead of the curve as always, had sensed that this might happen. The deli is an astonishing success story, the quality of its pastries further elevated by Deep Bajaj’s skills and a wider range of imported charcuterie than ever before.
Best for a Celebration: The Orient Express, The Taj Palace
I sometimes think that the one thing that makes the Taj group so special is the calibre of its middle-level managers and their dedication to the spirit of the Taj. Take The Orient Express. It has been going in basically the same form since 1982 and yet it still remains the only place I would ever think of going to for a celebration or a special evening.
This is almost entirely because of the people who run the restaurant: Ashutosh Kapoor (now assistant F&B manager) who knows the preferences of every one of his regular guests and chef DN Sharma whose love for his job and his restaurant are the finest expressions of what the Taj should be about. Sadly, the Taj has lost G Subbaraman, who knew the restaurant’s exceptional wine list inside out. (The Taj’s loss is the Leela’s gain.)
In an age of expat managers, over-paid chefs and culinary hype, the Orient Express reminds us of what it is that makes the Indian hotel industry great: the skill, dedication and talent of exceptional but underpaid Indian professionals.
Best Restaurant Manager: Niju Varghese, Diva
It is hard for a manager to shine in a chef-driven restaurant. But if you ask me, the spirit of Diva, Ritu Dalmia’s flagship Italian restaurant in GK II, is not Ritu herself but the quietly competent Niju Varghese, Delhi’s best restaurant manager.
When I go to Diva now, I don’t care if Ritu is around (her kitchen runs on auto-pilot) but the evening is never the same if Niju is off. He runs the dining room with a silent flair, never drawing attention to himself but never relaxing either, always keeping a watch on tables to ensure that no guest goes home disappointed.
This award is a no-brainer. Those of us who follow chefs always knew that Manish is a genius. But ever since he won Foodistan, became a public figure and featured in Indian and foreign media, Manish has finally broken through, winning the fame that is due to him. (For the record, I first gave him this award some years ago before he became famous).
Here’s why I rate Manish’s modern Indian food so highly: he does not rely on toning down the spices, reducing the gravies and Frenchifying the food. Instead, he approaches each dish with a fresh eye and some of his creations demonstrate real culinary genius. It helps also that he is a genuinely nice guy, one of the least egotistical, most humble chefs I know. And fame has not changed him one bit!
F&B Professional of the Year: Rajesh Namby, Leela Palace
Captain Nair will probably kill me for saying this but until the Leela Palace opened in Delhi, I never rated the group very highly in cuisine terms (except for the south Indian food), and certainly never for F&B service. That the new hotel should be such a breakthrough with some of Delhi’s finest restaurants and the best F&B service in town is due to many factors (including the interest that the good Captain and his son Dinesh take in the food) but much of the credit goes to one man.
As F&B supremo at the Leela Palace, Rajesh Namby has transformed and overhauled the Leela group’s image in the F&B world and introduced standards of service not previously associated with the Leela. Like all good professionals, Namby is a backroom boy and even other hoteliers in Delhi would not recognise him if they passed him in the street. But his record now speaks for itself.
There are loads of lifetime achievement awards for hoteliers. But restaurateurs get short shrift. So here’s my attempt to redress the balance: a lifetime achievement award for the restaurant business.
Jayaram does not need my endorsement. Everyone accepts that Sagar has changed the way Delhi looks at South Indian snacks and that Swagath has transformed north India’s view of coastal cuisine. What is probably less known is the extent to which Jayaram is self-made. He ran away from home in Mangalore when he was a boy, came to Bombay and got a job washing dishes in a canteen. From these humble origins has sprung up an empire worth hundreds of crores and restaurants that have become iconic.
Best F&B Hotel: Leela Palace
When the Leela Palace opened, none of us expected very much in F&B terms. We had experienced the Leela’s brand of F&B before: at the Leela in Gurgaon. And it was fine, very good even, but hardly exceptional. Then the hotel’s opening was completely overshadowed by the triumphant debut of the spectacular Oberoi in Gurgaon.
But the Leela has surprised us all. Despite a rocky start (the general manager went in the first week, which may have been a good thing because Tamir Kobrin then took over), the hotel has set new standards for hospitality. Megu is glamorous and glitzy. Le Cirque is elegant and classy. Jamavar has the best Malayali food among Delhi’s hotels and Qube has a great menu and a tranquil ambience.
I don’t usually make predictions about the hotel business – it is too risky – but I’m going to make one now: I would be very, very surprised if, within the next five years, Kapil Chopra does not become one of the leaders of India’s hotel business.
As the success of the Trident, Gurgaon, demonstrated some years ago, Kapil is an exceptional general manager, focused on details, capable of extracting the best from his staff and with a strategic vision of the hotel business: who would have expected the Trident to get the highest room rates in the NCR?
But as the rise of the Gurgaon Oberoi and his record as vice president in charge of other properties has shown, he is much more than a general manager. He is a corporate visionary, a savvy marketer, a smart deal-maker and a man with a deep understanding of how the hotel business works.
1. China Kitchen has rewritten all the rules for Chinese restaurants in India
2. Royal China’s strengths remain the dim sum brunch and the quality of the cooking
3. Amaranta’s food can be
4. Wasabi has managed the difficult job of living up to expectations and seeing off the competition
5. At Qube, in the Leela Palace, it is the food that keeps me going back, again and again
6. At Chez Nini, the love and
attention lavished on each dish reflects in the flavours
7. A restaurant like 360, The Oberoi, Delhi, comes along once in a decade
8. At Setz, the Chinese food is reliable and the Thai is easily the best in Delhi
From HT Brunch, December 9
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