I wrote, a couple of months ago, about how – contrary to what people often thought – I did not actually go out to eat that much when I was in Delhi. Because I spend so much time on the road and eat at restaurants all the time when I’m travelling, my meals in Delhi tend to be simple affairs, cooked at home and usually consumed in front of the TV set.
Many of you regarded this as a cop-out. And I guess that’s fair. If there is a food explosion in India’s cities – about which I have often written – then, as a food writer, I’m under an obligation to go out and try as many of the new places as I can.
And so, for the last couple of months, whenever I have been in Delhi, I have tried to sample as many stand-alone restaurants as possible. Some of these new restaurants have been in markets, (Khan Market, GK etc.), some in office buildings and many in the new malls that have sprung up all over the city. It is hard to generalise but let’s just say that, for the most part, I’ve been delighted by the standards of the food. Restaurant cuisine in Delhi has never been as varied and as interesting as it is these days.
It is almost a truism in the restaurant business that Oriental cuisines always do well in India. So it is no surprise that so many of the new places serve East Asian cuisines. What is surprising however is how authentic the food is. The days of Sino-Ludhianvi, Punjabi-Chinese are hardly at an end. But there is now a substantial segment of the non-five star hotel market that also wants the real thing and turns its nose up at Chicken Manchurian.
The Royal China chain is a well known London institution. There are two Royal Chinas in Bombay, both of which do extremely well and benefit from the expertise of the London originals. I have always liked the Royal China in south Bombay though I have to say that the last time I went, both food and service were disappointing.
The food at the Delhi version is – in my view – better than the Bombay cuisine. Delhi’s Royal China has a moderate pricing (higher than Mainland China but much lower than hotel restaurants) policy despite serving food that is superior to most five star Chinese restaurants. It loses out – in my view – because of its location. It is on the top floor of an unattractive office building in Nehru Place and while the views at lunch can be stunning (the Bahai temple etc.) many people find the crowded lifts a little off-putting. Personally, I don’t mind. I think that the dim sum is among the best in India and I’ll happily go back any time.
Sticking with the Oriental genre is Mamago to, now probably the star of Khan Market’s bustling restaurant scene. It does very well – I was turned away twice because they were jampacked – and has become a buzzy hotspot for a certain kind of Khan Market-type person. It is loud and noisy and bursts with energy.
When I did get in (after booking well in advance) I was impressed by the quality of both the service and the food. The Indonesian flavours are authentic and the Thai curry was tangy and tasty. This is a restaurant that deserves its success. Much less known than Mamagoto is Izakaya – the name denotes a pub that serves light food – at the DLF Promenade Mall in Vasant Kunj. It is an unpretentious little Japanese restaurant with reasonable pricing (compared to other Japanese restaurants in the city) and real Japanese chefs.
I went – let’s be honest – with low expectations and discovered that one should never have preconceptions about mall dining. The sushi rolls were good, the nigiri sushi was authentic and all of the food had an internationally acceptable quality about it. Of the dishes I tried, I had only two complaints. There was too much chicken on the menu (but this is a Delhi-wide problem) and the Pork Kakuni was only so-so. The service was enthusiastic and my waiter was astonishingly knowledgeable. I thought the restaurant was a real find.
Also new in the Oriental category is Cha Shi, the new lobby café at Emporio run by the Zest (or Setz or whatever) people. I would have preferred a little more rice on the noodle and sushi-heavy menu but the standards were as high as you would expect of Zest (it has the same chefs). It looks nicer than the other lobby café and once the menu settles down, should be even better.
Sticking with mall eating, I went to two other restaurants in the Vasant Kunj Promenade. I’d liked Italia when it opened and this time too the pizza was fine; entirely acceptable without being overly memorable. The problem was the service. The manager at the door did not even look up from his papers when I asked for a table for two. A waiter led us to a small, crummy table even though there were many other options available. We were then left alone for a while till we decided to be bold and asked if we could move to a better table. At that stage, the penny dropped, service became effusive, managers and chefs appeared to offer warm greetings and a server was positioned at our (now much better) table to function as a Personal Security Officer.
I don’t think my stars and those of the Smokehouse Deli are well matched. I went once when it opened and had an Italia-type experience (everything changed once I was recognised) but since then, I haven’t been able to go back. On one occasion when I tried to get a table, a very nice manager said, “Sorry sir, but all our tables have been booked by kitty parties,” which was enough to make anyone flee. On the second occasion, the air-conditioning was not working and there was no point in staying. In all fairness though, I’ve heard good things about the food. (As have hundreds of kitty party ladies, no doubt.) I tried one other mall restaurant – the hugely successful Punjab Grill branch at Select Citywalk in Saket. I can’t offer a fair review because I was hardly anonymous there, but for what it’s worth, the food was excellent. Punjab Grill is one of Lite Bite’s brands (Zambar, Asia 7, Fresco etc.) which alone is a guarantee of a certain basic quality given the company’s high standards.
Moreover, the restaurant was founded by Zorawar Kalra, son of the legendary Jiggs, and the menu has many of the dishes that Jiggs helped popularise, including the famous Norwegian Salmon Tikka that he perfected over a decade ago and which has now been copied by every fancy Indian restaurant.
The night I went, Jiggs’ recipes had been supplemented by the contemporary touch of Gurpreet Singh, who worked with Manish Mehrotra at Indian Accent and whose cooking bears the clear influence of Manish’s style. The modern Indian food was slightly hit and miss, but when it worked, it was outstanding – the standout dish being an amazing
of New Zealand lamb.
If all of these restaurants demonstrated anything to me it was that you don’t need to go to hotels any longer to get real Chinese / Japanese / Indonesian / Thai food. The stand-alones may not have the luxury ambience of the five star hotels (or the prices, for that matter) but their cooking is in the same league. At Punjab Grill, the modern Indian food was better than the stuff turned out by some Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in London.
I’ve left the best for last. Ritu Dalmia is an old friend but she knows that I can be merciless about her food when it isn’t right. (‘Poisoner of Greater Kailash’ is an epithet I have sometimes jokingly used for her cooking.) None of her restaurants are bad but not all of them are necessarily very good so I wasn’t necessarily hopeful when I turned up at her new Café Diva.
I had expected a version of the so-so café she used to run above Ravi Bajaj’s store in the same complex. Imagine my surprise therefore when I wandered into a vision of London’s Le Caprice transported to the heart of GK! This is a stunning restaurant: contemporary, modern and cheerful. The food was excellent when I went for lunch and the menu is both inventive and adventurous. Ritu has had successes before (the original Diva, Latitude, etc.) but she has never before done anything of this calibre.
It is a measure of how much eating out in Delhi has changed that my favourite restaurant this summer – in terms of ambience, food and service – is not in a hotel. It is Café Diva, bang in the centre of Greater Kailash, an island of excellence in Punjabi Delhi.
Café Diva – 41011948,
Punjab Grill – 41572977, +919311124849,
Izakaya – 46656317,
Cha Shi – 43119909,
Mamagoto – 45166060,
Royal China – 49818000,
Italia – 43111777)
- From HT Brunch, June 5
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