It’s that time of year again when I do my annual awards. These are quite distinct from the HT City Crystals which are India’s biggest and best reader-voted awards and will be given away at a glittering ceremony at the end of this month.
My awards are humbler and more low key. I don’t claim that this list is comprehensive or that I have visited enough restaurants all over Delhi to make a scrupulously fair selection. My claim is much more limited: these are the restaurants that I have been to the most over the last year. So it is more a list of personal favourites than an objective selection of the best restaurants in Delhi. And it is, by definition, an entirely subjective selection that probably unfairly ignores those parts of Delhi that I do not visit often enough. For instance, Gurgaon, Noida and the rest of NCR are clearly under-represented.
The main feature of this year’s awards is the dominance of the Taj group whose two hotels have scooped up awards at the top of the scale (Japanese, modern Indian, French, bar, brunch, F&B professional etc). This is a consequence of a conscious decision taken by the Taj to up its game in Delhi which has had dramatically successful results. For instance, if I did a similar list for Bombay, I doubt if much more than one Taj restaurant (the Thai Pavilion and just possibly the Sea Lounge) would make the cut.
I’m always berated for not including more stand-alones and I plead guilty as charged. But the truth is that while there has been an explosion of entirely acceptable stand-alone restaurants all over Delhi, few have been outstanding or excellent. Entrepreneurs still like sticking to the path often taken and rarely do anything innovative or original.
There are exceptions – and you will find them on this list. Zest marks a leap of faith for DLF. Indian Accent represented a commercial risk for Rohit Khattar (but fortunately it has worked). The latest Swagath is a departure for Jayaram Banan. And Latitude demonstrates that when two formidable ladies (Ritu Dalmia and Anita Lal) get together, the results can be sensational.
Restaurant of the Year: Set’z
I know we are not supposed to call it Zest (the Mahindras who have trademarked the name complained) but that’s still what everybody calls it. There is a lot wrong with the Emporio Mall but at least they’ve got the food right.
Zest is the rooftop restaurant, owned by DLF itself, designed by Japan’s Super Potato, and overseen by Prasanjit Singh and a team of crack managers stolen from Delhi’s best restaurants. The idea was to create a relaxed but buzzy restaurant where guests could choose from a menu that offered a choice of different cuisines (French, Italian, Thai, Lebanese, Japanese, regional Indian etc.) at prices that are between to 15 to 25 per cent lower than similar places at deluxe hotels.
Despite widespread scepticism within the hotel industry, DLF has pulled it off. Though nobody goes to Zest for the food – they go for the buzz and the ambience – you can eat very well. The French cuisine has improved dramatically in recent months, the Indian can be very good (especially the vegetarian and the coastal food), the falafels are excellent and the Thai kitchen has finally stabilised. The buffet lunch (especially on Sunday) represents exceptional value and wine pricing is sensible.
Zest has been packed out since the day it opened and it is easy to see why.(By the way, if you can’t get in, then eat at the café on the ground floor where they serve light meals and Delhi’s best ice-cream, especially the rose petal and candied walnut flavours.)
Best Indian Restaurant: Bukhara
Yes, I know. It never seems to change, does it? For years and years, this category has been a toss up between Bukhara (the world’s most famous Indian restaurant), and the excellent Dum Pukht (also at the Maurya). I keep looking for some other places to select but nothing approaches the consistent standards of these restaurants.
Dum Pukht has been closed for a much-needed refurbishment for most of the year, so Bukhara gets my vote this time. By now, enough has been said about the menu and the meaty kababs but I think it is time to make a few changes. For some reason ITC treats the exclusion of rice from the menu as proof of its virility so I won’t quibble too much. But it is time to bring back some of the gravy dishes that were so foolishly deleted from the menu a few years ago. I would be happy to see butter chicken and the khurchan back on the list of choices because frankly, the food is very dry and you need something a little moist to balance out your meal and there is only so much of the dairy-rich Dal Bukhara that anyone can consume.
Best South Indian: Swagath (Janpath branch)
There are many terrific Swagaths all over India but this year, the new branch at the Janpath Hotel gets the prize. It is better appointed and more comfortable than most other Swagaths, for a start, and the menu goes further, experimenting with Andhra and Goan dishes.
All the old Swagath staples are on the menu but if you want something out of the ordinary, chef Meharban Khan’s Ghar Wali Dal (a North Indian dish) is worth a try.
Best Indian (Modern): Varq
Just as the traditional Indian category is a battle between two heavyweights (Bukhara and Dum Pukht), this category seems set to be a fight to the finish between Varq and Indian Accent.
Indian Accent has the more innovative dishes but Varq is the big boy, a smart, extremely well-run restaurant that showcases some of the most reliable modern Indian food in the world. It is the sort of place you can always take a guest to and never worry about being disappointed.
Best Italian: San Gimignano
Perhaps Delhi’s most romantic restaurant (especially in the winter when you can sit out in the patio), San Gim (like the Imperial, the hotel it is located in) has had its ups and downs with defections from the staff and changes of style. The current avatar with F&B manager Surender Thakur (an Imperial veteran) and chef Gagan at least has the advantage of understanding the ethos of this grand old hotel and the tastes of the guests, many of whom are high-profile regulars.
The food is currently on a high: nothing dramatic or terribly innovative but good, solid, well-made Italian food using the finest ingredients.
Best Chinese: China Kitchen
When Prasanjit Singh and his F&B team defected from the Hyatt to open Zest, I feared for the hotel’s F&B standards. But, despite an initial wobble (I had a couple of dire meals at China Kitchen in the interim), the new F&B supremo Puneet Baijal and his team have restored food, service and banqueting standards.
You still go to China Kitchen for the Peking Duck but there is a lot else you can enjoy: the ribs, the cold starters, the lamb shank, the smoked pork, the French beans with minced pork and the egg tarts. It is not food from any one region but a compendium of Chinese food’s greatest hits.
The return to form of China Kitchen means that owner Shiv Jatia now owns the two best Chinese restaurants in India; this one and San Qi at the Four Seasons in Bombay.
Best Asian: Pan Asian
A good general manager knows how to adapt. When Benita Sharma first took over the Sheraton, New Delhi, the Pan-Asian’s claim to fame was the Peking Duck. But it was soon eclipsed by China Kitchen’s vastly superior version (better chefs, better ducks and an amazing wood-fired oven), leaving Pan Asian without its greatest selling point.
No matter. The restaurant first bounced back by improving the quality of its Thai food and then, by hiring chef Nakamura (famous for his work at Sakura), so it now offers the best traditional Japanese food in Delhi.
Like everything else Benita runs, Pan Asian is managed with a smooth, effortless efficiency and though the Pan Asian concept is due for a corporate review, this one is the jewel in the ITC crown, its single best Asian restaurant.
Best Japanese: Wasabi
Is this India’s best restaurant? I am hesitant to give that accolade to a hotel restaurant which steals over half its menu from Nobu but the excellence of the food, the legendary service (to say nothing of the stratospheric prices) lead me to believe that there is a lot that the industry can learn from the Delhi Wasabi (which is better than the Bombay original).
Avoid the teppan-yaki (they still don’t know how to get it right), order the excellent sushi, sashimi, the whitefish carpaccio and the kakuni and you can’t go wrong. Ask also for the dishes invented by the restaurant’s own chefs and you will be impressed with their skill and ingenuity.
Best Coffee Shop: Latitude
If you want proof that most hotel coffee shops are past their sell-by dates, then you only have to visit the new restaurants in Khan Market or the malls to see how casual eating has been redefined.
Of the Khan Market places, Latitude is easily the best. The restaurant is part of the Good Earth complex so the décor is simple and predictably elegant. But the food does not come at Good Earth prices. Ritu Dalmia offers an excellent menu of pastas, salad and few main courses (Cajun Spiced Chicken, Grilled Fish, Leek and Onion Tart and a great Prawn Curry) along with a killer Baked Cheesecake.
The restaurant is bright and sunny at lunch-time and in the winter, I like to look out of the windows and realise how much I love this city.
Best Brunch: Machan
Can there have been any restaurant more loved by a whole generation of middle class Delhi-ites? When the Machan opened in 1978, it offered steaks for R15 and full meals for R30, making the five star experience accessible to many of us for the first time. Since then alas, the restaurant has been redone by some insensitive vulgarian and most of us are still nostalgic for the old Machan.
This avatar does have one link with the old days though: the warmth of the service. This is down to the efforts of Tapas Bhattacharya, the chef-manager who makes going to the Machan a happy experience, not the cold impersonal five star experience we usually get these days.
Tapas is especially proud of his brunch which has a differential pricing (caviar costs more) but delicious food at all prices.
The Delicatessen at the Oberoi Once upon a time this would have been a meaningless award because the Oberoi Deli was the only game in town. But now, you can buy high-quality cakes (but not good bread, unfortunately) and excellent charcuterie all over Delhi.
Wisely, the Oberoi Deli has recast itself as a larger coffee-and-quiche kind of place. I like the ambience (a couple of tables more would be nice, though), the service, and the cakes. It is the only place in Delhi where you can buy freshly made duck confit and wonderful bread. I think that the charcuterie selection probably needs to be looked at again, however, given the new competition in the Delhi market.
I’m here at least once a week, always buy their products and live on their bread.
Best Hotel Bar: The Blue Bar
I’m not going to include night spots in this list because that is the job of another guide, but I must mention the Blue Bar at the Taj Palace because it is something of a triumph.
Despite the stolen name (from the Berkeley in London) and the neighbourhood (it is next to Blue Ginger where the hideousness of the décor detracts from the okayness of the food), this is an elegant and relaxing bar with great cocktails and the option of a typical bar experience inside or a nice alfresco setting on the lawns.
Best French: Orient Express
Number one in a field of one. There aren’t that many French restaurants in Delhi sadly but even if there were, the Orient Express would win. It is still – after nearly 30 years – the best place for a blow-out celebration. Service is impeccable, and DN Sharma’s food has been supplemented by the light, modern touch of David Tilly.
It is sad how the Taj group has thrown away its traditional leadership in European food (and Chinese food, for that matter) but the Orient Express reminds us of a different era, when the Taj was king of this space.
F&B Professional of the Year: Akshay Tripathi
I first noticed Akshay Tripathi when he was manager of the (now defunct) Haveli. Because he was brought up in Lucknow, he knew Avadhi food well and could talk about biryani with intelligence and passion.
Since then, Akshay has had his greatest triumphs. As manager of two of the best restaurants in town – Varq and Wasabi – he ensured that service standards were superb and that the staff were knowledgeable about the food they were serving.
His career offers an insight into why Taj F&B service can be so outstanding. Before Wasabi opened, the company sent Akshay to Morimoto in New York for a few weeks. This was followed by a stint in the Tokyo Morimoto restaurant. In each city, he ate at all the best restaurants. Consequently, there is little he does not know about Japanese food or New York restaurants. Later, he was loaned to the (Taj-run) Pierre in New York for a few months. All this makes him one of the savviest restaurant managers in India who benchmarks his operation to international standards. He is now assistant F&B manager at the Taj. And it is clear that he will rise to the very top, sooner rather than later.
Chef of the Year: Manish Mehrotra
Manish started out in Bombay as part of Ananda Solomon’s team at the Thai Pavilion before joining Rohit Khattar at the Oriental Octopus at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. Such was Manish’s following at the Octopus that Rohit sent him to London to cook at his pan-Asian restaurant-cum-nightspot, Tamarai.
The London spell seems to have matured Manish’s approach to food. He’s now back in India running Indian Accent at the Manor in Friends Colony and his food succeeds because he doesn’t just do the usual London-returned trick of presenting Indian food French style while simultaneously reducing the gravies and lowering the spice levels. Instead, he brings his understanding of Asian food to the menu and has created an innovative cuisine of his own which is essentially Indian (the flavours are completely authentic) but combines Oriental and Western touches.
Unlike most successful Delhi chefs, Manish has no PR machinery to boost his image, never appears on Page 3, has hardly been seen on television and cooks at a restaurant that is tucked away in a corner of Delhi.
But the low profile ensures that the food is high quality.
Restaurateur of the Year: Prasanjit Singh
This one was a no-brainer. Zest has been such a breakthrough that Prasanjit is so obviously the winner of this award.
This is Prasanjit’s second success in a row. When he ran F&B at the Hyatt Regency he opened China Kitchen which changed the way in which Delhi looked at Chinese food.
But even for a man with that success behind him, Prasanjit faced the usual doubts: how much of China Kitchen’s
success was down to him and how much was because of the Hyatt’s clout?
Zest answered that question. Prasanjit created it as a greenfield operation, hired the staff and set about creating what would be Delhi’s most complicated restaurant (280 covers and seven kitchens run by 65 chefs) without the backing of any hotel chain.
That Zest has taken on the hotels and won tells us something about the growth in quality in the stand-alone sector. It also tells us something about Prasanjit. Obsessively devoted to the restaurant, he is there most nights, working the floor and checking the quality of the food.
I guess there will be other Zests. But there is only one Prasanjit.