For years and years now, I have been listing out my favourite restaurants in Brunch and in the HT City Food Guide to Delhi. HT City also hands out popular awards, voted for by its readers (The Crystal Awards) every year. The Crystals are a mark of popularity and success. My awards are much more modest amounting to no more than a list of personal favourites.
There are some surprises in this year’s list. For instance, non five star restaurants and outlets have done very well in areas that were traditionally dominated by the hotel sector. For instance, the Best Chinese restaurant, the Best Multi-Cuisine restaurant and the Best Bakery are all standalone operations. I have also instituted a new award for The Restaurant Chain of the year to recognise the growth in this sector.
But some things do not change. The Best Indian restaurant award still goes to Dum Pukht. The Orient Express is still India’s best French restaurant. And Pan Asian manages to reinvent itself every year.
Best Chinese: Royal China
For years and years, this award has gone to the relatively obscure "The Chinese" in Connaught Place. But because the road outside the restaurant has been dug up for months making access difficult, I’m giving "The Chinese" a break this year.
Instead the award goes to the Delhi branch of Royal China, a London-based chain of separately-owned restaurants. There are already popular Royal Chinas in Bombay but they are not in the same league as the Delhi outpost with its exquisite dim sum, its great roast pork and its perfect stir-frying.
The restaurant’s only handicap is its location on the higher floors of an office building in Nehru Place but once you get inside, the food is so good and the view so wonderful that you’ll forget that you are in an office building.
Best European: Orient Express
This is one of those categories where things rarely seem to change. In terms of service, the Orient Express is Delhi’s finest restaurant. Partly because it is small, waiters and chefs ensure that every guest is made to feel special. Small wonder then that it is the first choice for a birthday, an anniversary or a celebration of any kind.
The food can be outstanding. Chef D N Sharma has been a mainstay of the kitchen for years. Along with Chef David Tilly, he ensures that the food is sophisticated and delicious. You don’t have to order the luxury ingredients – foie gras, truffles, wagyu etc. – but if you do, rest assured that this is the one restaurant in Delhi that will do justice to them. Service under Ashutosh Kapoor is flawless. This is the restaurant where Delhi’s A list feels totally at home, so you will probably see at least one famous face each evening – if not more.
There was a time when the Orient Express was considered wildly expensive. It is still not cheap. But it is not as expensive as at least four other hotel restaurants I can think of. And it has the best and most reasonably-priced wine list of any hotel restaurant in the city. Best Indian: Dum Pukht
The reason I like the redone Dum Pukht is because it is one of a kind. Whenever expensive Indian restaurants are designed (and Dum Pukht re-opened last year in a new room designed by a Bangkok-based interior consultancy), they always change the menu to make it more "modern Indian". But ITC has held firm with Dum Pukht. Even though the room has a contemporary feel to it, the food is still traditional North Indian.
And it is still terrific. These are the best kakori kababs in the world, the juiciest raans and the most amazing biryanis. Dum Pukht is justly famous for its gravy dishes but vegetarians may want to try its yellow dal, a worthy rival to the more famous black dal they serve upstairs at Bukhara.
Best Japanese: Wasabi
Ever since Sakura closed down for refurbishment, there has been no alternative to Wasabi for classy Japanese dining in the heart of the city. That said, modern Japanese has rarely been done better anywhere in India. It is a measure of Wasabi’s success that its only rival in food terms is the Bombay original.
Both Wasabis grew out of a collaboration with the Japanese Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Though the food at Morimoto’s New York restaurant can be fresh and original, the Indian Wasabis began by serving clones of the Nobu menu (Morimoto was Executive Chef at the New York Nobu), which delighted diners in Bombay and Delhi.
Now, the Wasabi menu is a little more daring. Some of Morimoto’s own classics have made the cut, Hemant Oberoi has created a whole range of vegetarian Japanese items and in Delhi, Chef Vikramjit Roy has introduced his own creativity. Add to this, superlative sushi made by Japanese chefs sent over by Morimoto and you can tell why the food is always so good.
Akshay Tripathi, the manager who opened the restaurant has been promoted but his successors have maintained his high standards. Best Oriental: Pan Asian
One of the enduring mysteries of Delhi’s food scene is that though it is easy to get good Japanese or Chinese food in the city, there are so few superior Thai restaurants in Delhi, making it tough to find good Thai food.
Till that is set right however, we have Pan Asian at the Sheraton in Saket. Most of ITC’s many Pan Asians only work in parts (you can eat well at the Bombay Pan Asian if you restrict yourself only to Chinese), but the Delhi Pan Asian is easily the best of the lot – or at least it has been since Benita Sharma took over as the General Manager of the hotel.
Under Sharma, the Chinese food, which was the restaurant’s mainstay, has remained good (though they need a new Peking Duck oven) but the Thai has improved immeasurably to the extent that Pan Asian has the second-best Thai food in Delhi (the best is at another multi-cuisine restaurant, Setz) and, after they stole the chef from Sakura, the best traditional Japanese in all of North India. (The only competitor is Edo in Bangalore).
So, nowadays, if I want Thai or traditional Japanese I tend not to go to one of the specialty restaurants, but head directly to Pan Asian. Where else can you start with Sushi, move on to Som Tam and end with Red Curry?
Best Brunch: ITC Maurya
West View, at the top of the Maurya, has always been a restaurant in search of a purpose, while its neighbour My Humble House has only just turned around. But somehow, when you go to the Summit Brunch on Sundays which allows you to eat from both the West View and Humble House kitchens, it is easy to forget what the history of both restaurants is.
Masterminded by the hotel’s new kick-ass General Manager Anand Rao and its brilliant Executive Chef, Manisha Bhasin, the Summit Brunch is ITC’s attempt to show off the best it can do: superlative dim sum, live noodle counters, stir-fries made to order, grills, artisanal pasta, foie gras, caviar, oysters and all the champagne you can drink.
Plus there’s wonderful music and, as the weather changes, two outdoor terraces where you can eat al fresco. Best Bakery: L’Opera
Delhi has long been short of a good bakery. Even at most five-star hotels, the bread is never as good as it ought to be. The opening of the Oberoi pastry shop and delicatessen was a step in the right direction but the city needed something outside a hotel at non five-star prices.
That gap has been filled with the opening of L’Opera in Khan Market.
Run by French people and packed out with expats, this is a small boulangerie and patisserie that sells bread and pastry products at prices that are surprisingly affordable. I like the sourdough bread but the other loaves are also recommended. I’ve had wonderfully flaky almond croissants and delicious melt-in-the-mouth macaroons as well.
Its success proves that there is room in the market for good bread shops. And you don’t necessarily have to be located in the city’s most expensive market. I’m sure the L’Opera formula can be replicated all over south Delhi in other local markets and I hope it will be.
Multi-Cuisine Restaurant: Setz
I have to say I still call it Zest, after the name it was born with. But no matter what you call Setz (which swept these awards last year with both Restaurant of the Year and Restaurateur of the Year for Prasanjit Singh) it is the restaurant that broke all the rules for standalone outlets.
Part of a generation of multi-cuisine restaurants that developed over the last decade globally (after the success of Singapore’s Mezza9, which was designed by Super Potato as is Setz), this is a world class establishment that betters five star standards and still charges lower-than-five-star prices.
All of the food is good. But I am particularly partial to the European and the Thai (the best in Delhi). But then, I also like the cheung fan dim sum, the falafel, the steaks, the excellent breads, the Peking duck, the home-made ice-creams – oh forget it!
Let’s just say I like it all. Opening of the Year: Le Cirque
When the new Leela Palace announced that it was tying up with New York’s clubby Le Cirque to open a Delhi outpost, reactions ranged from "what is Le Cirque?" to "won’t it be very expensive?"
The Leela has spent a lot of time telling Delhi-ites what Le Cirque is (books, DVDs, personal visits by the founders etc.) but yes, there is no getting around the fact that it is easily the most expensive restaurant in Delhi with very high-priced food and massively over-priced wine.
But here’s the thing: the food may be expensive but it is also very good. Chef Mickey Bhoite has whipped the kitchen into shape so that the cooking is technically accomplished and his Florentine steak (for two) is to die for. (But this is a Leela specialty, Executive Chef Glen B Eastman serves Delhi’s best steaks at the coffee shop, too.) Service is outstanding, more sophisticated than anything the Leela group has ever managed before.
Besides, it is doing well. Despite the prices, the restaurant is attracting more guests than anyone thought it would. Perhaps the time is right for global fusion: Le Cirque mixes the influences of New York, France and Italy for a crowd that effortlessly fuses West and South Delhi.
F&B Manager of the Year: Surinder Thakur
I don’t think it is any secret that when the Imperial lost the General Manager, F&B Manager, Sommelier and sundry other expatriates who had turned the property around, most people in the hotel business wrote it off – a slow decline is inevitable, they said.
The fact that the Imperial’s restaurants have given the lie to this prediction and have flourished in a largely expat-free zone is a tribute to native Indian ingenuity. The current F&B manager, Surinder Thakur is not from some fancy hotel management school, only did a one-year hospitality course in Chandigarh and joined the Taj group in the housekeeping department before moving to the Imperial in 1998 as a restaurant captain.
He became F&B Manager a couple of years ago when the hotel was widely believed to be on the verge of a decline. But because he had worked in every single outlet during his career at the Imperial, he understood the hotel’s strengths and weaknesses and the preferences of his guests.
Though he is stuck with a two restaurant property (an excellent Italian and a popular coffee shop) and can’t do much about the hideously over-decorated and dingy Spice Route or the little-known Indian restaurant, he has maintained the hotel’s reputation for fine food and wine. Most people who go to eat there have no idea of the expat-exit or the mass churning in the back of the house. They just love the Imperial.
Restaurant of the Year: Café Diva
Who would it have thought Ritu Dalmia still had it in her? She runs Diva in Greater Kailash-2 for over a decade now. She runs the super Latitude in Khan Market. She does TV shows for Good Times. And she is a best-selling cookbook author. (Full disclosure: she is also my friend, of many years standing.)
But which chef/restaurateur, at this stage of a flourishing career, would risk everything on a first floor café in a market in GK-1? Especially, when she doesn’t need to?
One look at Café Diva’s Eva Jiricna-style interiors and you know that you are in for an elegant experience. The food is about the best Ritu has ever done: Vietnamese spring rolls, grilled halloumi cheese, lasagna, salads, stuffed chicken, Sindhi curry, pizza verde, prawn curries and chicken cafreal.
This is a terrific restaurant created by a chef at the height of her powers.
Restaurant Company of the Year: Lite Bite Foods
It is a measure of how much the food scene is changing in India that the real innovations are no longer restricted to the deluxe hotel sector. The growth of malls, airport terminals and the like has offered restaurateurs thousands of square feet of new real estate in which to operate.
The company that has made the best use of this new opportunity is Lite Bite Foods. You probably don’t know the name but you know the brands: Asia 7, Punjab Grill, Zambar, Fresco etc. With 50 outlets (and growing!) in under two years, Lite Bite is a phenomenon and the Punjab Grill in Bombay must be one of that city’s most successful restaurants. New Punjab Grills in such cities as Bangalore are also packed.
Though it has a national presence, Lite Bite is a Delhi company (hence its presence on this list) and its Delhi operations (Zambar in Vasant Kunj, Punjab Grill in Saket etc.) are substantial. Plus, it is the one food company I know of that cares about the authenticity and the quality of the cuisine, not just about turnover, profit and new openings.
This is probably the future of the standalone sector in India: new domestic brands, uniform quality, consistent food and upmarket ambience.
General Manager of the Year: Jay Rathore
When you consider the air of elegant luxury that the Delhi Oberoi represents, it is sometimes hard to remember that it is one of Delhi’s oldest modern luxury hotels. (The Imperial, which seems like a century older, is actually only about 40 years older and the Ashoka is not a luxury hotel anyway.) Designed in 1961 and opened in 1965, the Oberoi is older than the majority of its staff.
The fact that it should seem so refined and modern despite being planned as an American chain hotel in the early 1960s is, of course, a tribute to Biki Oberoi’s successful remaking of the hotel in the late 1980s. But in operational terms, this is not an easy hotel to run, much less to run with such a seeming (and it is only “seeming”) lack of visible effort. The Oberoi is over a decade older than the Taj or Maurya and over a decade and a half older than the Hyatt or the Taj Palace.
One reason why the hotel runs so smoothly and seems as contemporary as any modern property is because Jay Rathore, its elegant, understated General Manager commands the respect of his staff, understands the needs of his guests and knows how to make an Ambassador run like a Rolls Royce. His attention to detail is phenomenal and his flair for luxury is breath-taking.
A class act.
An absolute triumph. Nobody thought that Biki Oberoi could trump the excellent Gurgaon Trident by opening a full-fledged Oberoi next to it. But he has – and how!
This is probably the most important hotel to have opened in Delhi in the last 20 years. It is stark, modern and yet entirely luxurious. Take everything the design hoteliers (Andre Balazs, the Kemps, Ian Schrager etc.) were trying to do, add a North American sense of space and efficiency (Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton etc.), combine with Oriental refinement (Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula etc.) and then shake it all around in a special Oberoi jar to create the paradigm for the 21st century Indian hotel.
Plus, there are also a strategically brilliant General Manager (Kapil Chopra), the usual excellent Oberoi service, an adventurous Indian restaurant and a trend-setting coffee shop in 361.
It is hard to see how the Oberois can top this – but knowing Biki, he probably will.
From HT Brunch, October 16
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