Because I write a food column, people are always asking me to recommend restaurants. When I tell them that I don’t get out much, they look incredulous. But the truth is that I don’t actually eat out a lot when I am in Delhi. Perhaps this is because I spend so much of my life on the road where, yes, I do eat at restaurants out of necessity. So, when I come back, I long to stay in and watch DVDs every evening. Most nights I eat at home. The food is always light and simple and often, it is something I have made myself.
When I do go out it is nearly always for lunch and usually work-related. Or it’s because I am meeting friends who feel like going out. And even then, it tends to be restricted to a handful of places that I visit again and again. When it comes to eating in Delhi, I am afraid, I am not very adventurous.
If I’m meeting people for lunch and there is a professional context (i.e. somebody is putting the bill on expenses), then I like the Imperial. It’s a wonderful old hotel, potentially the best hotel in Delhi, and it has the added advantage of being only a few minutes away from the Hindustan Times building.
In the winter, there are few better locations than the lawn outside the 1911 restaurant. You can order from the coffee shop menu but I much prefer the Western menu of grills and salads. It is simple food, well prepared and served in very pleasant surroundings.
Otherwise, I am a fan of San Gimignano, the hotel’s Italian restaurant. I’ve been going there almost from the day it opened and though a succession of chefs has swept through the kitchen, food standards have never fallen below a certain level. At present, the food is consistent and satisfying and I don’t know anyone who has had a bad meal there.
The food and beverage operations of the Imperial are now run by Surender Thakur who I have known through his various promotions in the hotel. Surender is the ultimate Imperial insider and his grasp of the hotel’s operations ensures that he remains a link with the Imperial’s glory days even as hotel managers come and go. These days, he is doing a better job than anyone had a right to expect and his success demonstrates, once again, that you don’t necessarily need an expat to run the restaurants at a great hotel.
The advantage with Western food at lunchtime is that it is light and relatively simple to eat so there is less of a chance of dropping gravy on your shirt or biryani on your lap and thus embarrassing yourself at a business meeting.
Chinese food is slightly messier and besides, the kind of Chinese cuisine I like is something of an acquired taste. I like the China Kitchen at the Hyatt for dinner (you can’t beat their Peking Duck or their ribs) but at lunchtime, I’ll take The Chinese in Connaught Place any time.
This is a not very fancy restaurant in a not very nice part of CP – at the moment, the road is dug up so it is not easily accessible – that caters mainly to the Chinese community. There is a Punjabi-Chinese menu (not recommended) for people who do not want real Chinese food and I have pushed the restaurant relentlessly, making it my ‘Chinese Restaurant of the Year’ for many years but Indians tend to stay away regardless of all my efforts to send them there.
I go there because the food is to die for. If you are of a slightly open-minded persuasion then you should order the deep-fried pork fat (not as bad as it sounds, it’s bacon), the smoked pork with radish and the long beans with chili. The food is as good as it would be in Beijing. It is the best Chinese food – of its kind – in India.
If you are on expenses, then there’s no doubt that Wasabi at the Taj is one of the world’s great restaurants. Japanese and Korean expats tend to go to Sakura at the Metropolitan Hotel where the food quality is usually consistent.
But there’s now a new Japanese option at prices that are far more reasonable than Wasabi’s or Sakura’s. Chef Nakamura has left Sakura and taken up residence at the Pan Asian at Saket’s Sheraton New Delhi hotel. Nakamura is an old-style Japanese chef who will obsess about the rice in his sushi and will not serve sashimi unless he is convinced that the fish is completely fresh. He is also the man who introduced Kobe beef to India long before the world went crazy over Wagyu.
The Sheraton Saket is slightly difficult to get to because of the idiotic bus corridor (BRT) but it’s worth the journey for Nakamura’s Japanese food. Plus there’s excellent Thai food, good Chinese and more at Pan Asian.
I was in Madras last week and had two excellent South Indian meals in quick succession. The first was at Southern Spice, located in the Taj Coromandel, Madras’ smartest hotel. I first ate at Southern Spice in 1996 when it had just opened and though it was clearly a rip-off of ITC’s Dakshin concept, the food was brilliant.
I went back last week after several years just as the Taj was about to close Southern Spice for renovation (and expansion) and was startled to discover that the food was even better than I remembered. It is difficult to manage so many different South Indian cuisines (Chettinad, Kerala, Andhra etc.) but the Southern Spice cooks are clearly very gifted.
The next day I had lunch at Ente Keralam, a successful standalone launched by Regi Matthew who I knew in the mid-Nineties when he was a chef at Bangalore’s West End. Regi’s company now has 23 restaurants including Thai, North Indian and Chinese but I suspect that Ente Keralam which serves the Syrian Christian food of Regi’s childhood is the one that is closest to his heart.
I asked Regi, whose company has extended its operations to Calcutta, why he didn’t open in Delhi. More to the point, why doesn’t the Taj, with its expertise in South Indian food, serve the cuisine in Delhi? It isn’t just Southern Spice. The Taj also runs the Konkan Café in Bombay, Karavalli in Bangalore and Quilon, the world’s only Michelin-starred South Indian restaurant in London. So why not Delhi?
Nobody in the Taj has been able to answer that question, which is a shame because non-vegetarian South Indian food will do very well in the capital. Gunpowder has already acquired a cult following and I know that every single time I feel like a dose of spice, I order in from Swagath at Defence Colony where the food never disappoints.
The great gap in the Delhi restaurant scene is South Indian food. ITC’s Dakshin is fine but personally I find the whole Dakshin approach a little too Brahminical for this decade. I have high hopes for the modern South Indian coastal restaurant that the Oberois are opening at their new Gurgaon property and perhaps a good Malayali like Captain Nair will serve Kerala food at the Delhi Leela.
When I am taking guests from abroad out for dinner, then I tend to go to Indian restaurants because that’s what they prefer. Karim’s in Old Delhi works if the guests are adventurous and have a palate that can take spice and grease. Otherwise, it tends to be old standbys like Bukhara (never fails to impress foreigners) or Varq at the Taj which is an instant hit because it offers them a style of presentation they understand with genuine Indian flavours.
The real surprise over the last month has been how much my guests have liked the new Dum Pukht. The food was always good but is even better now that they have revamped the menu. Plus, the redesign has transformed the whole experience. In its old avatar, Dum Pukht had a slight ITDC air about it but this version, designed – bizarrely enough – by a Thai from Bangkok, is smart and sophisticated. The problem is that the restaurant now does so well that it is often difficult to get a table!
Where else do I go? Ritu Dalmia’s restaurants – Latitude in Khan Market and Diva in GK – are always reliable though I haven’t been to Diva for a while. Indian Accent is run by Manish Mehrotra, my Chef of the Year, so there’s no doubt that the food is brilliant and the hotel it is located in (the Manor) is classy and charming. But guests sometimes find the Friend’s Colony location a little way out. Augusto’s sushi and sashimi have been mainstays of 360 from the very beginning. And Zest (or Setz as we are now supposed to call it) is my Restaurant of the Year so that speaks for itself.
But if you want a café that’s a little different, go to the one that the Setz team run in the lobby of Emporio. The sandwiches are great but I go there mainly for the ice-cream. It is, for my money, the best ice-cream in Delhi. Order the Almond and Rose Petal or the Candied Walnut. You will not be disappointed.
- From HT Brunch, March 27
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