The Taste With Vir: Nothing beats the restaurant experience even after the delivery boom amid Covid-19

In this week’s The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes, “Yes, the delivery boom has been one of the rare benefits of this otherwise terrible phase, leading to the growth of a new cloud kitchen sector and empowering thousands of housewives and artisanal producers all over India. But, as wonderful as all that is, there is nothing that beats the restaurant experience.”
Sushi at 361
Sushi at 361
Updated on Dec 01, 2020 03:04 PM IST
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I have spent much of the Pandemic/Lockdown phase writing at length about the joys of delivery in Rude Food, my other column in Brunch. And yes, the delivery boom has been one of the rare benefits of this otherwise terrible phase, leading to the growth of a new cloud kitchen sector and empowering thousands of housewives and artisanal producers all over India.

But, as wonderful as all that is, there is nothing that beats the restaurant experience. For the early part of the lockdown, restaurants were closed and even when they re-opened, I was hesitant about going for all the usual reasons. I wondered whether the staff had adapted to the new Covid-infested world and its demands.

Finally on 23 August, around five months after the panic began, we decided that it was time to take the plunge. We were still darpoks of course, and decided that we would stick to the big hotels where, we were confident, hygiene protocols had been introduced and followed.

We started with 361 at the Oberoi Gurgaon because it is a large airy restaurant with a high ceiling which made me feel more comfortable about the reduced Covid risk. When we got there, we were pleasantly surprised to see how rigorously social distancing had been followed and how all the staff were masked and shielded.

The food was excellent. My wife had channa-kulcha, always a specialty at the restaurant since it opened and I had the sushi rolls, having not eaten fresh ones for months. (Takeaway sushi can be wonderful but nothing beats fresh.) We enjoyed ourselves so much that we stayed too long even though I had a Zoom event scheduled for later that day. Eventually I did the Zoom from the hotel. (One thing I have learned with Zoom is that you can appear on TV, address seminars and give interviews from virtually anywhere!)

Encouraged and more than a little thrilled by the experience, we resolved to go out to restaurants more i.e.: for lunch every Sunday. (I still have not gone out for dinner since March.)

We went next to Qube at the Leela Palace. Qube is the restaurant I go to the most in Delhi because a) it is lovely with a nice outdoor area, b) the service is excellent and c) I like the food.

It is the best place in Delhi for Sunday lunch because every time you look out of the window, you see greenery. We tried a variety of dishes but I always depend on the Thai chef, Khun Thong, who knows my tastes even if he does not always approve of them. (“Ah, always too much Nam Pla…”) Once again, the Covid precautions were in place and we were comfortable and relaxed.

Of all the hoteliers I know, nobody has thought longer and more deeply about Covid and hospitality than ITC’s Nakul Anand. He has created a new service code for ITC which minimizes physical contact and maximises warmth. When I heard Anand talk about safety, I knew I could go blindfolded to an ITC hotel without worrying. (And I did. My first post-lockdown stay was at ITC Grand Bharat, on the outskirts of Delhi.)

Everybody raves, justifiably, about the food at the ITC Maurya. In the process the Delhi Pavilion at another ITC hotel, the Sheraton New Delhi often gets ignored. Its Delhi biryani is a worthy rival to the Dum Pukht biryani and such dishes as the Bedmi Aloo (which my wife eats every time we go) and the Butter Chicken (which won the Culinary Culture Gourmet Delivery award last month) are classics.

So we went there for Sunday lunch and the biryani was even better than I remembered. And of course, we felt totally safe.

361 is the younger brother of 360 at the Oberoi, New Delhi. And 360 is a restaurant I have frequented ever since it opened. So, having enjoyed ourselves at the younger brother so much, we decided to go back to the original for lunch another Sunday.

People eat all kinds of things at 360 because the menu is so extensive but few people try what, according to me, are the best options: the meats and fish cooked in the Josper oven. I had the lamb chops and they were outstanding.

Long before there was 360, there was Machan at the Taj Mahal Hotel, also a hugely influential restaurant. Unfortunately, in the early part of the century, the Taj corporate management destroyed the restaurant with a disastrous refit and though the managers and chefs at the hotel did their best, regulars drifted away and it became just another coffee shop.

Now, the new Puneet Chhatwal-led Taj management has overturned the mistakes of the past and refitted and restored the restaurant to its old glory. The much-loved chef-manager Tapas Bhattacharya is still there and Arun Sunderaj, the hotel’s brilliant executive chef, has fashioned a wonderful menu.

We had a great time. It is nice to have Machan back.

As you may have noticed, all of these are coffee shops (or what the trade now refers to as “all-day dining places”) not specialty restaurants. This is because hotels have been slow to open their prestigious restaurants. Some of this is down to worries about how much demand there is for fine dining in the market. And partially, it has to do with the difficulty of importing ingredients when flights are disrupted. Plus, most expat chefs have left.

But now, hotels are finally opening their specialty restaurants. We went for lunch to San Gimignano, the loveliest Italian restaurant in Delhi and sat in the open-air area.

Apart from my usual complaint that nobody answers the phone at the restaurant (God knows how many bookings they miss!), we had a great time, sitting in the autumn sun.

The Imperial has largely turned its back on expat chefs and judging by our meal, the restaurant does not need them. My wife had the pizzas and I had fish: both were cooked to a high standard.

I was waiting for two restaurants to open and I always wondered how they would manage. Megu, the modern Japanese at the Leela Palace, relies on imported fish and two expat chefs. It should have been a problem to manage without imports and expats but the Leela has gone ahead and opened it anyway.

We sat in the outdoor area and I was impressed to find that the food was as good as before. In fact, the sushi was actually better than it was when the expat chef was making it.

One of the claims to fame of the Hyatt Regency’s China Kitchen, for my money, the best Chinese restaurant in India, is that the kitchen is run by six or seven chefs flown in from the Chinese mainland, at least one of whom, Chef Zhang, is a genius.

How could China Kitchen function without these expat chefs? We went for lunch last Sunday and discovered that it could function very well.

The stir-fries are not as precise as they would be with a Chinese chef and the famous Peking Duck is only about 90 per cent as good as it used to be. But that’s still pretty good; better than anywhere else.

Everything else was so good that I wondered if they had smuggled Zhang back into the kitchen on the quiet. The signature Sichuan dish of fish poached in chilli oil must be the best Chinese dish I have eaten all year.

It is heartening to see that Indian chefs can fill in so easily for expats and a tribute to the skills of local chefs at kitchens at Chinese, Japanese and Italian hotel restaurants. The expats always hog the limelight and the Indians never get the recognition they deserve.

We are now quite comfortable with going out to restaurants and have been to 360, the Delhi Pavilion and Qube more than once. We are happy to drive to Gurgaon to 361 because my wife loves the kulchas and the terrific Calcutta chaat box. (She is a Punjabi born in Calcutta so they have catered to both sides of her taste profile.)

I reckon we are now ready to start on the standalones: on Townhall, on Tres, on Diva, on Jamun and all the other places I have missed.

I will keep you posted about how it goes. Watch this space!

To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here

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