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Bukhara: It’s old but it works

Sometimes it takes an anniversary to remember and celebrate a great restaurant. Bukhara dates from a different era but its food is great. And this one has a soul, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Jul 26, 2014 18:47 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
VirSanghvi,Moti Mahal,Maurya

By a complete coincidence I turned up at a friend’s birthday dinner at the Moti Mahal Deluxe in Greater Kailash and found that among the other guests were Monish Gujral and Anil Chaddha. Monish is the grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral, the founder of Moti Mahal and the inventor of butter chicken. Anil is an old Maurya hand who is now back in Delhi as general manager of the Maurya, the hotel where he once looked after the food and beverage portfolio.

Moti Mahal has a slightly complex ownership structure these days but Monish’s version of the brand flourishes. He told me that he had just returned from opening his 200th outlet (including franchises, fast-food versions, etc.) in Tanzania, the first Moti Mahal in Africa. And Anil told me that Bukhara is now 35 and a week of celebrations is planned for early August.

By now, we know pretty much everything there is to know about Moti Mahal. Founded in Daryaganj by Kundan Lal Gujral who came over to Delhi after Partition, it is the restaurant that popularised tandoori chicken, invented butter chicken and created the kaali dal that is now a staple of all north Indian restaurants.

Camellia Panjabi said that Bukhara (above) perfectly captured the ethos of Delhi: no fancy décor, no cutlery, mainly stools to sit on, and aprons on offer if you made a mess of your dinner

In contrast, we don’t know as much about Bukhara. Oh yes, it may well be the most famous Indian restaurant in the world. And we are all aware that it has been the highest-grossing restaurant in Delhi for decades. But we don’t know anything about its origins or its creation in the way that we know all about Moti Mahal. Perhaps this has something to do with the Maurya’s inability to break through to the Indian consciousness till about a decade or so ago.

For instance, when I wrote about the Taj and the Oberoi’s anniversaries a few months ago, there was a whole repertoire of stories to fall back upon, a whole set of myths to relate. ITC Hotels, on the other hand, has taken too long to tell its own story. This may be because it is a relatively small part of its parent conglomerate, the cigarette and consumer products giant, ITC Ltd. But it has its own myths and legends, untold as they may be.

The hotel chain emerged out of the passion of Ajit Haksar, the company’s legendary chairman. Haksar decided to enter the hotel industry but put it about that ITC would only own hotels, not manage them. And so the Oberois were asked to help with the design of the first ITC property, the Mughal in Agra. But somewhere along the way – to the lasting bitterness of Biki Oberoi – Haksar changed his mind and decided he would create a hotel company himself. The Oberois were told “thanks for the help but it’s goodbye now” and the company set about managing its own hotels.

The Maurya should have been the company’s showpiece but it was – to Haksar’s irritation – eclipsed in the public consciousness by the Taj on Man Singh Road which opened at roughly the same time. My guess is that ITC’s disadvantage was that it did not have a corporate culture for its hotel division or a brand identity while the Taj had been in the business for decades.

The new hotel company’s managers were (naturally, enough) stolen from other chains like ITDC and the Oberois. Four years later, when the chain had still not hit the top rung, Haksar stole the general manager who had opened the Delhi Taj and 25 of the Taj’s best managers and chefs. Even then, ITC struggled to find its own identity. (Only a few of the Taj people stayed the course.)

But if there was one thing Haksar knew, it was his food. He stole Roger Moncourt, the chef who more or less introduced French cuisine to India from ITDC and, after eating the food of a Lucknow wedding caterer called Imtiaz Qureshi, hired him for ITC and gave him a free hand to create the sort of Awadhi cuisine never served in Indian hotels.

Imtiaz became the mascot of ITC’s Indian food tradition. A larger-than-life character, his love of the good life was only matched by his brilliance at the range. Stories abounded about Imtiaz’s exploits. One legend has it that when he noticed that Moncourt would bring a glass of red wine to the kitchen every morning and continually sip from it, he resolved to do the same. Except that Imtiaz didn’t really like red wine. So he drank neat rum, in the same quantities – with predictable consequences for his behaviour and alertness.

Initially, Haksar had hoped that Imtiaz would look after all of the Maurya’s Indian food, but eventually it was decided to restrict the great man to Mayur, the haute cuisine restaurant. Bukhara went to Madan Jaiswal, in his own way as much of a character as Imtiaz.
There was a certain (politically incorrect) logic to the division. Imtiaz’s food came from the Muslim Awadh tradition. Madan’s food came from the same Hindu tandoori tradition that Kundan Lal Gujral had pioneered. But Bukhara added finesse to the Moti Mahal favourites. The black dal was a sophisticated version of Gujral’s creation and it was so successful that Dal Bukhara is not only world famous but has also become a generic name for the dish.

Bukhara’s first chef Madan Jaiswal’s (above) food came from the Hindu tandoori tradition. The kebabs were not fancy but Jaiswal got the mix of meat and masala just right

The kebabs were not fancy but Madan got the mix of meat and masala just right. There is still not a better restaurant in India for a red-meat fix. And a whole new vegetarian menu (gobhi, paneer, etc.) was created.

No other hotel was able to replicate Bukhara’s success. Camellia Panjabi used to say, when she was at the Taj, that Bukhara perfectly captured the ethos of Delhi: no fancy décor, no cutlery, mainly stools to sit on, and aprons on offer if you made a mess of your dinner. Camellia thought that Delhi’s Punjabis loved the idea of being able to rip giant naans apart with their bare hands and to pull the flesh off their tandoori chickens.

Also read:Black magic

Perhaps she was right. But it turned out that even ITC could not replicate Bukhara’s success. When they tried to take the concept international, it tanked. The Bukhara at the Bangkok Sheraton closed and the ones in America created so many problems (legally) for the ITC management that finally the word went out: there will be only one Bukhara. There are Bukhara clones at ITC hotels in other cities but they all use names like Royal Afghan or Peshawari. There can never be another Bukhara.

Though Bukhara has always made lots of money, my guess is that its fame only took off after ITC finally got its act together and carved out a reputation for personalised service and luxury. (This roughly coincides with the period when Yogi Deveshwar, a former head of ITC Hotels, became chairman of the parent conglomerate.) That’s when Bukhara became the first choice of celebrities visiting Delhi. The Clintons started it (Bill eats virtually the whole menu, though Hillary is less greedy) but even Tony Blair told me it was one of the best Indian meals he had ever eaten and soon it became one of those places that visiting movie stars, rock stars and presidents knew they just had to visit.

Madan died, sadly enough, in a road accident and Imtiaz has gone on to greater glory as the founder of Dum Pukht (so great is his influence that every second chef now changes his name to Qureshi). The low-profile JP Singh, a quiet chef who used to be shocked by the saltiness of Madan’s language, has taken over and trained new generations of cooks.

But basically, the Maurya has decided not to tamper with success. Bukhara still serves pretty much the same menu it served when it opened in 1978. The décor remains the same and the restaurant retains its spirit. Three years ago when I interviewed the great British restaurateur, Jeremy King, he told me that the one restaurant he really loved in India was Bukhara. It wasn’t the food, he said – he took that as a given. It was that Bukhara had soul.

I don’t know what JP and Anil are planning for their anniversary celebrations but I’ve a couple of suggestions. One: go easy on prices – we’d all like to eat there more often. (Yes, I know. They won’t bother. It’s always full anyway.)

And two: isn’t it time to come clean? The great secret (off-menu) dish at Bukhara has always been the chicken khurchan. Why not put it on the menu officially now? And what about that great butter chicken they used to serve? They don’t even offer it as on off-menu selection any longer. Surely, that deserves to come back.

But apart from that, there’s not one thing I would suggest. I know that Bukhara dates from a different era, long before ITC became such a big-time luxury chain. But it works. The food is great. And as Jeremy King says: you don’t trample on a restaurant’s soul.

From HT Brunch, July 27
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First Published: Jul 25, 2014 18:09 IST