Changing face of Delhi’s restaurants
Every time I eat out in Delhi I am reminded of how much the restaurant scene reflects the changing face of Delhi and its citizens. Look closely at the new restaurants – and some old ones – and you will see how much the city has changed over the last decade or so.
Let’s start with Cafe Delhi Heights. There are 16 of them now and rare is the Delhi mall without its own branch, nearly always packed out with young people who rave about it on social media. The menu is ‘international’, which means it is what the trade would call “multi-cuisine”. For every super popular burger, there is an East Asian dish and the flavours of the subcontinent keep cropping up.
The story of Cafe Delhi Heights tells us something about changing tastes and culinary mobility in Delhi. Its owners, the Batra family, ran a banquet hall in Naraina, a Delhi suburb. Mrs Batra looked after the food operations, devising the recipes and training the cooks herself while Mr Batra looked after the back of the house. Mrs Batra was famous for her Butter Chicken, her Rogan Josh and her Rarah Mutton, all of which she served in three banquet halls in the same buildings. Upstairs was an apartment where the Batra family lived.
The Batras had two sons, both of whom wanted to take the business forward. I spoke to Vikrant, who is the food-obsessed brother. He was the one who decided that his mother’s food was so good that he could run a catering service built around the quality of her (largely Punjabi) dishes.
The catering service did well but the younger Batras began to feel restless. So the brothers decided to enter the restaurant business. They opened a place called Delhi Heights in Rajouri Garden, serving Indian and Chinese food of the kind that they dished out at their banquet halls.
But Vikrant believed that the future lay in something less predictable. So he opened the first Cafe Delhi Heights, with its more upmarket, multi-cuisine menu in a not very fashionable part of Gurgaon. Even before that could turn a profit, he was offered a location at the Ambience Mall, he grabbed it and opened a second Cafe Delhi Heights. Just as those two restaurants were turning around, Vikrant found a new space at the DLF Promenade mall in Vasant Kunj. He opened the third Cafe Delhi Heights there and the group has never looked back.
But even while expansion is continuing, the brothers have opened the upscale Nueva at the Sangam Courtyard. This is a bar and restaurant that serves chef Michael Swamy’s take on modern Peruvian cuisine. The Batras are aiming for a slightly older crowd (30-35 upwards) and seem to have succeeded.
It is a long way from Butter Chicken in Naraina to Rajouri Garden to high-end Peruvian food and a rocking chain of cafés. But the Batras have pulled it off because the older generation provided the foundations and the younger generation had the guts to think big and build on that base.
Then, there is Qla opposite the Qutub Minar. This space used to be Blue Frog, an establishment that had everything going for it: trendiness, a funky image, a great reputation on the basis of the success of its Mumbai outpost and, for a while at least, an excellent English chef. But Blue Frog never succeeded in Delhi and some people blamed the location.
By that logic, Qla, at the same location, should have been a goner from day one. Opened by Prateek Arora and his partners, it set out to prove that if you did it right, Delhi would welcome high-quality European food. Prateek’s experience is in the beverage sector but he also spent two years in Burgundy so he understands wine and how to serve it.
He opened Qla with a chef who left after a year but the current chef Priyam Chatterjee is the man who has turned it around. With a trendy, long-haired look, he is a guy with a style and an attitude of his own.
Priyam’s food is sophisticated Modern European with a few unusual flavours and because he makes no compromises to public sentiment, I am always surprised that he manages to get the crowds.
I asked Prateek if it wasn’t challenging, serving this kind of sophisticated food in Delhi. He agreed that it was but he said that two things made life easier. The first was that he always put a few easily accessible dishes on the menu. People who wanted the experience but were not confident about understanding the cuisine could order pizza or pasta. If they liked those, the chances were that they would come back and try something more adventurous the next time.
The second secret to their success, Prateek said, was that the senior staff (including Prateek and Priyam themselves) always worked the room, helping guests with the menu. In the beginning, Prateek said, they had guests who wandered in thinking that Qla was an Indian restaurant. His greatest challenge, Prateek recalled, was to satisfy guests who had come looking for chicken tikka and mutton korma and discovered that they could only get Priyam’s sophisticated food.
“When you can persuade that kind of guest to try the food by walking them through the menu and then watch them leave happy, then it is really satisfying,” Prateek explained.
Would Qla have worked five years ago? I doubt it. Just one more example of how Delhi is changing.
The ultimate Delhi boy is, of course, Manu Chandra. He grew up in the capital, went to St. Stephen’s and is part of an old Delhi family that has been in the city for generations.
But Manu did not find fame here. He made his reputation in Bengaluru first with Olive Beach, where he cooked outstanding European food and then with his own brands under AD Singh’s umbrella: Monkey Bar, Fatty Bao, Toast & Tonic etc.
People who don’t know the backstory always miss what a phenomenal chef Manu is. He can hear about a dish and reinvent it. His brilliant Berry Pulao at Monkey Bar is not a riff on the famous Britannia version. Manu has never been to Britannia or even eaten Berry Pulao. He created his own version out of thin air based on what he had heard. More extraordinary is Fatty Bao. Manu has virtually no experience of East Asia. (I doubt if he has even been to Thailand). He created the menu from his own imagination.
Two weeks ago, Manu was back in Delhi to preside over the reopening of Ek Bar in Defence Colony. This is one of AD Singh’s restaurants, located on a street that has been the graveyard of many other restaurants. But I think Manu will break the jinx.
I loved the restaurant and the menu is full of little Manu touches. For locals there is something called “Punjabi Bagh Wala Gentrified Chicken” described as “Dimpy Aunty’s favourite which already has some guests asking “Yeh Gentrified ki honda?” There are pork belly skewers with a churan glaze, kulchas topped with chorizo, bacon, fried egg and coconut chutney and Lajpat Nagar style Ram Ladoo Chaat.
Which brings us to Delhi’s toniest restaurant. When the Leela opened Le Cirque in Delhi, one of the most frequent criticisms was that the original New York Le Cirque was a creature of its time and those times had gone.
At some level, I am guessing, the current management of Delhi’s Leela Palace recognises the merit of the original criticism. So the idea now is to retain the plushness and formality of Le Cirque. It is the only really upmarket European restaurant in Delhi for business entertaining or celebrating with a large group now that Travertino has shut down.
But they have rethought the food. The New York Le Cirque made its name with gimmicky dishes (scallops made to look like they were wearing bow ties) and service at the table (its most famous dish, Pasta Primavera could be finished tableside).
The new chef at the Delhi Le Cirque, Matteo Fontana, is updating the food so that it seems lighter and more contemporary.
I had to be dragged there for dinner the other night (my recent visits had not encouraged me to go back) but when I ate Matteo’s food, I was glad I went. From a reinvention of the classic caprese to an intense Duck Ravioli to a delicate dish made with lime marinated Hokkaido scallops, this was top-class international dining.
If you want a big night out where you are pampered and fed contemporary European food, then Le Cirque is back at the top of its game.
So Delhi keeps changing. Talented restaurateurs come out of nowhere to rise to the top, guys with guts take risks, a great chef returns to the city of his birth and Le Cirque finally gets it right.
From HT Brunch, March 4, 2018
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