The return of Hemant Oberoi and more!

Updated on Nov 24, 2018 10:19 PM IST

Three new restaurants in Delhi run by three great chefs offer a welcome change

Jamun, a restaurant that does justice to regional specialities from all over the country
Jamun, a restaurant that does justice to regional specialities from all over the country
Hindustan Times | By

I don’t know what it is, but Delhi is suddenly full of new restaurants. What is more, they are all very good. None of them tries to do the same old multi-cuisine nonsense that I am so fed up of and all are run by chefs who are deeply committed to creating great food.

The biggie on the block is, of course, Civil House by Hemant Oberoi in Khan Market. Civil House has apparently been going for a year but the owners have now put Hemant in charge of the kitchen with results that are startling and delicious.

You know who Hemant Oberoi is, of course. He spent his career with the Taj, becoming executive chef of the Mumbai Taj in the late 1980s, and then, a decade or so later, becoming the group’s top chef. Many existing Taj restaurants are his creations. Varq, the Masala restaurants, the Souks, the Wasabis in Delhi and Mumbai and so many others. 

Most chefs specialise in one kind of cuisine. Hemant’s strength, after years of looking after so many different kinds of restaurants, is that he is a master of many different styles. Often, this came out of necessity. When the Taj signed up with Masaharu Morimoto, TV’s Iron Chef who had a restaurant in Philadelphia, to open a Nobu knock-off in Mumbai (Morimoto had been the opening executive chef of the New York Nobu), it realised, too late, that Morimoto’s food was almost entirely non-vegetarian.

Chef Hemant Oberoi is in charge of the kitchen at Civil House
Chef Hemant Oberoi is in charge of the kitchen at Civil House

Hemant created the vegetarian half of the menu and soon began creating modern non-vegetarian Japanese style food too. (He also pushed for the restaurant not to be called Morimoto but Wasabi.)

Souk grew out of his time as chef at Taj hotels in the Middle East. The Zodiac Grill was originally intended to be nothing more than a grill room for foreign guests who stayed at the Bombay Taj. But Hemant turned it into a top quality European restaurant, sourcing ingredients from all over the world and basing many of the dishes on his travels. (We used to say that there was not one great restaurant anywhere in the world that Hemant had not
been to.)

Since Hemant left the Taj, he has embarked on a variety of projects. There were restaurants in Singapore and San Diego. He did lots of banquets at big weddings. He opened his flagship restaurant in Mumbai’s BKC, reprising his greatest hits from his Taj days.

Civil House in Khan Market is a modern and well-priced restaurant with a distinctly casual ambience
Civil House in Khan Market is a modern and well-priced restaurant with a distinctly casual ambience

It was always only a matter of time before he would come to Delhi. But, at Civil House, which has a distinctly casual ambience and prices that are at Khan Market-levels and not five star-heights, he has attempted something that I don’t think he has ever done before: a modern, casual restaurant where you can get anything from an andaa toastie sandwich to his signature lamb rack with Peruvian chillies.

I went when they were still in a soft-opening phase and the restaurant was not full so I can’t guarantee that the kitchen will maintain these standards once the crowds pour in. But the night I was there, the food was terrific.

Chef Julia Carmen Desa opened Tres in Delhi
Chef Julia Carmen Desa opened Tres in Delhi

Most surprising was that the array of Hemant’s greatest hits had been tweaked and actually improved. The Whitefish Carpaccio, a Wasabi favourite, had been merged with the flavours of Wasabi’s Yellowtail Carpaccio, and was tangier and delicious. The old Zodiac Grill standby, the double-cooked Camembert Dariole, had been given a makeover. Hemant used Brie rather than Camembert and added a little truffle paste. The cooking (by chef Christopher, Hemant was not in the kitchen when I ate) was outstanding. It was the lightest soufflé I have had in Delhi. The signature lamb rack fell off the bone and a soup made with Japanese pumpkin with Thai spices may even have been the star of the show.

You won’t get food of this calibre at these prices anywhere in Delhi. Once they push the less-fancy stuff (pizzas, sandwiches etc.) to their customers and get a proper wine list, Civil House should rock.

Tres in Delhi is the best for an authentic and imaginative European meal
Tres in Delhi is the best for an authentic and imaginative European meal

Julia Carmen Desa is another ex-Taj chef. I first met her in the late 1980s or so when she was cooking Italian food at the Aguada in Goa. Then she became obsessed with original Goan recipes and was the opening chef at the Goan restaurant at the new Taj Exotica in the 1990s. Since then, her career has followed an unusual trajectory. She was the first chef at Zest (now called Set’z) in Delhi. Then, she travelled around Europe, working at little restaurants and mastering the local cuisines.

Tiramisu made with mascarpone mousse and Kahlúa jelly at Tres
Tiramisu made with mascarpone mousse and Kahlúa jelly at Tres

Along with Jatin Mallick, she opened the original Tres in Lodhi Colony Market, serving Spanish-influenced European food. The restaurant was a success, though I thought that some of the food was over-sauced – not that you can always say these things to Julia, who can be rather volatile when it comes to her food!

The original Tres closed down but it has now reopened in the same market a few doors away with the backing of Rohit Agarwal and Amit Burman of Lite Bite Foods, two of the most decent people in the restaurant business.

The food is still European, though Julia has moved away from Spain to look at the rest of Europe, and the saucing is well under control. As you would expect in a kitchen that Julia runs, nearly everything is made in-house and as you would expect from Amit and Rohit, she has been allowed to spend a fortune on kitchen equipment, including a Josper grill.

Chef Rahul Gomes-Pereira does Goan food like no other
Chef Rahul Gomes-Pereira does Goan food like no other

Everything I had was terrific from a homemade salted pork belly to slow cooked lamb to a buffalo steak. The kitchen has gained from the addition of Jamsheed Bhote, and if you want an authentic but imaginative European meal in Delhi, Tres is where you should go.

By some coincidence, a very good restaurant has opened, also in Lodhi Colony Market, in the exact space vacated by Tres. I knew that Jamun was a regional Indian restaurant and that it was part of the ATM-PCO group, whose top guys I know, so I booked under another name. But I suspect that I was rumbled by the manager (ex-Oberoi) the moment I walked in and within 10 minutes, the group’s top chef Rahul Gomes-Pereira (but everyone calls him Picu) had turned up.

Lamb seekh kebab at Jamun in Lodhi Colony Market
Lamb seekh kebab at Jamun in Lodhi Colony Market

That might explain why the food was so good. Picu is a Goan so he really gets pork in a way that North Indian chefs never do. There was a terrific pork chilli fry with chorizo and a magnificent Coorgi Pork. Everything else was flawless too: Ghee Roast Mutton, Chapli Kebab and even the Pindi Chhole.

Had I really discovered a gem in my neighbourhood? The following week I took my friends Dipak and Barkha Deva to ask their opinion. Dipak is a globe-trotting gourmet while Barkha, a spectacular cook, is a vegetarian from Lucknow.

The Devas loved it too. There was a terrific Dal Ghosht, a very nice Dal Panchmel and an amazing Chorizo Rice.

The service was assured and warm and friendly and though the restaurant can be a little crowded, it has a lovely ambience. We have classic North Indian restaurants in Delhi and great modern Indian places. What we lacked was a place that did justice to regional specialities from all over the country.

With Jamun, we finally have that restaurant.

From HT Brunch, November 25, 2018

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