Why you must try these Delhi restaurants

Delhi has three new restaurants - Town Hall, Depot 29 and Farzi Café - only a couple of months old, yet a generation ahead of the competition. Can Bombay top that, wonders Vir Sanghvi.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
PUBLISHED ON SEP 06, 2014 07:10 PM IST
If anybody seriously doubts that Delhi is now the gourmet capital of India (yes, yes, I know; I keep changing my mind – it’s Delhi one month and Bombay the next!), then he or she should go to the restaurants I’ve reviewed this week. They are all only a couple of months old and yet, in quality terms, they are a generation ahead of the competition.

Sushi central: A sushi-sashimi platter at Town Hall

I wandered into Town Hall in Khan Market as a walk-in, to beat the system where they keep track of reservations and feed your number into Truecaller to check who you really are (more about that later) only to find myself looking at a familiar face in an unfamiliar venue.

Augusto Cabrera is probably the father of the sushi revolution in India. A decade ago, when Threesixty° opened at the Delhi Oberoi, Augusto was the sushi master and he made his sushi and sashimi so trendy that Delhi fell in love with raw fish.

All of us got so used to Augusto’s sushi that I once wrote in this column that in my creative moments I thought of Then, some months ago, after ten years at the Oberoi, Augusto disappeared. I thought he had probably gone back to his native Philippines and felt bad that I had not had a chance to say goodbye.

And yet, five months later, when I walked into Town Hall, I found myself staring at Augusto, a smilier, more energetic Augusto, but still very much the Augusto who had become a South Delhi legend. I was so surprised to see him there that I didn’t even mind that I had been rumbled and my anonymity destroyed.

It turned out that when Augusto left the Oberoi, he did not head for Manila but drove for five minutes till he reached Khan Market. He is a partner in Town Hall. I think he is – I am not sure of what the shareholding structure is, only that various Delhi businessmen have invested in the restaurant on the basis of Augusto’s skill. And both he and his wife are at the door, greeting guests and looking after the room.

While I am a fan of the Khan Market restaurant boom, I also find many of the establishments awkwardly located, with low ceilings. Town Hall, on the other hand, is huge, with high ceilings and many rooms spread over two floors. The décor is relaxed and quirky and nothing like the average Khan Market place.

As for the food – well, what can I say? It is everything you would expect from Augusto. A nigiri sushi platter was well up to Threesixty° standards and two new style sashimis (or fish carpaccio or whatever) in the Nobu tradition, were outstanding. This is Wasabi-quality food at Khan Market prices.

Also delicious was a pork belly dish from Augusto’s own country and I do wish he would put more Filipino dishes on the menu. The menu takes in the world. There’s Chinese food of Taipan quality (I am guessing he stole the chef) which is great if you like Taipan but there are also burgers, pizzas, sandwiches, Thai stir-fries, Burmese noodles and everything else you can think of.

Augusto Cabrera's Filipino barbeque pork belly dish is also delicious

I’d do anything for Augusto’s food. But even without the modern Japanese, Town Hall is a fun place to go to: relaxed and just slightly eccentric.

How Ritu Dalmia finds the time to open new restaurants I do not know. She is out of the country half the time, making millions organising the catering at big ticket Marwari weddings all over the world. But existing places flourish and new ones keep opening.

The latest is Depot 29 in Safdarjung Enclave. This is a collaboration between Ritu and Vikas Narula, newly returned from abroad and a hamburger freak.

To avoid the Dalmia machine, I booked under another name one Sunday only to discover that they were expecting me: they had programmed my number into their system so they were not fooled by the name. (Note to self: will have to get new phones for restaurant reservations!)

I can’t judge the service because I was rumbled even before I got there. Even so, I thought it was first rate, with many servers I recognised from other Dalmia operations. I liked the restaurant too: it is hidden away at the back of a building that is dominated by a bank and comprises two rooms on two separate floors.

I thought the burgers were excellent, which I guess is down to the Narula part of the operation. The problem is with the Dalmia contribution to the menu. Despite her undoubted talent, I guess Ritu is too busy flitting from Puglia to Tuscany to understand what an American burger place should be like.

So there are pointless poncy touches, like fancy long plates that do not fit easily on the table and a menu of pretentious main courses (like a bogus soufflé) that are not only crusted to this kind of restaurant but are also indifferently cooked.

So go for the burgers. Eat them with the delicious fries and you will not be disappointed.

Which brings us to the heavyweight of the three restaurants that make up this week’s column – Zorawar Kalra’s wonderful Farzi Café in Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub.

You’ve probably heard of Zorawar. He is the son of Jiggs Kalra who did so much to add variety to Indian food in the 1980s and 1990s. When Zorawar first started out, his style was very much his father’s – he founded the Punjab Grill chain (now owned by Lite Bite Foods) and refined Jiggs’ old recipes.

But over the last few years, Zorawar has come into his own. He has travelled the world, eaten at places like El Bulli and watched how other chefs are reinventing Indian food. Because, like his father before him, Zorawar is not himself a chef, he has found chefs he can work with to create new takes on old favourites.

The first of the new generation of restaurants was Masala Library, which is still packing them in at Bombay’s Bandra Kurla Complex. But while Masala Library’s original menu was derivative (Manish Mehrotra and Gaggan Anand were major influences), Zorawar has finally found his own style.

Farzi Café is supposed to be cheaper and less formal than Masala Library but it is clearly the better restaurant because the food is genuinely creative.

Zorawar still relies on two Indian Accent veterans in the kitchen – Saurabh and Himanshu – but this time around, the food is largely free of external influences.

The emphasis is less on molecular gastronomy, the dishes are wittily constructed and there is a uniformity to the vision. Arancini, the Italian rice balls that are usually made with risotto are made with dal-chawal here.

Chhole and kulche are turned into tacos. The samosa is made with chilly duck. The chicken kourchan goes into a tart. That old Panjabi home staple of cheeni ka paratha is boosted with a dose of foie gras butter.

A galouti kabab replaces the patty in an Indian hamburger. Butter chicken comes in a bun. The Spanish favourite of chorizo with rice becomes a pulao with Indian spices. The Pad Thai is made with poha.

I walked in one weekday lunch (you can’t book at lunch so it is first-come first-served) only to be spotted by Zorawar (my doomed attempts at anonymity are now beginning to assume a certain predictability) so I won’t pretend that I had the same experience as the average guest.

But given that I ate my way through half the menu in record time, I doubt if they could have cooked anything specially for me. So while I won’t comment on the service, I can certainly say that I thought the food was a breakthrough.

This is the first café in India that serves creative modern cuisine in these casual surroundings at these price points. If Zorawar can maintain these standards when he starts rolling out this concept at other locations, then he has a real winner on his hands.

So three Delhi restaurants, all outstanding in their own way – Augusto’s sushi at affordable prices in a laidback place, amazing burgers and great modern Indian in a café ambience.

Wow! Can Bombay top that?

From HT Brunch, September 7
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