Note: This is a long post. I contemplated breaking it into 4 posts but they seemed to go better together. Hope it is not too clumsy to read
There seems to be a renaissance of the Indian dining scene going on in Delhi right now.
I quite enjoyed my evening in the trendy reinvented Irani Café Sodabottleopenerwala in Delhi's Khan Market recently. I went back to Delhi and Gurgaon a week later and was spoilt silly by the folks there. In the process I got to try out dishes which really pushed the boundaries of Indian cuisine . The dishes in some cases drew inspiration from regional cuisines and in some cases from international and modern cooking formats. This was different from the usual butter chicken and dal makhni fare of Delhi. The plating was unique compared to the classic formats one is used to in Indian fine dining restaurants and five stars. Most of the places I went to were high end places and would qualify as fine dining.
There were Oberoi’s Amaranta and the Leela Kempinski’s Diya in Gurgaon and then the hip young café in the buzzing Cyber Hub, Farzi café. In Delhi there was the much revered Indian Accent by Manish Malhotra.
Amaranta is executive chef Ravitej’s baby. I happened to meet him when I went to the Oberoi Gurgaon with food critic and friend Marryam Reshii.
I’ve realized that 5 star executive chefs can be of various types. There are the ones who have moved in to a more administrative role away from actual cooking. The ones who are seen more often on TV than in their hotels. And then there are those, like Ravitej, who still seem to enjoy cooking.
|Chef Ravitej looks on while Chef Harish explains his menu|
Amaranta is a coastal themed restaurant and we had chef Harish cooking up a many coursed meal for us. Though a coastal restaurant, there is more to what’s served here than seafood. The menu highlights the diversity of food to be found in the coast of India.
There were three stand out dishes for me in the fantastic dinner that we had at Amaranta.
There was the Pondicherry inspired version of the French bouillabaisse with seafood. This was so delicately flavoured that the sweet taste of the crab got highlighted beautifully. Very different from the usual masala heavy preparations one gets in Indian coastal restaurants which hide the taste of the seafood used. They used a flaky crust on top in Amaranta rather than the usual soft bread used in Pondy which gave a nice textural contrast to the dish.
Then there was the foie gras lightly cooked with a touch of pepper. I love foie gras and the pepper heightened the creamy delight of the meat without taking away from its magnificence.
|Pepper steamed foie gras|
Another standout dish from the dinner was the Syrian Christian inspired Wagyu beef chilly fry. The meat was beautifully marbled and was placed on a fried onion and chilli base. The Wagyu was not covered with the masala which meant that one could enjoy the exquisite cut of meat in its full glory. The masala embellished and didn’t overpower the beef. This was served with a breath taking mustard seed specked bacon rice. The excellent bacon, I was told, was from the Oberoi delicatessen. Reminded me of the early days of our marriage when K and I used to blow up our salary buying good meats from the Oberoi Mumbai deli and cooking them at home. At that time imported meats were hard to get. I am talking of the early 2000s.
|Wagyu beef chilli with bacon rice|
While we had a nice chocolate uthapam with sugar free chocolate sauce for dessert, what won my heart was the Belgianchocolate cookie served with the green tea. It was so good that I packed some to take home for K.
Diya with Kunal Kapoor
The next night I took my brother and sister in law to Diya where chef Kunal Kapoor had offered to cook for us. I met Kunal during the dhaba trail in Punjab a month back and we had hit it off really well. On hearing that I was coming to Gurgaon, Kunal insisted that I come over to the Leela where he offered to cook for me. It turned out to be like a family evening as Kunal’s lovely wife Ekta and adorable son, Ranveer, joined us and we had a great time together.
Diya is Kunal’s baby as he had worked here for a while. He is no longer the chef at Diya as he is the roving exec sous chef for the Leela Gurgaon restaurants. He chose to host us at his favourite playground, Diya. Kunal told me that his training is in Punjabi, Hyderabadi, Lucknowi and Goan. The dinner he fixed for us was largely Hyderabadi and Lucknowi based to give a break from the usual Punjabi that one would get in Delhi. The plating of the dishes was very contemporary and different from the staid plating one associates with Indian fine dine restaurants. The dishes that he cooked us are his personal favourites and not all of them are there in the Diya menu now.
The most memorable dishes from the evening was the tangy mutton sev which was an interesting meat based take on the Indian vegetarian chaat. Then there was a truffle and 4 mushroom galauti that we would never have guessed was not made with meat had we not known better. The haleem kebab which drew on the meat and wheat broth base of Hyderabad and converted it into a kebab held us in its spell. As did the slices of brinjal cooked in a mango chutney whose tangy freshness wowed us three Bengalis. This is a dish inspired from the food Kunal has grown up on. He did also feed us the very Punjabi juicy bhatti (grilled) chicken. Talking of Bengalis, the mutton in the mains had an onion paste base and reminded me of a Bengali kosha mangsho.
The two desserts, the Baileys chhanar payesh and the shrikhand were both wonderful takes on traditional Indian dishes which toned the usual sweetness levels making them more universal in appeal. I have often seen Westerners baulk at the excessive sweetness of Indian desserts. In both these desserts Kunal had given an international veneer to two very Indian desserts. The Bengali payesh Bengali and the Marathi orgined shrikhand appealed were a happy coincidence for someone like me who has grown up in Kolkata and now lives in Mumbai. The desserts very different from the normal gulab jamun, shahi tukda and gajar ka halva you will expect in traditional Indian restaurants in Delhi.
|Bailley chhana payesh|
Farzi Café in Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub, I am told, is one of the most difficult tables to bag in Delhi NCR these days. Luckily I was with food writer, Vir Sanghvi, who was hosting me and he booked a table in advance.
|With the young chef Saurabh of Farzi Cafe|
Farzi Café has drawn the nation’s capitals attention by offering new interpretations of Indian dishes with a non stratospheric pricing. It is from the people behind the more expensive and formal Masala Library in Mumbai.
They had the odd molecular gastronomy touch in the form of mishti doi globules and paan candy floss. While those were harmless distractions, what I liked were some of the starters put up by chef Saurabh of Farzi. There was the Hoisin duck samosa which used a tender duck Chinese flavoured stuffing instead of the usual spicy alu, thus adding a new variant to the multiple samosas available in India. The inside out vada pao, with a slight bread stuffing inside the potato croquette, instead of the usual bun outside was pretty tasty as batata vadas go. The dish took a simple street food dish from Mumbai in the West and put it seamlessly in a trendy café in Gurgaon in the North. I had heard about the dal chawal arancini here and quite liked the Indian khichdi variant of the Italian risotto rice ball dish that they served here.
|roast duck samosa|
A couple of dishes that were not as exciting were the pork ribs which could be out of any Indian Chinese sauce heavy restaurant and the kalonji (onion seed) lamb which needed more of the spice to give it an Indian flavour.
There was a nice kadi in the mains. The chef I believe is Rajasthani and was on home ground with this.
I tried the machhed jhol (Bengali fish curry) rice where a fairly Bengali themed onion seeds tempered sauce was served separately with rice and fried fish. This, possibly unknowingly, was a throwback to the Bengali catering tradition of serving the gravy separately from the fish in wedding feasts as the fish would break when cooked in large quantities. There was a crown of fish sauce flavoured rice crispies on the rice which didn’t make sense as the rice crisps would get soggy when mixed with the gravy.
|machher jhol rice|
We quite liked the spicy chorizo rice too though but both Mr Sangvi and I felt Goan sausages would have made the dish more Indian and interesting.
I had the Parle G cheesecake for desserts which was served like the ice cream sandwiches of Mumbai’s K Rustom. This is a rather sweet mithai flavoured cheesecake served sandwiched between two Parle G biscuits. Was a bit overpowering for me.
If I was to sum up the experience at Farzi, it was a vibrant high energy take on contemporary Indian food which took this genre out of its usual fine dining environment and made it more youthful.
Surely the right way to go.
You can’t follow the Indian food scene without bumping into mentions of chef Manish Arora and his legendary Indian Accent. I asked Marryam and Vir about the food there and both turned out to be big fans of Chef Mehrotra’s work. I was then connected with chef Mehrotra who invited me over for dinner. He was not in town but his colleague of many years, chef Shantanu Mehrotra, personally looked after us the night I went to the Indian Accent.
|Chef Shantanu Mehrotra from the Indian Accent|
Mohit AKA Chowder Singh joined me so I had an evening of great conversation to go with the great dinner.
The food served that night Indian Accent was good solid stuff and didn’t have any gimmickry attached to it. It was a fresh play on textures and Indian flavours. Presented in a very modern way, different from what you would associate with traditional Indian restaurants. The ambience is classy and more grown up than that of Farzi. Palki, the manager at Indian Accent, looked after us along with chef Shantanu. She meticulously explained each dish and her enthusiasm was infectious. The restaurant is located in a hotel called The Manor which is a bit difficult to find so you have to cling on to Google maps to get there.
The experience started with an amuse bouche of a little naan which looks pretty normal till the burst of strong blue cheese inside it hit you and energised you.
The strong emphasis of flavours came through in the baked Amritsari masala John Dory where the seductive butter hit took you straight to the temple town of Punjab where butter rules over every kitchen.
|Amritsari masala baked fish|
Vegetarian dishes seem to be a stronger area here as they maximize the contrast of textures in these dishes. The khandvi ravioli was a great contrast of textures. The khandvi layer was thinner than what finds in traditional khandvis which made it go well with the nutty layer below.
|lemon grass, curry powder tofu|
Then there was a beetroot peanut butter tikki which evoked memories of the bhej (vegetable) chops of the streets of Kolkata with the interplay of soft beet and crunchy peanuts. The tikki was steamed and not fried and though the menu said 'peanut butter' there were bites of crushed peanut which contrasted will with the soft and sweet beet mash.
The vegetarian dishes indeed teased your every sense.
In contrast, the kalonji pork ribs seems to underwhelm. While well cooked it didn’t match up to the flavour or texture bursts of the vegetarian dishes. Perhaps a bit more of the onion seeds (kalonji) to start with would help. Similarly the tanginess in the prawn with lemon pickle seems to be a bit too overwhelming and didn’t live up to the multi-sensorial experience evoked by the vegetarian dishes.
Mohit and I, both hardcore non-vegetarians, were wowed more by the vegetarian dishes which is quite an accomplishment for the kitchen.
They serve a range of kulchas with the mains and the bacon and duck kulchas are show stoppers. Some of the pairings didn’t seem to go together that well such as the sausage fried in mustard oil with the gobindobhog khichudi.
|Sausage with khichdi|
The John Dory with pine nut poriyal reminded me of a nice Thai curry. Mohit felt that fresh coconut cream would be nicer. Well, he is the trained chef. As for me, I liked the sharpness in the sauce which went well with the crisp fish.
|poriyal John Dory|
The desserts tended to be on the stronger side and their takes on the meethee roti and the dodi barfi treacle tart will delight those with a strong sweet tooth. I liked both of them. They offer a version of Old Delhi’s Daulat ke chaat too which I felt was overshadowed by the other desserts that we tried.
|The dessert platter|
So did Indian Accent live up to the aura surrounding it?
Well it definitely offered an experience which was different from what one is used to in Indian restaurants. It was different in terms of the plating and presentation. The experience was not just about visual stimulation. Most of the dishes, specially the vegetarian ones, really excited one in terms of the range of taste and texture contrasts. Both Mohit and I agreed that this was good hearty food presented in an exciting format. The food didn’t leave you hungry. Wasn’t about gimmickry or being smart. This is food for those who like to eat.
The tasting menu which comes at close to Rs 3000 would be a good bet here.
My four meals got me thinking. What chef Ravitej and Harish had done in Amaranta was to marry the best of international produce and cooking techniques with the coastal Indian cooking tradition to offer an Indian culinary experience that could hold its own in the international fine dining space.
Chef Kunal used the modern fine dining presentation idiom and drew on the wide range of Indian regional and home cooking to offer an experience which was different from what one is used to in Indian restaurants and is yet very Indian in roots.
The experience in Indian Accent was one which brought in a modern touch to the Indian dining experience. If Lila and Amaranta were about international luxury, then the Indian Accent was more about contemporary spunk and innovation. The Indian roots prominent in all these cases.
Farzi Café seemed to carry on what Indian Accent had started. Its chef after all is from the Indian Accent nursery. What distinguishes Farzi is that its vibe and pricing is a lot more youthful than Indian Accent. This ensures that the experience of modern Indian cuisine spreads to a larger audience from the rarified five star circles which is important for this movement to flourish.
What is to be seen is whether this modern Indian movement can spread to the larger mass from being the reserve of the high end dining space.
Farzi Cafe is a move in this direction. As is Kolkata's Bohemian.
Note: Farzi Cafe and Indian Accent are both supposed to open in Mumbai this year
Disclaimer: This is not an anonymous review. The meals at Amaranta, Diya and Indian Accent were hosted by the restaurants