Note: The dinner turned out to be a treat from Ritu Dalmia though that was not the plan. This is not an anonymous review
Meet Ritu Dalmia.
Ritu is a Delhi based restaurateur and TV food personality who runs the Diva chain of restaurants.
Diva is the only air-conditioned Tony (high end) restaurant in India which I specifically wanted to go to and eat at.
Different from the old school, often hole in the wall, seeped in history, family run places that appeal to me.
So why did Diva turn me on?
Well Ritu had written a book called Travelling Diva sometime back which her publishers sent to me even though I told them I don’t review books on the blog unless they catch my fancy. When I received the book I saw that it was recipe book and shoved it in a corner somewhere as I don’t read such books.
Then one day I was bored and with nothing to do and took out the book and began flipping through it disinterestedly. After a couple of pages I slowed down and spent some more time on it. My interest was piqued. Then I began to pay even more attention to the book as the evening passed and that’s when it struck me, this was not just a book…this was a blog in the form of a book!
Let me explain.
The Travelling Diva, I realised, is not just a book of recipes. It is more like a journal where Ritu talks to us about her life, her travels, her friends, her family, her lover, herself, her food. Slowly you began to get an insight into the author the way you would get into a person’s life though his or her blog. Along with the stories there were some pretty lovely photographs. I soon leapt past all the recipes and read Ritu’s tales.
Which is why I never reviewed Travelling Diva. The technical way to review a recipe book is to to try out a few recipes and then write about how they work. While I did skim through the odd recipe in the book, I read them more for inspiration and not for direction.
Something, incidentally, Ritu asks us to do in the preface of Travelling Diva. She says that she has not been very precise in giving measurements so that the reader can chart their own path too.
Which is what bloggers do unlike professional recipe writers.
There is no pattern to the book. You have articles on red velvet cakes, sabudana vadas and Vietnamese spring rolls floating eclectically the way they would on a blog where the blogger writes from the unpredictably of one’s life and not always to a theme. And that’s Ritu for you.
World travelled Kolkata based Marwari settled in Delhi…drawing from her myriad life experiences rather than being pigeonholed by her origins.
I finally got to meet Ritu in my recent trip to Delhi. All thanks to my friend and food writer, the eminently huggable Marryam Reshi. When I told Marryam that I wanted to go to Diva she said ‘don’t you dare going there without me’.
So there I was at Diva at GK2 Market, Delhi, sharp at 9.30 pm that night. This outlet I think is the first of the Diva restaurants.
Marryam was there as was Ritu. Both flashing big smiles. The joke amongst those who know the two is that they look like sisters. A similar observation by me was followed by typically feminine jousts on who was the prettiest of them all.
I wisely stayed out of it.
They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover but you can definitely judge an author by her blog and Ritu turned out to be exactly what I expected her to be. Warm, witty, tongue in cheek, pleasant to talk to, down to earth, gracious and very hospitable.
She pulled my ears, figuratively, for saying ‘vegetables’ when she asked me if I was allergic to anything and immediately forked some prosciutto, grilled prawn AND salsa and gave it to me. She said she would make sure now that there was something green in all my plates and instructed Marryam to see that I finished my veggies even if Ritu herself was in the kitchen.
On hearing I was Bengali she said “I am from Kolkata…I know all about Bengalis…they think they are French and are as fussy…I am not taken in by you guys”.
It’s only when I told her during my fan boy gushing that I too didn’t believe in being hidebound about recipes or that, like her, wasn’t too fixated about they ‘ultimate and only’ place to try out street food dishes that Ritu thawed and said “you know what, you are not very Bong'”.
I looked back at her with a straight face.
I have often met folks for the first time who knew me and vice versa through our blogs and the topics of discussion often would centre around stuff we might have written on the blogs. It was exactly the same with Ritu that evening as I told her about my fav bits from her book such as the part about her mopping up sauces off pans in the kitchen with a piece of bread… I do that at home. Or of the acquaintance of hers who went to restaurants in Italy armed with a Hyderabadi pickle. When Ritu mentioned a chef friend of hers I said “oh this is the lady who had first come to steal a recipe from you”.
Yes, I had internalised the Travelling Diva without planning to do so.
On hearing me recite the stories from her book Ritu said, “you know what, you are making me nervous about whether I can deliver to your expectations.”
I replied, “Don’t bother, just imagine I have come to your home for dinner”.
“Well, this is my home” said Ritu as she disappeared into the kitchen and what followed was a feast for a king.
First an amuse bouche with a maddeningly bewitching crisp grilled cheese shard followed by a porcini, mozarella ciabata. Next up was a decadent pairing of prosciutto and grilled prawns with a salsa that brought in a sense of balance and calm to the hedonism on display. Then there were some scallops too.
Next were the pastas and by mistake they had got a spinach ravioli, which they had got for Marryam, for me too. I hadn’t ordered any of the food and had put myself into the hands of the two able ladies.
I said I’d try the ravioli rather than send it back and then ended up wiping the plate clean. I had never liked ravioli before as the ones I had had were stodgy and under-flavoured. The ones at Diva, on the other hand were light, airy and a delight to munch on. The pine nuts strewn across the dish elevated it to a different textural contrast level.
If there was still any doubt that our Delhiwalli Marwari from Kolkata knew her pasta then the pasta that followed for me settled it.
Three cheese pasta farfell with sausages. Intensely flavoured and one of my standout Delhi taste memories of a trip bursting with some fantastic food experiences. Deconstructing the sausages and spreading the sausage bits though the pasta was sheer genius. It inspired me to come back and try the same with aglio olio and Hungarian sausages from Kalman’s.
Thanks for the idea Ritu.
A tad tough tenderloin with bacon followed and then desserts.
Marryam who had fish for her mains got a sugar free (by pre-booking) berry pannacota which would have fooled anyone about its non-diabetic quotient.
I had a tasting platter of desserts – brownies, tea cakes, a very nice fig tart but what stood out was a lemon sorbet with foam whose molecules went ‘whoosh’ in my mouth. The lemon sorbet was the sort of stuff that picked you up and rejuvenated you in a way very few spas would.
When I had earlier told folks in Delhi that I was going to Diva most spoke about how it is a chef run place and how they occasionally had Ritu coming up to their tables and checking on them, and in one case sending a cake when she found out someone had got his mom over for her birthday. My friends said that the chef’s involvement is what made the Diva stand out.
Come to think of it, it’s the same owner’s pride and sweat that goes into small unheralded honest street-side eats that work for me.
Diva is just an air-conditioned avatar version of such places.
Ritu is not comfortable with the label of ‘fine dining’ though as she told me that she wanted folks to be comfortable and enjoy their food at her restaurant rather than fuss about coat-tails and cutlery (my paraphrasing).
In case you are wondering how much the meal cost, Ritu had left because of a bad back before we were done, and when we went to pay her manager said that Ritu had left word that the dinner was on her…seems like she had taken ‘imagine we have come to your place to eat’ bit seriously.
Well, Ritu and Marryam, next time you girls are in Mumbai drop in and I will cook for you.
Er, that wasn’t meant to be a threat.