Lessons in corporate excellence as told by three Indian restaurants in Lutyen's Delhi's Connaught Place

Bedmi puri, alu and balushahi at Hira Sweets

What are the Sodexo CXO Food Walks all about?

'You must have the balushahi there,' said my young friend and food enthusiast, Amit Patnaik, when I mentioned Hira Sweets  to him. I had phoned him up from Mumbai to discuss the options for the Sodexo CXO Food Walk at Delhi's Connaught Place that I was putting into place in Mumbai that day.

The Sodexo CXO Food walk is a programme where I partner with Sodexo Benefits India and where we take CXOs from their corporate clients on a food walk. After Mumbai and Bangalore in the past, this time we were doing the walk at Delhi. I chose Connaught Place as the idea of these walks is to take senior corporates back to parts of their cities which were once the commercial hub and which might now have lost their sheen thanks to urban expansion. The business hub for Delhi NCR today, for example, would be Gurgaon and Noida in Haryana and UP. Not Connaught Place in what is wryly referred to as 'Lutyen's Delhi' in media circles. In these food walks, we take folks to restaurants affiliated with Sodexo in the heritage spots of a city. The aim is to give a flavour of the rich and warm food culture of these places which is so different from that in the office canteen and cafe dependent, gargantuan, steel and glass office buildings of today. The idea is to try to put back the soul back into their work lives, even if for a few hours. As it is obvious from the previous sentence, I have a rather strong point of view on this from my own days in corporate Mumbai and I thought that I must state that up front. Yes, the canteens in agencies that I had worked in would evoke the same reaction in me as the phrase 'Lutyen's Delhi' does in TV journalist Arnab Goswami, but more on that some other day.

The mention of the sweet called balushahi brought back memories of my chomping on 'balushoi' (as I called it then) as a kid at sweet shops such as Ganguram in Kolkata. I learnt later in life that Ganguram was set up by a gentleman who had come to Kolkata from Varanasi. I guess this explains the cross pollination of mithais and mishti in the city. By the time we had moved into Kolkata in the early 1980s, Ganguram was seen as a very 'Bengali' sweet shop, but then this story is not about Kolkata.

Balushahi to bedmi puri. The Hira Sweets story

Balushahi at Hira Sweets

The story of Hira Sweets is a rather interesting one. It all started with the balushahi itself. Way back in 1912, and home-made parathas. This was at an area called Shahadra in the outskirts of east Delhi where the late Pandit Hira Lal Sharma operated a cart selling just these two dishes, balushahi and paratha. The business grew over the years and the family opened an outlet at a place called Rohtash Nagar 70 years later in 1982. The Connaught Place outlet was opened in 2012 and is part of the Ram Babu Sharma group. There are many more branches now across Delhi NCR.

The outlet that we went to at CP (as Connaught Place is commonly referred tp) is a two storied, air conditioned, very neat and clean one. The balushahi still gets centre stage there. The tava made home styled parathas have been replaced by tandoor parathas though. The shop has an extensive array of sweets beyond the balushahi now and of which the patisha and the sohan halwa are crowd favourites I am told. There are savoury snacks on offer as well. The chhole bhature for example. A dish which visitors like me to Delhi try to have when in the city. Then there are dosas, medu vadas and idlis from south Indian, which local Delhiwlas cannot seem to get enough of now. I often wryly refer to this dosa love of Delhi as the city's 'eating fondue in summer in Switzerland syndrome' equivalent. If you see someone have a chhole bhature in its sweet shops, you can be sure they would be a tourist just as anyone who has fondue outside of winter in Switzerland is said to be one by locals. The real Delhiwalas are busy downing their idlis and dosas and vadas at such places, with a gusto that puts Tamilians at Murugan Idli in Chennai, and Bangaloreans at CTR and MTR and Vidyarthi Bhavan, to shame!

We had the famed balushahi of Hira Sweets on the walk of course. And the bedmi puri. The latter is an old Delhi breakfast favourite, which I believe draws its origins in Varanasi. the first time that  I had bedmi puri, was with good old Amit Patnaik, at old Delhi's Shyam Sweets. Udad dal is added to the flour dough explained the participants in the walk. This gives the puris a very interesting coarse texture. You break a piece of the puri with your hands and then mop up the alu sabzi (potato curry) served on the side. There is a chatpata (lip-smacking) tanginess to the curry which comes to it from the addition of aamchur (dried mango powder).

Follow this with a sugar soaked balushahi, as we did on the walk, and you are primed to take on whatever the day throws at you.

With the very efficient staff and team at Hira Sweets who set the tone for the walk that was to follow that morning

Raan to soya chaap. The Nazeer Foods Story.

The chef brings out the soya chaap at Nazeer

Our next stop was the Nazeer Foods outlet at Connaught Place. If you see the place from outside, it does look a bit 'boring'. Those are not my words. I actually saw a couple of international visitors pass it by the evening before the walk, peep in and say, 'it looks boring,' before they walked into a new, glammed up restaurant close by.

Yes, the Nazeer Foods outlet at Connaught Place does look like a sanitised QSR but do not let that fool you. This place has a very interesting history which goes back to 1975, when a certain Mr Aftab Ahmed used to sell poultry products to five star hotels in the city. His interest in food got him to spend time talking with chefs and cooks and his clients from the industry, till he decided to open a restaurant himself. This was 32 years back in 1987 when he bought some land at a place called Ganesh Nagar and started a restaurant called Nazeer. He put his all into this and even shutdown his poultry business. Since then Nazeer foods has expanded using the QSR (quick service restaurant) model taking the flavours of Ganesh Nagar across Delhi NCR, making the food there more accessible in the process.

Cream with raan at Nazeer

We learnt this while chomping on a raan (slow cooked leg of goat), finished with cream to give it that 'Mughlai' touch. It was crowned with the sliced green chillies and ginger slivers that niharis in Delhi are served with. And beetroot carved flowers which would be a throwback to five star hotel banquets in the 70s when Mr Ahmed started his journey in food.

For the vegetarians, we had soya chaap, the indigenous 'mock meat' that Delhi cannot seem to get enough of, cooked in spices similar to that of the raan. Can I confess that I liked this even better than the raan?

To go with these, we had freshly made rumali rotis.

That's Amit Patnaik in the corner with the beard. He joined us for a bit.

Nazeer offers what is called Mughlai food. ‘Mughlai food’ does not necessarily refer to what the erstwhile Mughal emperors of India ate. This refers to a genre of food sold originally in low priced, hole in the wall eateries, run by Muslims and which sprouted up after the fall of the last Mughal emperor in Delhi from what I gather. The fare consisted of meat heavy (and not the best cuts of it) dishes, slow cooked with lots of oil and dalda and ghee, spices and chillies. to result in rather robust dishes, different from what one ate at home, and which were economical to cook and did not require much finesse. The ingredients used in what the Mughal emperors would eat, and the amount of culinary skill that would go into cooking their dishes, would obviously be very different from that served in these humble roadside establishments. What restaurants such as Nazeer have done, is to bring in a level of hygiene and quality focus in 'Mughlai food.' Thereby helping the genre to move from back alleys to the high streets and amenable to middle and upper middle class consumers. Even if it got sanitised a bit in the process!

Chicken chaat to cona coffee. The Embassy Restaurant story.

When Mr Malhotra welcomed me to Delhi with the Embassy Pudding and cona coffee

"We have been doing fusion food since 1948," said Mr Sunil Malhotra of the Embassy Restaurant, when I met him for the first time. This was in the evening before the walk and soon after I had landed in Delhi. He fed me the Embassy Pudding and a cona coffee and I decided to adopt him as my grandpa (though he is probably a bit younger than what my father would have been) after that. The pudding consists of a sugar syrup soaked sponge casing and is filled with fresh cream and bits of preserved fruits and nuts of the sort that you find in the 'tutti fruity', the sundae that kids of my generation have grown up on across India. It is topped with a cherry from a tin. It is moist and indulgent and yet not too sweet. It would be fair to say that it tasted of my childhood in a bite and made me giggle like a two year old.

The cona coffee, served from a beaker and with a spot of cream, was a very adult experience though and spoke of the legendary coffee shops of Vienna and Prague.

Mutton samosa at Embassy
Mr Malhotra told me that the restaurant was founded by his father PN Malhotra and father's friend, GN Ghai. They knew each other from Karachi where they ran a restaurant called Kwality. A restaurant which was started by a group of friends from the Jhelum area in west Punjab, who were working on building the Karachi airport back then and who missed getting good Punjabi nosh in Sindh. They opened a 250 seater restaurant in Karachi as they missed their native Punjabi food.

The group of friends moved in to India after the partition. Malhotra and Ghai came to Delhi where there was already a restaurant Kwality which has been opened in 1940. They did some 'market research' as Mr Malhotra told me, and came up with the name, the Embassy Restaurant and then opened it in 1948. Being someone who had started his career in market research myself, my eyes lit up when I heard this.

Others from the group from Karachi settled in various cities across post partition India and opened restaurants with the Kwality of Sindh that they had all left behind as the reference. Kolkata, where I grew up, has Kwality restaurants for example. Mumbai had it too and I had been to these decades back. In my recent trip to Jamshedpur, I was advised to go to the Kwality there though I could not make it due to lack of time. That restaurant is shutting down soon from I heard.

These restaurants serve a core Punjabi meets old school 'continental', menu and the occasional 'Chinese too.' Some, like the Kwality in Delhi which I went to last year, and whose makeover I was most impressed with, and Embassy, have reinvented themselves with time and remain very popular. Some have lost steam and even shut down.

The Embassy Restaurant, I learnt from Mr Malhotra, was gutted in an unfortunate fire in 2013. It rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes in a newly designed and rather chic avatar a year later. The look might be new but the presence of the dishes of yore, the staff too and above all the members of founding family (the third generation is into the business too now), ensures that the Embassy still remains a hub of familiarity and warmth in a city that is fast changing.

The Embassy Restaurant, which is one of the iconic eateries of Connaught Place, was the venue of the finale of our walk and what a gorgeous and happy ending it was.

Chicken chaat at Embassy

We got a taste of some of the dishes that have made the Embassy what it is today. The chicken chaat, for example, that many of my readers recommended I try. Tender strips of juicy chicken, embraced by a prawn cocktail-like, mustard and chilli specked mayonnaise hug, bejewelled with finely chopped onions that added to the chaat-like feel. Not avant garde you say? I loved it. Call me old fashioned if you want.

Liver with fried onions at Embassy

 As I did love the liver and onion fry that Amit had told me to try at Embassy a year back while giving me recommendations on where I should go for lunch. It is no longer on the menu, said Mr Malhotra. ‘People are cholesterol conscious’, he explained. ‘We serve (goat) brain pakoras though still’. The logic of this baffled me though I did try the cholesterol laden goat brain bombs (too bland compared to Parsi bheja nu 'cutlace' of Mumbai), before diving into the goat liver and onion, old school steak and kidney pie-like dish, that Mr Malhotra had got made for us.

"I will get it made specially for you," he said with a twinkle in his eyes when he saw how the crestfallen I looked the previous day on hearing that it was no longer on the menu. The liver in onion glaze treat lived up to the build up Amit had given it.

Non veg and veg samosa at Embassy

There was more. "Do you know how much our samosas weigh," asked papa Malhotra when I first spoke to him. "Twenty grammes," I took a wild guess. "Pah," he replied. "each weighs 400 grams!" We tried both the next day. The spiced and mashed boiled potato with tiny paneer cubes, vegetarian one, and the mutton (minced goat meat and green peas), non vegetarian one. I tried to take a tray of four in each hand realised that this is best left to one of the Deols.

 Not the stuff for Bengalis brought up on dainty fulkopir shingaras!

'Main balwan,' as Mithunda would say

More classics came to our tables. The chicken a la Kiev (perhaps one should have stuck to the mutton cutlet and the fresh cheese cutlets that Mr Malhotra had suggested as this was not their strength), veg au gratin, tava paneer, kaali daal, the bhature with pindi channa, the sukhi daal of Lahore (dried udad dal which I had first eaten at Bandra's National Restaurant) and then, what was another big hit that afternoon, the tutti frutti and, but of course, the Embassy pudding.

We did not get to try the tandoori chicken which Mr Malhotra said we should have as theirs is not over-spiced ,or the dal meat or the cheese balls, but we did try the tomato fish, a fusion continental dish, that you will find in pedigreed Delhi restaurants.  I was gobsmacked by how flavour packed the tomato dressing was and how well it went with breaded sole fish fry that lay below it, nestled with French fries.

Tomato fish at Embassy

My experience at Embassy  made me wonder about why we feel so shy of naming standalone restaurants such as these - others examples that come to mind would be United Coffee House and Kwality in Delhi and Gallops in Mumbai - which have moved on with the times and yet showcase what fine dining in the once newly independent nation state of India was all about. Why is it that we only speak of the new (and there is great work happening there too), when making the innumerable 'India's best/ top etc restaurant' lists floating around?

I believe that there is still quite a bit of life left in these old gems and we need to credit them for this. The experience that they offer is indeed uniquely 'Indian' after all.

What did we learn today?

An attentive class at Embassy

As I had said earlier, the idea of the #SodexoCXOFoodWalk series is to expose the corporate CXOs of today to the heritage eateries of their cities and see what these have to offer.

At the end of our walk on Saturday (3rd November), we were left behind with some compelling lessons on corporate excellence from the restaurants that we went to. Let me therefore end by sharing some of what we learnt.
  1. From the consistency in the taste of each bedmi puri that we had at Hira Sweets, where each puri served to us tasted the same despite it being a busy morning, one learnt the need to set up foolproof systems and delegate as apt, when entrepreneur driven enterprises expand in scale.
  2. From the QSR experience at Connaught Place through which we got a taste of the story of Nazeer Foods that had started at obscure Ganesh Nagar (which no one in the walk had heard of!), one learnt the need to think of out of the box - in this case in terms of reach and retail formats - and to not be constricted by ones circumstances.
  3. And from Mr Sunil Malhotra of the Embassy Restaurant, one learnt that there is no substitute to the involvement and passion of the owner/ management in running a business. When I asked him what lay behind running a successful restaurant, he told me that one has to 'turn up everyday' and be a 'guinea pig' (taste the products, know what is happening).
At the end of the Delhi #SodexoCXOFoodWalk. Trying to fit into the frame after all the food!


Videos from the Walk.

The planning of the walk:

This history of Embassy as narrated by Mr Sunil Malhotra

And the walk:

Stories of previous #SodexoCXOFood Walks


Posts on places mentioned above:


Keka said…
Great post! Really enjoyed reading it!
I wonder where you would take people if you did the same thing in Kolkata!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Keka Thank you. There are so many lovely spots in Kolkata. I do hope we do one there soon
Amit Patnaik said…
Now we must do those Barra kababs when you are in Delhi next?