NYTimes.com Article: Beyond Tandoori in New Delhi
Tue, 4 Mar 2003 07:36:52 -0500 (EST)
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I can personally testify to the wonderful time you'll have at Masala Art's tasting bar, something I'd be quite pleased to see transplanted to SF. Bukhara is OK, but Dum Pukht is a spectacular setting. I passed over Chor Bizarre in London, but I can see its virtues for those afraid of street food -- but good chaat is plentiful enough here. Spice Route, though, is definitely interesting for next time!
Beyond Tandoori in New Delhi
March 2, 2003
By MARK BITTMAN
WHEN it comes to food, New Delhi is filled with options.
There is what amounts to high-risk urban eating: just walk
down any street in Old Delhi and eat the first appealing
snack. There are restaurants geared toward relatively
affluent Indians; some of these are good but not easy for
tourists to find or navigate. Much of the cooking designed
for tourists isn't Indian at all, and who wants to eat
Italian food here?
But there are a few hotels, mostly top-of-the-ladder,
striving to prepare world-class Indian cuisine, and
succeeding. Because New Delhi is the capital, much of this
is regional cuisine from around the country, elevated to
elegance. The ingredients and preparation are generally
top-notch, and efforts are made to showcase individual
flavors. This is worth noting, because in some restaurants
many dishes are overwhelmed by the sheer number of spices,
muddying the flavor (the common approach is to add a hefty
dose of chilies). These four restaurants are different;
here, a creation might smack distinctively of cardamom and
saffron, or amchur (dried mango powder) and garlic, or
simply cloves or fenugreek, or another single spice or
elementary combination; such dishes feel bolder and more
distinctive than those that are simply "spicy."
The New Delhi restaurant that has received the most
international attention is Bukhara, in the Maurya Sheraton.
Bill Clinton said he wished he had two stomachs when he ate
there; there is now a menu named after Chelsea. But Bukhara
is basically a first-rate tandoori restaurant. Tandoori, of
all Indian cuisines, is the type best represented abroad.
The room was built in the 70's, mostly of wood, with a faux
rustic air that detracts from its comfort. But the
glassed-in kitchen is a treat. Eat here if you have the
inclination and time (by all means order the leg of lamb,
which is incredible), but don't expect any surprises. For
new delights, the restaurants below are better choices.
I ate here my first night in New Delhi, and
assumed that I found the food staggeringly delicious
because of a combination of excitement, jet lag and my
first taste of Indian food in situ. But during my travels,
I found nothing to surpass it. And, when I returned here on
my last night, I was again delighted.
The room, in the Taj Palace Hotel, is modern - polished
bamboo floors, deep blue burlap-covered columns, an open
tandoori kitchen, a bright bar, tables of dark parquet wood
- and could be anywhere (the background music has a
decidedly Western backbeat). Service is efficient, pleasant
and knowledgeable, well above the standard in even the best
restaurants in the city.
The food and the menu are also modern. There is a separate
starter menu, and both combination platters - one
vegetarian, one non - are worth trying. Especially notable
are the makai motia seekh, a fritter of cheese, corn and
peppers, marked by its distinctive sourness, derived from
amchur; and the chicken with burnt garlic and cardamom.
Galouti kebab, a patty of finely minced lamb seasoned with
136 spices, is most interesting for the special paratha -
buttery layered bread, cooked in a skillet - on which it
sits. Made of semolina, saffron and a bit of sugar, it is
sweet, crunchy, thin, gorgeous and golden. If you sit at
the counter, you can watch it being made (more on that in a
minute). Spicy deep-fried ladyfish, a local specialty, is
done exquisitely here; for fried-fish lovers, it will be a
>From the main menu, the black dal is special, its flavor
like nothing other than a kind of sour chocolate; dal is
everywhere, and this is its zenith. Nukti kebab, an
incomparably flavored lamb stew, shows just how dull most
"lamb curry" is outside of India. The saffron-scented
biryani, pilaf with goat, lamb or chicken, is also lovely.
The assortment of breads - a high point in almost every
good restaurant in town, and a daily delight everywhere -
is astonishing; the sheermal, another yellow
saffron-semolina bread, was one I could not stop eating.
If you are alone, or in a twosome, try sitting at the
counter, where you will be offered a number of tasting
menus. The choices are plentiful and good, the portions
small - though if you finish any given dish you are likely
to be offered more, even if it means the chef must cook it
on the spot. And the view is intriguing, even exciting.
There are two or more chefs working here, using oversized
pans and burners, and anyone interested in cooking will
have a ball.
I cannot recall a time, during my 20-odd years of writing
about restaurants, when I recommended a restaurant for its
décor. That is about to change: go to the Spice Route, even
if it's for a drink. It is among the most impressively
beautiful restaurants imaginable, one that reportedly took
seven years to build in the Imperial Hotel, an independent
operation that is a common choice of moneyed travelers. The
restaurant is made up of nine areas, including a central
room done as a courtyard surrounded by four sloping roofs
with scalloped tiles. The view into the other areas, each
of which has a few tables, is varied and intriguing. No
matter where you're seated, whether in the center or in one
of the other areas (actually, there are 10: a gorgeous
courtyard for smokers was recently added), you must get up
and walk around. Ask one of the managers for a tour, if
it's not too busy.
What you'll see are columns, murals and carvings, some
hundreds of years old and some custom-made re-creations;
everything has been hand-painted. Each of the sections
represents a different aspect of life and death: there is a
door carved like a quilt, the sandstone sculptures one
encounters throughout northern India, an Indian version of
a modernist industrial mural, and jade columns with
intricate carvings. It's an exotic, fascinating mishmash,
perfectly illuminated from above, and a wonderful place for
gazing from the comfort of the cozy chairs around the
generously spaced tables.
The Spice Route is such eye candy that the food is slightly
overshadowed, but it also may be that catering to a large
international clientele has taken some of the character out
of the otherwise authentic dishes. This isn't strictly
Indian food, let alone North Indian, but food from - as you
might guess - the entire spice route, essentially south and
southeast Asia. I particularly liked Kerala style prawns
(chemeen thoren) with coconut, tamarind and mustard, which
smacks heavily of the distinctive flavor of curry leaves.
Lamb and potatoes stewed in coconut milk (Irachi stew) was
also intriguing - among the mildest dishes I had all week,
yet complex and delicious.
The small things are done well here: jasmine rice - an
irresistible dish of spinach with soy, garlic, butter and
chilies - and the plain paratha, the best I had all week.
Service is sophisticated. In fact, if the cooking were more
consistently exciting, I would be raving about the whole
experience. But the view is worth the price of admission,
and the food is certainly appealing.
A chor bazaar is a thieves' market: when your front door is
missing, this is where you go to look for it. So this is a
play on words, and the décor suits it. Neither chairs nor
silverware match, one of the tables is made from a
four-poster bed, a couple of others from sewing machines;
there is a snack buffet set up in a beautiful 1927 Fiat,
and there are curios all over the place - some for sale.
It's corny by United States standards, but inventive here,
where few moderately priced restaurants try to distinguish
Chor Bizarre's location doesn't hurt: it's in a modest but
decent hotel (the Broadway) on the fringe of Old Delhi.
(There is a branch in London's Mayfair, too.) But the food
is the attraction. One problem with Old Delhi is that the
streets are filled with snacks, all calling your name; they
called mine, anyway. But you are warned off eating street
food so often that you only manage to eat a fraction of
what's available. (I would say, for example, that the
parathas, fully cooked on the spot, are quite safe, as are
most of the milk-based desserts, as long as you steer clear
of the sauces.)
Chor Bizarre solves this problem by bringing some of the
Delhi snacks into the restaurant, where they are prepared
with "safe" ingredients (water is the biggest problem, as
far as I could tell). Here you can get bread puffs filled
with chickpeas, potatoes, tamarind sauce and yogurt; a
supergingery potato cake with coriander and mint chutney;
tiny crisp crackers made from chickpea flour; assorted
pakora and samosas; and more, on a rotating basis.
The regular menu is good, but the best reason to eat here
is the Kashmiri food. If you're part of a large private
party, and you give notice, Chor Bizarre will make you a
wazwan, a Kashmiri feast. This is the equivalent of a vast
tasting menu, eaten, if you like, while seated on the
floor. But there is enough Kashmiri food on the menu to
satisfy any novice, and the dishes, served in a ring on a
copper plate around a mound of rice, are unusual and
You might start with fried lotus stems (nadroo choorma),
which are so much like fried pork rinds that I considered,
however briefly, becoming a vegetarian. Continue with haaq,
a green much like collards, cooked with hing (asafetida
powder - an odd-smelling but essential spice used
throughout India); fried spare ribs; rista, a special
meatball of pounded lamb, which I suspect contains more
than a little fat; and a wonderful concoction of eggplant
and apple. There are at least 12 different dishes
altogether, and I found none I didn't like. For dessert
there is semolina pudding with almonds and saffron, or
kulfi (ice milk) flavored with pistachio, saffron, vetiver
(an herb found in many perfumes), rose water and cardamom,
topped with bland noodles for texture; not bad.
Downstairs from Bukhara in the Maurya Sheraton,
this is a far less glamorous and, from a tourist
perspective, less popular restaurant (there is no mention
of Clinton), but food-savvy residents all recommend it,
with good reason: this is regional food from Lucknow, a
city southeast of New Delhi, and some of it is downright
On the hotel's lower level, the restaurant is eclectic,
elegant and pleasant in a colonial Indian kind of way:
crystal chandeliers, marble floor partly covered with rugs,
velvet wall hangings embroidered with gold thread, white
walls trimmed in lavender. It's not my taste, but several
people commented on how they loved it, right down to the
silk-embroidered menu presented on a metal plate.
There are two kinds of specialties here. One is a variety
of kebabs, which does not mean skewered food but grilled
food. There's a spinach kebab, for example, a crisp-cooked,
tender patty of finely puréed spinach with fenugreek, and a
lamb kebab spiced with cloves, cinnamon and chilies called
kakori. Both are worth sampling. But it's the food cooked,
and sometimes served, in sealed pots (dum means breath,
pukht to cook), that should bring you here. Lamb shank,
chicken and vegetables are done this way, and they are all
mild and fragrant. Best, I think, is the biryani, in which
mutton (which usually means goat, not lamb) is cooked in
rice scented with whole black cardamom pods, saffron and
butter; opened at the table, the aroma is beyond beguiling,
so wonderful you (almost) need not eat it to appreciate it.
Some side dishes were interesting, too: a burnt garlic
raita (yogurt salad, essentially) was delicious, and the
naan - flatbread cooked in a tandoor oven - was
exceptional. Desserts were good, too. Gulab jamun, a
doughnutlike pastry soaked in honey-based sugar syrup, is a
local dessert people insisted all week that I try; this is
the only version I found good enough to actually eat.
As visitors will quickly discover,
there are many ways to get around New Delhi, and none of
them involves having you drive. For any distance, it is
best to have your hotel or the restaurant call you a car.
For quick hops and variety, bicycle or motorized rickshaws
are an option for a single person or a couple. The cost
will most likely be less than $2.
Thanks to import duties, wine is outrageously expensive in
India, roughly twice what you'd expect to pay in the United
States (domestic wine, which is affordable, is
undrinkable). Best to stick to beer; the domestic scotch,
whisky and rum aren't bad either. Most visitors insist on
bottled water, though the better hotels have adequate
filtration systems. All these restaurants offer nonsmoking
sections and take major credit cards. Prices are calculated
at 48 rupees to the dollar.
Masala Art, Taj Palace Hotel, 2 Sardar Patel Marg,
Diplomatic Enclave; Chanakyapuri; (91-11) 2611 0202,
extension 3588; fax (91-11) 2611 0808. Open daily for lunch
and dinner. An elaborate lunch or dinner for two will cost
about $60, though you could easily spend less.
Spice Route, Imperial Hotel, 1, Janpath; (91-11) 2334 1234,
extension 4455; fax (91-11) 2334 2255. Open daily for
lunch, dinner. A three-course meal for two will cost about
Chor Bizarre, Broadway Hotel, 4/15a, Asaf Ali Road (near
Delhi Gate); (91-11) 2327 3821, extension 102; fax (91-11)
2326 9966. Open daily for lunch and dinner. It would be
difficult to spend more than $40 for two here, and you
could have a great meal for half that.
Dum Pukht, Hotel Maurya Sheraton and Towers, Sardar Patel
Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri; (91-11) 2611 2233
extension 1975; fax (91-11) 2611 3333. Open daily for
dinner. A three-course meal will cost about $40 for two.
Mark Bittman writes for the dining section of The
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