New Delhi: Food for Tingling Palates

NEW DELHI --Sometimes food can arrive as a revolution and a revelation. IS there is better way to experience and fall in love with a food than to be blown away by the experience, new flavors, textures, concepts?

I must admit that the earth shook over a recent lunch at the popular New Delhi restaurant Bukhara, a cave-like, restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of mughals, a nomadic people who were big, with huge appetites, and in love with meat. So meat we ate, in many versions, in many variations. Seated on low tables, we were surrounded by rock walls, wooden pillars, and copper cooking vessels.

The restaurant has been there since 1977, and the food arrives from an open kitchen, where almost everything is cooked in clay tandoori ovens. Quite simply, the cuisine as offered here is some of the most intense, dramatic, and pleasing food I have sampled in a long time. It is also, in its own way, very subtle.

Forget the mish-mash menus we are used to with much Indian food. Here, each creation is there for its own sake, not to be doused with sauce or yogurt, pickles or breads. It is pure and it is simple.

We were encouraged to eat with our hands (“there is something in the fingers that give to the flavor,” suggested our Indian host), devouring with passion kababs of lamb and chicken, mutton and prawns, river sole as well as tender mutton chops. We wore bib-like aprons around our necks, because as the locals like to say, this is a very messy cuisine. Each delicacy had its own character, its own history, offering a specific pleasure. Out of the medley my favorite for sure was the chicken, served in two delicate kebabs, one stuffed with a fiery green chili, another milder version stuffed with a gooey, soothing bit of cheese. Lamb appeared in all different manners, from a tender tiny mutton chop that was marinated and black pepper and figs, then pan grilled and finished in a covered pot sealed with dough, with a slow charcoal fire applied from the top, and a slow live fire from the bottom, making for a dish that is juicy, full-flavored, aromatic, satisfying. I laughed just a bit at the long cylinder of Kakori Kabab, a delicate blend of very very finely minced mutton, cloves, and cinnamon, carefully skewered, char grilled and drizzled with saffron. This was the specialty created for toothless emperors, who could no longer choose to chew their tender delicacies! Looking back, I also fell in love with the gorgeous, bright green discs of Pan Kabab, dainty patties of spiced, finely minced mutton, wrapped with beatle leaves and pan grilled. The result was as refined as it was rustic, mouth filling, amazing, satisfying. River fish arrived minced, in little paupiettes, stuffed with cheese and onions, flavored with garam Masala and pan-grilled.

I was intrigued by the digestive drink – jal jeera – made of tamarind water, roasted black pepper, cumin seeds, fresh mint, black salt, and lemon juice. The “neat” version is delicious, as is the same enlivened with a touch of vodka.

When you go, be sure to stand at the kitchen window for a bit, to gaze upon the dozens of soft, spicy kababs as they are drawn from the ovens. Ask Chef G. Sultan Mohideen to create a special menu. And do sample the amazing cool drink of mint and black pepper, one that will surely pacify any fiery palates. You won’t regret it.

Chor Bizarre, the perfect spot for dining after a whirlwind rickshaw ride through the market streets of Old Delhi, lives up to its name, Bizarre. But that’s just the décor: Imagine a 1927 Fiat Roadster that serves as a buffet “table.” All the china is intentionally worn and mismatched, none of the chairs are the same, and walls are loaded with photos of Elvis and Marilyn, and there is a gorgeous spiral staircase that goes to nowhere. This is because the word “chor” is thief, and this is an attempt to be a thieves bazaar. Thank goodness the kitsch stops there, for the food was welcoming and fiery, and varied and sure to please any lover of Indian food. I most adored, and could not get enough of their spinach specialty, palak patta chat, or spinach leaves coated with flour and topped with tamarind chutney and blended yogurt. The dish was totally balanced, a blend of bitter and sweet, some crunch some smoothness, creating a very satisfying blend.

Equally distinctive was the Punjabi tandoor chaat, seasoned vegetables – here a mix of cubed potatoes and green peppers with pineapple for a touch of sweetness – here marinated in spiced and yogurt, grilled in the tandoori oven and sprinkled with spicy chaat Masala. The mirchi kerma, lamb cooked in hot gravy with kashmiri chilies, cardamom and cloves, was evenly spiced if a bit on the heavy side. The mouth-tingling flat, lentil papadam were crisp, delicate, delicious.

If you’re in the mood for some sure-footed, totally traditional Indian foot with no fancy footwork, just solid, clear-flavored fare, try the warm, cozy, Haveli. Here – amid classic Indian dancers and live piano music in the evening – you’ll find some of plumpest, most succulent shrimp, marinated in a traditional tandoori Masala, then grilled over the glowing embers of he tandoori oven. Another worthy starter is chef Irshad Ahmed Qureshi’s chicken tikka, moist tandoori-roasted chunks of chicken breast, soft, gently spiced, and satisfying (and much preferable to the generally dried-out whole chicken breast.)

The restaurant is decorated like an old royal home, filled with elegant chandeliers, Indian artwork, wood carvings and lamps. The cuisine is that of the royal Mughals, yet here one can request the chef update and lighten some of the fare, so such as a fine, light yellow dal, prepared with yellow lentils and extra virgin olive oil, as well as a colorful vegetable medley – khara Masala – that combines button mushrooms, baby corn and bright green broccoli in a tomato gravy. Save room for the deliciously moist biryiani, a fine-flavored rice dish loaded with giant chunks of top-quality lamb carefully seasoned with saffron and mace.

Maurya Sheraton & Towers
Diplomatic Enclave
New Delhi 110 021, India
Telephone 6112233
Fax: 6113333

Open daily. All major credit cards. About 20 euros per person, not including service or beverage.

Chor Bizarre
Hotel Broadway
4/15 A Asif Ali Road
Old Delhi, India
Telephone 11/327 3821

Open daily. All major credit cards. About 9 euros per person, not including service or beverage.

The Taj Mahal Hotel
Number One, Mansing Road
New Delhi 110-011
Telephone: 91 11 5551 3587
Fax: 91 11 2302 6070

Open daily. All major credit cards. About 20 euros per person, not including service or beverage.