When I am in an irreverent mood, I think of it as the Punjabi-turned-Mod (or PTM) school of Indian cooking. It is a sort of fancy food you find at Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in London, where the chefs tend to be Punjabis (Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar, etc.) or the restaurateurs tend to be called Panjabi (but the Panjabi sisters—Camellia and Namita—are actually Sindhis).
Now, the PTM craze has hit India. There is Vineet Bhatia’s Indian outpost, the excellent Ziya at The Oberoi in Mumbai. And in Delhi, there is a host of modern Indian restaurants, all of which, by some remarkable coincidence, have Punjabi chefs: Indian Accent (Manish Mehrotra); Varq (Hemant Oberoi); Monsoon (Davinder Kumar); and Kainoosh (Marut Sikka).
French-Punjabi fare: (clockwise from top left) A millefeuille of masala crab at Varq. Pradeep Gaur / Mint; Canadian spare ribs with sun-dried mango and toasted kalonji at Indian Accent; and Monsoon’s version of Australian lamb rack.
All of them are trying to do roughly the same thing: Frenchify Indian food by plating the dishes and fancifying the presentation. You can argue about whether Frenchification is the only way forward, as some chefs think (I don’t agree but I concede that it is a valid route) but the sudden rash of PTM restaurants in Delhi puts an end to the claim that London is the capital of Indian cuisine. If you like this sort of thing, then you should eat it in India. Many of the Indian PTM places are far better than London’s Michelin-starred establishments.
The Big Boy on the block is, of course, Varq at The Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi. It is every foreigner’s idea of Indian food: David Cameron loved it. I took Bruce Palling, the British food and wine writer, to Varq when it opened and he was impressed. Two months ago, I went with a party of South Africans and one of them said it was among the best meals he had ever eaten. But it is also a restaurant that Indians like. The foreigners eat the more Frenchified dishes: a millefeuille of masala crab (Varqi crab at Rs850); or Masala sea bass (Rs1,250) while Indians stick to such dishes as the Martabaan meat (Rs895), an achari mutton curry served in a pickle jar.
For most of the time it has been open Varq’s principal competitor (in terms of food if not revenue) has been Indian Accent at the boutique Manor Hotel in Delhi’s Friends Colony. The Manor is now run by Rohit Khattar (who runs two restaurants in London) who has installed Manish Mehrotra as the chef. Mehrotra’s background is in Oriental food. Till Indian Accent opened, he was the chef at Tamarai, Khattar’s pan-Asian restaurant in London. The Oriental influences show up in the brilliant food Mehrotra turns out at Indian Accent. There are delicious spare ribs (Rs750), and organic egg fritters (Rs375). When I first went there, he blew away the entire table with galouti kebabs stuffed with foie gras (Rs650) and slow-cooked pork belly (Rs825).
The Manor is small, sophisticated and run by a young, welcoming team.
It is the perfect ambience for Mehrotra’s food.
When you talk about Punjabi hotels, the Meridien on Raisina Road is the one hotel that gets mentioned. Though the property opened in the early 1980s, it has had a rough ride, never quite being regarded as the equal of the city’s deluxe hotels.
The Meridien is now looking to change its image and has been refurbished so completely that it is almost unrecognizable from the old days. Part of the refit is the decision to close Pakwan, a classic old-style Punjabi sharab-kebab operation and to open the fancy Monsoon, a nouvelle Indian restaurant that epitomizes the PTM wave.
Devinder Kumar, the Meridien’s chef of long standing, is one of the doyens of his profession, a classically trained French chef who has brought many of the techniques of European cooking to Monsoon’s food.
Because Kumar has not spent a lot of time checking out London restaurants, his food has an honest and earthy style of its own. A starter of burra kebab with crispy naan (Rs875) works because of the excellence of the kebab itself. A main course of lamb rack (Rs1,750) succeeds because the lamb is evenly cooked in a continental oven. A duck dish (Rs1,350) has the breast piece smoked to a deep intensity while the leg meat is sliced, stewed and served in a cigar-shaped spring roll. Even the more traditional dishes are exemplary: a butter chicken (Rs995) uses fresh tomatoes rather than puree, is lighter for it, while Kumar’s take on rogan josh (Rs995) is outstanding.
The restaurant has service issues. It needs a sommelier who understands the huge wine list given that most of its customers do not. And the enthusiasm of the young staff is no substitute for experience.
Chefs will tell you that there is a clear divide between Muslim styles of cooking (the sort of food you get in Dum Pukht, for example) and Hindu tandoori cuisine (put crudely, the Muslims understand meat better than the Hindus). Marut Sikka is an unusual chef because he works with cooks from both Hindu and Muslim traditions.
Though Sikka is a visible presence on the food scene because of outdoor catering and his TV show, Kainoosh at the DLF Promenade mall is his first proper Indian restaurant.
It offers fancy hotel-style dining with a wordy menu that not only combines dishes from all over India but is also divided into traditional and nouvelle cuisine.
I liked the food. The menu is too vast for me to recommend any particular dish but the restaurant is more than willing to design tasting menus for each group of diners.
So, is this the future of Indian food in Delhi? I don’t think it is. Most people will stick to traditional dishes both at the top and the middle of the market. But the success of these restaurants proves three things. One: There is a place for upmarket Indian restaurants that can be used for business entertaining. (How many times can you take your guests to Bukhara?) Two: There is a new generation of Indians that is willing to experiment with a new kind of cuisine.
And three: Indian chefs have proved that when it comes to Frenchified Indian food, they can do an even better job than their London counterparts. If Punjabis are going to go mod, then what better place to do it than Delhi, the capital of the new Punjab?
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