There are approximately one thousand restaurants, many being of the type that you and I would like to visit, all over Delhi and its two satellite towns, Gurgaon and Noida. Out of these, the vast majority serves Indian food. Most of these are formulaic ones, where the menu never varies; some serve the Indian version of fast food; a few are regional Indian restaurants and the rest are no more than stalls either on the road or in malls.
Indian cuisine has its own strong, well-developed flavours, which is why most Indians eat Indian food even when they’re eating at restaurants. Next to Indian food comes Chinese on the popularity scale, followed distantly by Italian. European food doesn’t feature very high, surprisingly, and French food is practically a swear word: all too recently, it was synonymous with starchy, white-gloved service and an unpronounceable menu.
Unlike in the western world where individual restaurants serve the best food, deluxe hotels in India have always been able to attract the best kitchen talent and import ingredients more easily than a lone restaurant. This was particularly true in the decades before liberalization laws kicked into effect in 1991. Thus the vast majority of good restaurants are attached to hotels, though in the last few years, this has begun to change.
There’s currently a restaurant boom in the country, and with so many new restaurants mushrooming, there’s an unfortunate tendency to poach the staff of existing competition. This results in a wildly fluctuating consistency graph. Of the three variables for a restaurant: food, service and décor, Delhi restaurants need a fourth: consistency. My list of top places to eat out (except Indian, which you will probably go to anyway) includes those restaurants that are known for consistency. There’s another unfortunate tendency by restaurant owners, many of whom are not from the trade: when in doubt, copy the competition. Concepts, menus, food, décor – almost anything can be plagiarized. My list contains originals, not copycats.
Those restaurants that did not make it to my list include Basil and Thyme, an original if there ever was one. Located in the tony Santushti Complex, a shopper’s paradise set amidst verdant lawns, Basil and Thyme has a tiny menu that has been on for at least two decades. Consistency is a by-word – it is run by one of the first Indians to have studied at Cordon Bleu, London. However, the restaurant serves no wine or beer, and is only open for lunch, not dinner. It is closed on Sundays. The Chinese in Connaught Place used to be a personal favourite. They got in three chefs from Hunan, China to do Hunanese food. However, in today’s age of packaging being the product, The Chinese is located in a dismaying corner of Connaught Place. It suffers terribly from lack of publicity, and after three years in the business, Hunan food, though spicy, has never taken off in the city.
Baci: Sunder Nagar is one of the older of Delhi’s residential colonies that have the whisper of old money. The market is a great place to browse around for antiques and antique look-alikes. Baci, which means kiss in Italian, is one of Delhi’s most underplayed restaurants, so save it for a day when you want refuge from the over-the-top loudness of the city. The décor is neutral to the point of being sober – all the colour is on the plate. The young owner is part Italian, part Indian and has obviously gone over the menu several times with a fine-tooth comb.
The China Kitchen: If there is any one Chinese restaurant that has taken Chinese food to a new level, it is this one. Built on the ashes of the erstwhile night-club of the Hyatt Regency Delhi, in which hotel the restaurant is located, The China Kitchen has no fewer than six chefs from China and a couple of interpreters as well, just to make sure that things go along smoothly. The menu is a skilful blend of what the infamous Delhi palate is used to, together with dishes that have never been done in the city before. Don’t miss their Peking Duck Rs 1666, for which they have a dedicated chef and an oven. It is by far the best in the entire country, and gives serious competition to places in Beijing. Beggar’s Chicken is a cliché in China, yet has never been done with any seriousness in India. The Hyatt version (Rs 700) is a five star version that few beggars would lay their hands on, coated with clay, filled with yellow wine and several types of mushrooms and slow cooked for 5 hours.
Ziah: Neither large nor grand, this tiny 24 seater in the University area is the brainchild of a 23 year old who loves Lebanese flavours. His eatery is packed from the minute it opens its doors till the time it is closed, in spite of the fact that it serves no wine or beer. The reason is the low pricing, but it is one of my favourite joints for the cheerful buzz and for the food, most of which is straight out of a mid-level restaurant in Dubai: you’ll get no clichés here. Saaj is the country cousin of the more commonly seen pita wrap, but is made with whole-wheat bread. Lamb and chicken stews are other good options here, served as they are with couscous. By far and away the most expensive dish on the menu is a mere Rs 150, so you can have an all-you-can-eat orgy without breaking the bank.
threesixty°: Nobody can make a list of Delhi’s best restaurants and leave out the big daddy of them all. In fact, that threesixty° has become a powerful force to reckon with at the tender age of three proves something. It is the coffee shop of The Oberoi Hotel, but it has as much to do with a one-size-fits-all cuisine as OJ Simpson has to do with being a great humanitarian. There is a grand buffet every day at lunch which is said to be the best buffet in the city. There is the most famous sushi counter in the city, manned by two specialty chefs, an Indian tandoori counter, a teriyaki counter, a pizza oven and a world cuisine section on the menu. There is lounge style seating at the entrance next to a substantial wine library and conventional dining, and at meal-times, there is usually a waiting period. This is where the movers and shakers of Delhi’s society dines out.
Panasian: My personal favourite. It has several counters, all manned by specialty chefs. Thus, there is a teppanyaki counter where the food is South East Asia via California, a sushi counter that uses fresh wasabi, not the stuff that you get out of a tube, a Chinese main course counter as well as one of the finest dimsum counters in the city, and a Thai counter. It is the cleverest of all the mixed cuisines restaurants in the city: you will get entirely authentic Thai, sushi and Chinese here, but if you are in the mood to eat something more eclectic, there’s Mongolian barbecue, which, as everyone knows, has more to do with the United States than Central Asia. Oh and there’s a Korean Bulgogi table too, where you can grill your own choice of meats.
Shalom, now in its 5th year of operation, changed the way that people in Delhi looked at night life. It was the first lounge bar with not so loud music, great food and a one-of-a-kind drinks menu. It was outside a five-star hotel, which certainly was a first, and because it was so popular, attracted the cream of the cream of Delhi, which meant that the usually disorderly Delhiite had to book a table a few days prior to visiting – an unheard of discipline. Before Shalom opened, a full-fledged dinner in a bar was not an option. Shalom has a Mediterranean feel to it. It is a dinner place, where the average customer is a regular who comes at 9 pm and stays on till closing time. The food – Lebanese – is serious enough for you to visit at lunch time as well. Don’t miss the Shalom Kebab Platter, the Hummus Trio (Rs 495) that only they do and the Dubai Duck Rs .
Smokehouse Grill, has a couple of branches around the country, the first one having started up in Bombay. This branch gets its name because of the in-house cold smoking chamber in the kitchen, where many ingredients get the distinctive smoky flavour. Needless to say, the kitchen is too sophisticated to overdo the smokehouse effect. It’s a serious dining option that serves contemporary world food: New Zealand Green-Lipped Oysters, a superb smoked aubergine soup and their signature tenderloin with wasabi. Their lunch menu is lighter, but Smokehouse Grill is really a dinner place with formal service.
Metropolis doesn’t have the best location. It is in the warren of crowded streets that surround the New Delhi Railway Station, in the distinctly back-packer area called Pahargunj. Metropolis has been around for almost 80 years, and has a page in its menu that dates back a good 50 years. Chicken a la Kiev and Chicken Steak with Mushrooms are dishes that you won’t find anywhere else in the city, and though Metropolis is not famous for the rest of its cuisine, the old-time signatures alone make it worth the trip to the “real India” as Pahargunj can be called.
Diva is the brainchild of an Indian woman whose granite and marble business took her to Italy, where she learnt Italian cooking. Diva is now the standard whereby other Italian restaurants in the city are measured. The menu changes with the seasons, and the owner is knowledgeable enough to cater to the tastes of Europeans as well as Indians. This is one place that doesn’t short-change vegetarians. The Beetroot Carpaccio with Goat Cheese and Walnut is one of the all-time classics together with Pumpkin gnocchi with Fontal Cheese Fonduta. If you have time for only one meal in Delhi, this is the place to visit.
Kumgang is the lone Korean restaurant of any standing in Delhi. Located in the mammoth Ashok Hotel, it is privately owned by a Korean lady whose mission in life it is to popularize the cuisine of her country. Most of the ingredients of this fascinating cuisine are imported from Korea and the helpful staff can point out to dishes that are low on the exotic quotient. Do be warned, however, that kochujang, a slightly fermented paste, finds its way into many dishes. There are portable gas-operated bulgogi grills that are taken from one table to another on which you can grill belly of pork and tenderloin. Other dishes that are worth trying include haemulpajeong, a do-it-yourself pancake, chapchae or glass noodles and pibimpab, a rice dish that consists of salad leaves, grilled meat, stir-fried vegetables, a fried egg and the flaming red kochujang paste.