A wave of nostalgia washed over me when I visited Earthen Oven. Here is a restaurant (inside a Fortune Hotel, a sub brand of the ITC Welcomgroup) that is not trying to reinvent the wheel. It serves Punjabi food, it has an open kitchen and it even has a wood board with a modest-sized menu printed on it, a la Bukhara.
Unlike its famous cousin, it doesn’t restrict itself to just tandoori items, but does main courses as well. In fact, take my advice and stick to the main courses. The tandoori offerings will NOT remind you of Bukhara! If you must, try the Murgh Zaffrani Tikka (Rs 350) that has a silky texture and discernibly marinated with saffron. You can safely leave out just about every other tandoori item on the menu, but you may like to try the novel Jain Special Kebab (Rs 350) formed into a patty and fried with a bit of pure ghee so that the outside forms a crisp crust. This is possibly the only tandoori item that is not doused in haldi, plus it is not something that one encounters often.
When they do main courses, the restaurant is on firmer ground. I know that butter chicken and dal makhni used to be clichés in the restaurant world, but now they are in such short supply as to seem exotic. They are certainly among the best offerings in the restaurant. Butter chicken (Rs 350) is rich, yet not creamy. The sweet-sour proportion has been maintained to perfection. Of course, in this context sweet does not refer to sugary sweet, but a subtle counterpoint to the tanginess of the tomatoes. The dal (Rs 250) is, quite simply, better than dal Bukhara. (I hope I do not get sued for libel.) It is rich, buttery soft, has no tomatoes in it and is redolent with the fragrance of ghee. It is the sort of dal makhni that you will find in dhabas in Punjab, who have not gotten into the treadmill of emulating dal Bukhara.
I dread ordering Kashmiri rogan josh (Rs 350) in restaurants, because every cook has his own ideal of the dish and there is little in the way of standardization: Kashmir is usually just a name tacked on. This is one place that actually has a Kashmiri waza in the kitchen, so that not only was the rogan josh perfect and brilliant, you can order a whole Kashmiri banquet in advance and it will conform to the same high standard.
Pindi chana (Rs 250) is the other dish that has little standardization between one restaurant and the next. One is mouth puckeringly sour with anardana, the other is not. One is dark, the other almost lily white. One uses fried onions as the base, the other does not, yet they all claim to belong to the Pindi style. Earthen Oven has Pindi chana that is delicious. It is dark, the chanas are soft, yet hold their shape, fried onions go to make the base of the gravy, and there’s a subtle hint of sourness.
You can tell a lot about a restaurant and its approach to food by the freebies it dishes out. Earthen Oven makes a beetroot drink spiked with anardana and black salt. One gives it fruitiness, the other saltiness. It’s extremely refreshing.
Fortune Select Excalibur
Main Sohna Road, Gurgaon
Open from 12.30 to 3; 7 to 11.30 pm
Alcohol served; credit cards accepted
Meal for two: Rs 1,500