(Published in Outlook City, December 2006)

(This was the hack writing assignment from heaven–Outlook asked me to do a list of the best restaurant meals in Delhi. How we suffer for our work.)

They’re tucked away in state bhavans, or they’re found in those chrome-and-glass temples we call five-star hotels. It could be great jazz or robust bhangra-rap or just the ahzaan that signals the start of an unforgettable meal. The man who’s slaving in the kitchen might have worked under Michelin star chefs or with the recipes handed down to him by four generations of cooks who have a family memory of how food tasted in Mughal times. And the dishes that represent quintessential Delhi might come from Tokyo, or China’s Canton region, or Calcutta’s clubs, or Kashmir’s wazwaans.

I can’t cook like a chef, or run a restaurant, or scour the country looking for the perfect ingredients. But what I can do is eat. And I did, for the greater good of humanity, especially that part of it that belongs to Delhi. The results are not complete—we left out several of our favourite restaurants and dishes after much agonizing—but with luck, they’re tempting enough to send you off on your own culinary tour of Dilli. All you need is a good appetite—and unfortunately, since the best things in life aren’t always free, a credit card. Enjoy.

Karim’s, Old Delhi, Nizamuddin:

On my first visit to Karim’s, I was puzzled by the humble aloo gosht, given that every second dish was Badshahi, Akbari or Shahjahani. “During the Dilli Durbad, Haji Karimuddin (founder of the legendary Mughlai eatery, descendant of royal cooks) sold aloo gosht, rumali roti and a plain daal. We will never take it off the menu,” I was told.

Dilliwallas love other things at Karim’s. The Mutton Burrah kababs, special cuts of “castrated male he-goat” spiced and roasted on the bone in the tandoor; the Badam Pasanda, tenderized mutton cooked in a rich, sweet gravy with pre-soaked almonds; the bakarkhani, a naan made by blending ghee, flour, elaichi and sugar together, the exact recipe found in medieval Mughal cookbooks. (“Low-fat” and “vegetarian” are not in Karim’s vocabulary.) But it’s the homely aloo-gosht that does it for me every time. Death by cholesterol, yes, but as Karim’s slogan has it, “Secret of good mood taste of Karim’s food”. Die happy.

Swagath, Defence Colony:

For years, when friends from Bombay boasted about Trishna’s butter-garlic-pepper crab, Dilliwallahs fought back feebly with references to kababs and daulat-ki-chaat, but the truth was we had nothing comparable. Until Swagath opened up.

Swagath does a wide range of South Indian food, but head straight for elops machnata, or the ladyfish, always delivered fresh, and try it fried, not curried. Next up is Delhi’s answer to Trishna. Swagath’s staff brings your crustacean, claws waving indignantly, to your table before disappearing to do unspeakable things to it for the next 25 minutes. What returns is a crab who has ascended to finer, better things. The butter-garlic-pepper it’s smothered in is a classic combination that could have come out of Escoffier, spiked with curry leaves and masala. The only caveat I have is that, despite the butter, this is not a dish to be eaten in small portions. Dig in and enjoy.

Sakura, Hotel Nikko, Connaught Place:

The signature Japanese restaurant at the Hotel Nikko attracts Japanese customers in droves. If you’re Indian and presumably squeamish about eating Nemo’s friends raw, you’ll be offered the safe stuff—tempura, California sushi.

Refuse, politely but firmly. Insist on the sashimi—Sakura’s buttery, rich yellowfin tuna is flown directly in from Tokyo, and the wasabi is hand-ground on a sharkskin grater. Then do the tako wasabi—raw octopus in a sweetish wasabi marinade, an electrically clean taste like LSD for the palate. Next up? The smoked unagi. As it’s turned over a bed of charcoal, the fat from the eel melts and adds to the smoky flavour. This is lightly touched with a teriyaki sauce and served in a Bento box. Finish with the black sesame seed ice cream—like the Adults-Only version of Belgian chocolate.

Bukhara, Maurya

I saw the best tribute to Bukhara at a tiny shack in Lucknow, centre of the kabab universe, with a sign up: “Try our kababs just like Fammous Bukhara of Delhi style”. The shack has long since closed its shutters, but Bukhara—as Bill Clinton and other celebs will testify—endures.

Ignore the seating, which started as cute Frontier and is now kitsch Frontier. The food’s the thing. First the mammoth raan—leg of lamb, marinated till it’s tender on the bone for hours, then the reshmi kababs here, simultaneously chunky and melt-in-the mouth, and surprisingly delicate. And whether you’re carnivore or veggie, order the dal Bukhara, black lentils simmered according to legend for at least a day, bound together by obscene amounts of cream, and indisputably addictive. Homesick NRIs take back cans of the stuff; those of us who live in Delhi can do what I do and order plates of dal packed as a decadent indulgence.

Andhra Bhavan:

Sometimes, great eating isn’t about the Michelin stars after the chef’s name—it’s about revisiting a place called nostalgia and discovering that it hasn’t changed a bit.

We did Andhra Bhavan’s thalis in college, our appetites finally yielding to the waiters’ determination to live up to their boast of supplying unlimited refills. The thali is the standard—vegetables, daal and sambar, rice, papads, oceans of ghee—with non-veg dishes (great mutton curries but do not miss the ladyfish) available at a small extra charge. It tastes like your mother’s cooking would if she happened to be the best “maharaj” in Andhra Pradesh. The thali changes every day, but the eating style doesn’t—start with the gongura pickle and don’t stop till you reach the desserts (skip them, have the coffee instead). You can’t have your college years back, sure, but as long as the Andhra Bhavan thali’s available, who cares?

Chor Bizarre, Hotel Broadway, Daryaganj:

Forget the vintage car that doubles as salad bar, the once-trendy kitsch décor that now seems like a tired joke. Chor Bizarre still serves some of the best Kashmiri food outside friends’ homes in Delhi. The (seasonal) haaq is lightly cooked; the juiciness of the spinach brings a little of the Valley alive on your plate. The rishta, tabak maaz and sharaabi kabab are ok—but stick with the gushtaba. Chor Bizarre still does this the old-fashioned way, pounding the meat to a texture like velvet on springs. “It was better at my uncle’s wazwaans,” says a Kashmiri friend, ordering more. “They don’t make cooks like that anymore.” She asks for two plates to be packed, for later. “It’s not classic, of course, but it’s tolerable. Quite tolerable.” I note that she’s eaten most of my portion as well as hers. “Did I?” she says airily. We leave, one of us, at least, sated.

Diva, GK II:

The two items that have never gone off-menu at Diva’s, Ritu Dalmia’s much-loved Italian restaurant, are the porcini mushroom risotto and the Hot Chocolate Souffle. The rich meatiness of the porcini mushrooms is balanced by the delicate aroma; the risotto is never overcooked or underdone, the Arborio rice plump with the stock. This is comfort food for the gourmet. And the soufflé? I worry about this. Some day, six tables will order the hot chocolate soufflé at the same time, puncture that delicate crust to let the dark chocolate sauce ooze out, and it’s going to sound like a porn movie in there. Everyone moans: some do the polite, muffled mmmm, some go for the unbridled version. That, I think, moaning as sotto as my voce can manage as the first forkful goes smoothly down, is Ritu’s problem, not mine.

Orient Express, Taj Mansingh:

Delhi’s signature French restaurant should be a cliché by now. I know good leftists who would sneer at the Christofle cutlery, the fine bone china, the recreated railway compartments where the tables are placed, the grand piano outside the “train”. Thankfully, I am neither good nor leftist.

And returning after ages, I’m not immune to the murmuring blandishments of the Orient Express. There’s the earthy, smooth foie gras, served without pretension. There’s the Camembert Cheese Souffle—so light that each morsel evaporates on the tongue, leaving its ghostly flavour behind. There’s the lamb chops, served with roasted sweet potatoes and asparagus—don’t ever, please, order these well-done, that would be a burnt offering. And while I love the Apricot Souffle, the signature dessert has to be the Crème Brulee. Sometimes orange, sometimes vanilla—smooth perfection, the caramel always just bitter enough. Heaven is made of clichés and retro classics, I think, rolling reluctantly out the door.

Basil and Thyme, Santushti Shopping Complex:

I know people who drop in at this small, chic restaurant in the Santoshi shopping complex because it has the best gossip, but my motives are baser: I’m here for the quiche.

Basil and Thyme started in an era of relative culinary naivete, when you could serve chicken liver pate and Quiche Lorraine without dickering with the recipe to make it whimsical, ironic or contemporary. It still abjures trends-none of your bouche amusees served in soup spoons, thank you—and does a great job with the old-fashioned stuff. The chicken liver pate is served with Melba toast, and some of us have been known to smuggle the leftovers from the crock back home in a napkin, for future consumption. The Quiche Lorraine is eggs-and-bacon raised to new heights, the Gateau Zara still the best and lightest chocolate cake in town. Oh, and the gossip is still served fresh, in extra-large portions.

Olive (yet to reopen):

Blame the MCD’s sealing drive for the fact that Olive fans will have to wait to taste Chef Saby’s degustation menu until Delhi’s favourite social hotspot finds new quarters.

The food at Olive isn’t the USP; the Beautiful People exchanging beautiful asides and (occasionally) throwing up beautifully in the beautiful bathrooms is. But Chef Saby’s tasting menu shows serious ambition. Some of his experiments, like the foie gras with scallops, served on roesti, work brilliantly; some, like the fresh mushroom cappuccino, are indifferent, and some, like the excellent tomato-and-jasmine tea consommé, are his homage to the great chefs he’s known. The lamb chops are perfection, though the standout is the green apple sorbet, tart and mellow at the same time. But what makes Olive’s degustation menu work isn’t the individual dishes—it’s the chef’s exuberance. He has so much fun playing with his food that you have to go along for the ride.

Tea House of the August Moon, Taj Palace

Tea House’s new chef doesn’t speak much English, but that’s okay—his dim sums do all the talking. It takes years to just master the dough for these addictive little dumplings, served as any-time snacks in China or used as the base for a memorable main meal.

Vegetarians will love the mushroom dumplings and the spinach dumplings—the wrappings are so translucent that the green of the spinach glitters like an emerald inside. Non vegetarians should try the chicken dumpling in a taro flour coating and the delicate prawn variants. Tea House has an excellent wine list, but also try their special teas; rare oolongs, signature green teas and single-garden blends. I did my best to observe yum cha etiquette: do not stab dim sum with your chopsticks, tap thrice on the table to thank the tea server—but failed miserably at the final commandment: do not make an exhibition of your greed. I did, and I’m not sorry.

China Club, Gurgaon:

Peking Duck is basically tandoori chicken’s sophisticated cousin, so it’s a scandal that so few restaurants do this 200-year-old Beijing classic well. I ordered this at China Club in spiteful reaction to the boasts of Gurgaon’s residents (“I’ve never had a bad meal here”) about “their” brilliant Chinese restaurant.

Peking Duck is a tricky dish: the skin of the duck has to be perfectly roasted, so that it’s crispy but still fatty (some chefs inflate the skin with a bicycle pump), the pancakes and accompaniments have to be assembled just right tableside, and the honey-ginger-wine-and-vinegar glaze has to be in perfect balance. China Club’s chef either used the pump or hung the duck for eight hours to dry the skin, but it was perfect. The waiter asked, correctly, whether we wanted just the skin, or the meat too (Beijing purists prefer just skin, with the meat served separately). And best of all, it was delicious.

Korean Club, Hauz Khas:

“Not for Koreans only, all welcome,” said the man at Korean Club. “But… you will eat Korean food? Indians don’t always like.” “No problem,” I said, trying to suppress an unfortunate gochuchang memory, “I will like.”

Most Indians associate Korean food with kimchi, the pickled cabbage, or bulgogi, thinly sliced meat/ seafood marinated and cooked on a hot stone. I’ve asked a Korean friend what to order, and the man from the phone smiles approvingly when I request naengmyon, though it’s really a summer dish. It’s just cold buckwheat noodles, served with cold sliced beef or vegetables and an icy broth with a humming, resonant citrus sharpness, but it’s so good. Buckwheat noodles are chewy and have a delicate, unmistakeable taste that makes other pasta seem like cardboard on the tongue. I mean to just have a taste, but I finish everything. “You are liking,” the man says. It is not a question.

Oh Calcutta, Nehru Place (Ph: 26464180, 26464184):

Bengalis visiting Oh Calcutta walk in with a distinctly combative air—does this Kolkata chain really think they can pull off ilish in this city of no tastebuds?

Give them an hour or so. Start them off with the delicate vegetable paturi—pumpkin and snake gourd strips steamed in a banana leaf with grated coconut and a few spices. Then knock them out with the smoked hilsa*—that incredibly bony, oily, tasty fish deboned whole, lightly smoked and served immediately. (The traditional fire on which you smoke hilsa is, as Vikram Seth noted in A Suitable Boy, given extra flavour with molasses and puffed rice.) (*NB: The last time I tried the smoked hilsa, it was too sweet from the molasses. The restaurant now offers hilsa with aam kasundi steamed in a pumpkin leaf–I’d recommend this instead. Also try the bhapa alu–a steamed potato starter–and their mocha/ banana flower chops.)

Finish with the malpoa, fried pancakes in syrup. After that, there’s nothing for even a diehard son of Bengal to say except, burp.

Choko La, Vasant Vihar/ Khan Market:

Skip the main course when you come to Choko La. The desserts are the main course here, and the thing to try is the hot chocolate. This is not Enid Blytonesque milky cocoa: instead, this goes back to an age where self-respecting Frenchmen drank dark, bitter chocolate while the barbarian English maudled their insides with a “dish of tea”.

The Viennese hot chocolate here is sin in a glass, rich, dark, sweet chocolate that makes you think the unthinkable, like how nice it would be to date, say, Rasputin. Then there’s the single-origin chocolates offered in hot chocolate form. Single-origin chocolates are typically sourced from a single plantation, so the taste varies massively—Colombian cocoa is rich, Madagascar cocoa is fruity, Cuban cocoa can be sweet but also peppery, while the European single-origins can have all the complexity of wines. I leave, many hours later, many kilos heavier, but with the happiest stomach in history.

THE QUICK GUIDE.

1. Vodka golgappas at Punjabi by Nature: take the bhang-spiked golgappas served at Holi, introduce pepper vodka instead, and you have an explosively updated streetfood classic.

2. Dahi Bhalle, jalebis and Japani samosa at Chandni Chowk: Start with the pleated Japani samosas and choley, join the queue at Nataraj Dahi Bhallewala for the softest, most perfectly spiced dahi bhalle in Delhi, finish with the jalebis-and-cold-milk combo at Old and Famous.

3. Kakoris at Al Kauser: Three tiny kiosks, one famous kabab—the soft, minced kakori from Lucknow rules Delhi, even today.

4. Pizzas at Mist: If you must eat baked dough topped with cheese and/ or tomato paste, eschew Domino’s, admit that La Piazza is not what it used to be. Mist at the Park does the best, especially the one with the artichoke toppings.

5. Keema samosas at United Coffee House: The coffee here tastes like mud, but what does that matter? UCH’s juicy keema samosas have often been imitated, but never successfully

6. Regional food at Dilli Haat: It’s not always great, but this outdoor haat is the only place where momos, bhelpuri, thepla, dal-baati and dosas come together under roof.

7. Butter chicken: Pandara Road, say some, pointing to Pindi’s heart-attack-onna-plate version, Kake da Hotel (famous also for sarson ka saag in season) does a more traditional dhaba version, say others. Eat, then argue.

8. Kababs unlimited: All-you-can-eat kababs, great rotis, and some interesting veggie kababs (the arbi, the corn, the dahi), all cooked on a live grill—The Great Kabab Factory did a nice mashup of streetfood and hotel chic.

9. Momos and thukpa: Majnu ka Tila, aka every student’s second home, is where you can find really cheap Tibetan food, illicit chhang, and sometimes, great political discussions.

10. Desserts at The Big Chill: The best Philly cheesecake and blueberry cheesecake in town, a mud pie to die for, and homemade icecreams—try the lemon sorbet, or the Belgian chocolate—the Big Chill spins the classics. (* I wouldn’t recommend Big Chill all that enthusiastically now–over the last few months, their desserts have gone down a bit.)