Varq, Taj Mahal Hotel
1 Mansingh Road
Having suffered too many bad renditions of Indian nouvelle cuisine–a rose petal and marigold salad with paneer tikka chunks stands out as a particularly horrifying experience–my husband and I approach Varq with some nervousness. To my mind, too many bad meals–Scrooge-like portions, pretentious service and no real understanding of the culinary tradition–have been passed off as fine dining under the nouvelle-fusion banner.
But Varq drew rave reviews when it opened a while back, and I like Chef Hemant Oberoi’s reputation. He’s the wizard behind The Bombay Brasserie, and his work sounds intelligent–a corn soup poured over turmeric-flavoured popcorn, a reinvented crab that uses classic Indian spices, cleverly layered on thin filo leaves. And besides, this is impulse dining–I refuse to order home delivery any more, on the grounds that I can cook better, cheaper and faster in my kitchen, and that allows me more space for the occasional indulgence.
Neither of us is suitably dressed, unless you count black T-shirts as high style, and we don’t have a reservation, but that doesn’t prevent Varq’s staff from treating us with great courtesy. We’re early and good tables are available–we get one with a view of the refurbished Anjolie Ela Menon murals on one hand, and the quiet garden on the other. The decor’s contemporary, with beaded chandeliers, and restful without being extraordinary–it signals comfortable rather than quirky.
Our waiter is ready to explain the concept of Varq, and we sense he’s had to do this several times before for the benefit of baffled Indians wanting to know where the kabab platter went. Varq offers a Western rather than Eastern way of dining–you order separate appetisers and main courses instead of shared dishes and thali-style meals–and has sensibly included a selection of vegetable dishes and daals, priced differently if ordered as accompaniments and if ordered as main courses.
The amuse-bouche arrives at high speed and for a second, I wonder whether we’ve made a mistake. It’s a nice idea–a tiny bonda lifted from the chaat trolley, with a smear of chutney–but the bonda is cold and slightly soggy, the chutney too sharp. My husband grimly orders a pepper vodka, and I take comfort in the excellent date-tamarind sherbet.
Our fears were unfounded. The first appetizer to arrive is the Varqi crab–South Indian spices, generous helpings, and the combination of the silky, spicy crab with the melt-in-your-mouth filo pastry leaf (studded with black mustard seeds) is incredible–rich, textured and light. The prawn on top is big enough to be shared by two, which we do, forgetting our manners, and–this is always a good sign–I see the staff beaming at our obvious delight. The second appetizer, liver three ways, is a clever concept, but I’m not so sure it works for me. The mutton liver is mildly over-cooked; the chicken liver in a potato wafer basket, drizzled with an orange juice reduction, is not mind-blowing, and the foie gras with a mango salsa is good, but nowhere as brilliant as it could be. Good, but not great, I think, idly admiring the silver varq-inspired etchings on the ceiling, and I realise that Varq has already raised my expectations–in most of Delhi’s Indian restaurants, this dish would have been a spectacular success, not a “show me more”.
At a table near us, I hear gasps of happy surprise as the diners try their main course, the brilliantly presented Lobster Hawa Mahal, and elsewhere, there’s a lady spooning up her dessert, a Hot Chandni Varqi Jalebi, with an expression of absolute ecstasy on her face. And there it is again; from where I’m sitting, I can see how the waiters watch each table anxiously, how their faces brighten when a course goes down well and sink a little when diners seem baffled.
A tamarind sorbet, insistently sharp, clears our palate for the main course. The Martabaan ki Meat arrives in a miniature pickle jar–the gravy at the bottom of the jar is spectacularly rich, by the way, so dig in–and is delicately good. I like the tenderness of the meat, the texture and the contrast between the red achaari pickle, but it’s been toned down a bit–a classic Martabaan ki Meat can be far more spicy. This is a riff on the original rather than a faithful rendering–but it’s an awesome riff, and once again, we forget our manners, dipping pizza-style Tomato-Olive Naans into the sauce. The baby potatoes are forgettable, and I wish I’d ordered the “bharta three ways” instead–baingan, tomato and pumpkin purees that look incredibly tempting. But the lasuni spinach is awesome, all the more so for being so simple: it’s just spinach cooked with pearls of garlic, salt and pepper, and it manages to extract something of the flavour of a good aioli from ordinary lasun.
The real star of the show is the Calicut prawns, done with asparagus in a delicate, aromatic coconut sauce–this is really how to take classic spices and sauces and rework them ever so slightly. We’ve overdone it; there’s no room for the desserts, and I need to come back some day to redress this. I also wish I’d ordered the Vedic tisanes along with the meal, rather than the sherbet–which is immensely tasty, but perhaps too rich as an accompaniment. And I want to try the khurmani kababs, the seafood soup–okay, fine, pretty much everything on the menu.
Too often, with an old school Indian meal, you leave with a sense of too much richness and the dismal awareness that Digene will be your aperitif of choice the next day. But Varq left us replete, not overstuffed. It’s definitely expensive, even by Delhi’s now exorbitant standards, but I’d argue that it’s worth it–sometimes. (A meal for two, with tisanes/ drinks, could easily run from Rs 8,000 upwards.)
Part of the magic is Chef Hemant Oberoi’s deep love for Indian food–he really knows his ingredients, and Varq, like Bombay Brasserie, reinvents without going over the top. Is it as good, or better than, Devi in the US? I’d like to know–Suvir and Hemant sound as though they bring a similar intelligence to their interpretations of Indian food. What made Varq work for me went beyond the menu, though. It was the sense of well-being we were wrapped in, and the staff’s open pleasure when they saw that their diners were, indeed, having a good time.