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August 16, 2008

30 Cuisine Hotspots

Text by Devanshi Mody

At Verve, we love to eat, we live to eat. India boasts some of the best restaurants in the world and each city across the country nurtures its own individual havens which make it their business to tickle discerning palates. Presenting Verve’s very subjective list of 30 iconic restaurants that continue to sizzle

The Zodiac Grill, Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Mumbai
Nineteen and going strong…. The jewel in the culinary crown of Mumbai and indeed India, the country’s very first gastronomic restaurant is yet a hidden gem. Price might explain why. Ironically, the restaurant launched as an experiment where ‘priceless’, ultra elegant cuisine was served and guests invited to pay what they liked. They liked it so much that the Zodiac Grill is now India’s most expensive restaurant with a menu degustation costing around 8,500 rupees per head. The mythic enclave’s inaccessibility guarantees its exclusivity.  This is where the rich and famous come to wine and dine (Brangelina, Margaret Thatcher, Goldie Hawn) and Dior to launch its brand. And where the hopeless romantic comes to propose and be accepted on the ‘regal throne table’: the Zodiac signs favoured 120 marriages made in Heaven… This divinely classy enclave, (Icons of Whiskey’s Restaurant of the Year), with its white-gloved service, impeccable staff, Christofle cutlery, French cuisine and India’s finest wine is an exercise in gastronomic extravaganza. The delightfully charming Maitre d’ unveils with panache creations, (each taking a dozen days for approval from Chef Oberoi) so sumptuously presented you don’t want to touch them. But relish and ravish one must. The finest ingredients used, titillating textures, evolved flavours and exquisite presentation can rival the world’s best Michelin-starrers. Fig tart might sound boring but at ZG it metamorphoses into the ultimate delicacy. A palate cleanser arrives in a billowing silver pot like Aladdin’s lamp and lo and behold the genie disguised as the Maitre d’ emerges. What next? Magic carpets? No, the fabled Snake Charmer’s Coffee dramatically, hypnotically prepared before you. When Michelin descends upon Mumbai, we’ll see stars here — apart from the Zodiac signs embellishing the gilded ceiling.

The Spice Route, The Imperial, New Delhi  
Declared ‘among the most impressively beautiful restaurants imaginable,’  by The New York Times, the Spice Route is poetry in design, sheer mesmerising sensuous exotica. Actually, it’s more than that: it is the groundbreaking restaurant that took interior décor in Indian restaurants to a whole new dimension.  Brainchild of Rajeev Sethi, the celebrated cultural Tsar of India, this masterpiece of design required almost seven years to complete. Designed to reflect the journey of spices from Kerala’s Malabar Coast through Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam, the restaurant is an overwhelming visual depiction of art and culture that also travelled with spices through these regions, presented in Oriental folk, religious and cultural fantasy. It is entirely hand painted in vegetable and flower dyes by mural painters brought from a Kerala temple with a tradition dating back 3000 years. Following the principles of Feng Shui, The Spice Route – a treasure trove of antiques (including 16th Century temple pillars) – is divided into nine different sections, each exquisitely depicting a stage in the journey of life: there are murals of the Kama Sutra (Lust Section), manuscripts of the Ramayana (Religion Section), 24 carat gold leafing (Wealth Section) et al. The central courtyard is embellished with Chiang Mai sculptures and Khantok-style seating, offering varied and intriguing views into the other sections. Cuisine encompasses specialities culled from the entire spice route. Expect everything from parathas to jasmine rice to spinach in chilli-garlic soya sauce…catering to a large international clientele might have mildly mitigated the authenticity of the dishes. But you’re on the right track with Chemeen Thoren (Kerala-style prawns) and Irachi stew (lamb and potatoes stewed in coconut milk). Even if it is Chelsea Clinton’s
beaten track….

Masala Kraft, Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Mumbai
Thought that Indian cuisine was ginger and spice and rice and all that’s nice but not very good for the heart or the hips? Chef Hemant Oberoi’s prodigiously radical and ultra refined Indian cuisine with his conceptually visionary ‘Masala’ brand transformed the nature of Indian cuisine forever. You can feast on a meal fit for a maharaja at Mumbai’s premier Indian cuisine restaurant and yet walk out feeling you haven’t eaten a thing. Chef Oberoi reveals that only two packets each of butter and  cream are used in the entire day’s preparations in a restaurant packed for lunch and dinner. But the emphasis on ‘light’ in no way detracts from the culinary extravagances of the cleverly crafted menu. In a way, the cuisine reflects the changing times: Mumbai is getting slicker and sexier and the constantly re-invented masala fare, racier and more rarefied. Further, the menu captures the flavour of the city in tiffin as attested by the massively popular and quintessentially Mumbai Masala Kraft tiffin whilst the Gujarati thali pays tribute to the metropolis’ vast Gujarati and Parsi communities. But pick any item hailing from anywhere in the country and it will assuredly beguile the taste buds of connoisseurs. Instead of the explosively overpowering curries you’d expect at a regular Indian restaurant, here you find the most gorgeous creations yet miraculously, divinely delicate, be they a Delhi street food speciality, pudina paratha, paneer or the guchi mushrooms, so difficult to procure, so easy to overcook…. The rabdis, phirnis, gulab jamuns and kulfis are in a league of their own. The masala chai kulfi is to die for. Ask Mick Jagger!

Kandahar, The Oberoi, Mumbai
Against the background of polished brass and potted palms, indulge in some generous platters of robust meats singed to perfection or the gentler flavours of lasuni palak, to the strains of soft melodies while languishing in full view of bobbing waves and distant boats. The innovative use of spices and herbs at this over 20-year-old restaurant has generated a huge fan following amongst those seeking food with and without all the fanfare associated with grand classical North-Indian cuisine.The recipes are inspired by some of the greatest chefs in the world – grandmothers. Evoking echoes of mountain passes, snow-capped peaks, bone-chilling breezes…and meats roasting over smoky fires, the formidable signature dish — Kabuli raan — is almost a religious experience. A leg of prime lamb, marinated and simmered over a slow fire for ages, it truly melts in the mouth. An unusual accompaniment: that rarest of rare delicacy from Kashmir, guchhi (wild mushrooms) in a curry flavoured with saffron and served with steamed rice. And the ultimate grand finale – the magnificent, aromatic kahva, sprinkled with herbs and spices, poured from an authentic copper samovar.

Samovar, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai
Usha Khanna who had loved the cafés on the Left Bank in Paris, on her many visits to the Jehangir Art Gallery thought what it lacked was a café — a place where artists, art lovers and intellectuals could sit over a cup of coffee. Thus, Samovar was born. For a café in an art gallery, it was natural that Samovar became the haunt of the city’s premiere poets, artists, beatniks and filmmakers. Since its inception 41 years ago, it’s still the favourite of many in the creative South Mumbai district. The heritage, ambience and the perennial menu — kheema paratha, the dahi wadas, the famed chutney — makes it much-loved. This emotional attachment was evident when artists, writers, editors, architects, film stars came together as one to stand up against its eviction from the gallery premises. Samovar continues to enjoy its iconic status with its interesting interiors embellished with railway carriage fans, drawing regulars every day though it shuts by seven in the evening.

Chor Bizarre, New Delhi
Chor Bazaar (thieves market), in Mumbai, with its mishmash wares of rare (though not always real) antiques, car parts and Ming vases, captures the spirit of India . This was the inspiration for Chor Bizarre (with a pun on ‘bazaar’) to celebrate the eclecticism of India in all its exuberant irreverence, finery and frivolity. Chor Bizarre’s resplendent interiors, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of curios, bric-a-brac and fascinating objets d’art, echo the diversity of the great bazaar that is India. An old four-poster bed is ingeniously converted into a table for six whilst one might spin a yarn or two on an antique sewing machine that serves as a table for two. A 1927 vintage car becomes a salad bar, presenting tongue-tickling chaats. Its unique décor, old world charm, truly authentic and inspired cuisine, make award-winning Chor Bizarre one of India ’s most celebrated restaurants (politicians and socialites compete for reservations). It is a restaurant with audacity (has been called ‘quite mad’), vision and pure unadulterated class, serving you the gastronomic and cultural heritage of India on anything but a platter….

Khyber, Mumbai
When Khyber, formerly a typical roti, kaali dal, tandoori, en famille joint, reopened after a devastating fire, this venue captivated, nay astounded all with its concept. Because this restaurant is much more than just a restaurant —  it’s a veritable art gallery. Famed for its frescos by arguably India’s most celebrated and controversial living painter M F Husain and eminent artist Anjolie Ela Menon and refurbished by the goddess of good taste, Parmeshwar Godrej, the ethnic ambience that replicates a nomadic settlement has inspired unauthorised imitations in New York and Dubai. However, international celebrities would settle for nothing other than the real thing and this restaurant, once the haunt of society’s cream, has also lured the likes of Naomi Campbell, Richard Gere, Demi Moore, Michael Stich, and members of the Saudi, Omani and Kuwaiti royal families…. Few other restaurants in Mumbai can boast such a long list of international A-listers amongst its guests and of course the kebabs are to kill – or die for.

Kewpies Kitchen Restaurant, Kolkata
True, the restaurant hasn’t been around as long as some of the century-old eateries of Kolkata. But Bengali food is hard to find outside a traditional home and Kewpies cashed in on the want of an ethno chic venue serving up Bengali khana in Bengali la-di-da style. So much so that reservations are a must at the little family kitchen which has come to be known for its daily-changing menu and the famed Kewpies thali. This might comprise an assortment of fish, succulent meats and breads. Although Bengali food is especially fish-based, Kewpies’ vegetarian thali is a popular option. Spread out on a banana leaf in environmentally friendly clay crockery, you get more than you bargained for, in the form of bountiful portions. The shukto, bhetki fry and daab-jhinge have become celebs in their own right. If you wince that the mustard paste lacked sharpness, the manager apologises ever so charmingly that it must have been ground over-enthusiastically. Though some have trouble placing Kewpies cuisine as authentic Bengali, despite the excellent mishti doi, the abundance of foodies hitting the tables here makes it a gourmand destination all days of the week.

Vishala, Ahmedabad
Around since 1978, this legendary Ahmedabad address has hosted more VIPs than they have curries on their iconic thalis which have lured Indira Gandhi, Ravi Shankar, MF Husain, Amitabh Bachchan, the Ambanis, Singhanias, Vajpayee, CMs, ambassadors.… Designer Surendar Patel’s brainchild, true to its name inspired by the Himalayan Badri Vishala retreat, reflects the blissful expansiveness of the haven frequented by rishi-munis seeking heaven. Groundbreaking, Vishala recreates a rural Indian village to give the urban lot a flavour of nature. Mental freedom is symbolised in the vast openness. No walls, chairs or electricity. Vishala is mesmerisingly romantic, lantern-lit, open-air, mud-plastered with rustic lanes et al. You decide the menu and pay upfront to be tension-free about bills during the meal…. Waiters in topi and dhoti-kurta serve you as you sit on a mud floor with a low log table before you in the Ayurveda-prescribed, digestion-enhancing cross-legged posture, as you tuck into the most delectable home-style delicacies served on a leaf. Strictly, the typical cuisine offered isn’t a Gujarati thali for it avoids unhealthy fried items like its counterpart. Wholesome food, is the emphasis. Relish as you’re serenaded by folk songs sung without using any artificial sound enhancing system whilst garba, puppet and magic shows happen around you. There is even a delightful little museum of old utensils on the premises.

Paradise, Hyderabad
Be it Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Gandhi or other luminaries visiting Hyderabad, they’ve all sampled the fabled Hyderabadi cuisine at the city’s most famous culinary landmark. The eatery, intrinsically and inextricably linked with Hyderabad’s rich cultural legacy, inspires awe in visitors and a deep emotional bond with locals. About 60 years ago, the restaurant opened adjacent to the then popular cinema hall, Paradise. “The good old days have gone and so has the Paradise theatre. Yet the place is known as Paradise junction thanks to our restaurant,” quips Dr Kazim, co-proprietor. The restaurant which had humble beginnings has today expanded across several floors catering to Mughlai food aficionados from different social strata: each floor caters to a particular segment of customers. Ambiance changes but the food uniformly bears the iconic hallmark flavour. Their world-famous biryani and Irani chai have locals addicted and are a must-eat for tourists. Indeed, the hotel has introduced special parcels for travellers’ convenience because tourists end up joining regulars queuing for their daily dose of mutton or chicken biryani, kebabs, Mughlai and tandoori specialties. The men behind the success saga are Ali and Kazim, brothers and partners. Astonishingly, the restaurant has maintained both its distinctive taste and ridiculously low prices over the years.

Woodlands, Chennai
True, it’s not a restaurant. It’s a chain. But it was so good that it couldn’t but become a chain. Because few restaurants capture the essence of a city the way the archetypal ‘Madras Café’ does Madras or Chennai, if one is to be pedantic. Once a rage amongst die-hard dosa  and idli lovers, Woodlands has for about 75 years been  the symbol of South Indian cuisine. Indeed, the very word ‘Woodlands’ is redolent of hot, hot sambhar, rasam and the unique fragrance of Madras café coffee. The world has moved on, but we have never wearied of the Woodlands stainless steel thalis, glasses and those little katoris bearing a variety of chutneys. Till date nobody quite does dosas as golden and crisp the way Woodlands does. And nowhere can you find them filled with dynamite masala and the softest idlis that simply melt in your mouth. Not to forget the signature tul and payasam. Woodlands hasn’t only branched out around India, but wherever they have managed restaurants on the international front, they have been the face or the plate of authentic Madras cuisine. Check out the Woodlands managed Mathura in Colombo and you’ll see. This might well be the city’s busiest restaurant.

Swati Snacks, Mumbai
Despite the fact that Mumbai’s favourite food floods every street, people have always made the effort to go all the way to Swati Snacks. And stoically wait on the plastic chairs on the ‘appropriated‘ pavement till their name is called out, which on a ‘regular’ day could be an hour. Because everyone just agrees that this simply has to be the best in town. Whilst the snootier specimens of Mumbai’s fabric wouldn’t be caught dead stuffing their faces with bhel puri on the streets, high society does deign to come down to earth to well, stuff their faces with bhel at this little eatery that is nothing less than an institution. Some of Mumbai’s five-stars might attempt to glamorise the street food with jazzy presentation and innovative touches. But Mumbaiites and their ‘foreign friends’ still faithfully make their way to the simple and unpretentious eatery to roll out the exquisitely tongue-tingling pankhi and sample the explosive fada ni khichdi. Purely vegetatarian, this could very well be the one place where you don’t miss the mutton in the dhansak!

Suza Lobo, Goa
Being serenaded by the waves on Goa’s Baga Beach, and picking out the best of seafood at Suza Lobo, there is little else that one need ask for. Tucking into a divine lobster thermador, ripe with melted cheese, crabs in butter garlic sauce, crab claws, kalamari masala and prawn bulchao, accompanied by some ‘authentic’ Indo-Chinese food. With harried servers flitting between the packed tables, filled with an equal number of Indian and foreign patrons, Suza Lobo is the one restaurant in Goa that is the place to go to – for locals and visitors alike.

Bukhara, The Maurya, New Delhi
Some American presidents ruin countries…. Others make restaurants. Bukhara has been voted San Pellegrino’s Best Asian Restaurant 2008…. Staff at this international culinary flagship never weary of proclaiming the fact that Bill Clinton apparently chose to stay at the Maurya Sheraton in Delhi “because of our restaurant”, where the former US president and his family lavished a smacking three hours savouring the cuisine.  According to a further report, when Vladimar Putin was in town, he wanted to dine at Bukhara three times a day. The Americans and Russians might have had their differences but they concur on one point: Bukhara is their favourite restaurant in New Delhi. Hardly surprising then, that Restaurant Magazine rated Bukhara as one of the 50 best restaurants (and best Asian restaurant) in the world in 2004. The restaurant, built in the ’70s, mostly of wood, exudes a warm, rustic air with stone walls and cushion-covered stools at mock log-top tables. The glassed-in display kitchen where meat and vegetables hang from sword-like kebab spears is a treat: watch chefs bustle busily to produce delicacies from a menu that hasn’t changed in over 25 years. The celebrated ‘standard’ formula to best experience Bukhara’s internationally renowned Northwest Frontier cuisine is to get an assorted kebab platter – needless to say, the one named in Clinton’s honour is the most famous. The New Delhi restaurant that has generated the most international attention, now even has an entire menu named after the Clintons. One is only surprised that things didn’t hot up, launching another Cold War after Clinton was rewarded and Putin’s patronage was forgotten….

Sunny’s, Bangalore
Chef/thespian/antique collector Arjun Sajnani and Vivek Ubhaykar originally set up Sunny’s in 1995 as a delicatessen/bistro. The original Sunny’s at Kasturba Cross Road fast gained a reputation for innovative cuisine and the overwhelming popularity of the food left them little choice but to expand. After all, where else in Bangalore would you find spinach timbales with capers and lemon butter, Szechwan orange beef, Norwegian salmon escalope, lobster and red wine sauce, each presented as food art. To grapple with the demand, Sajnani cleverly converted a location he used when shooting Hindi film Agni Varsha into the latest Sunny’s branch. Indeed, the restaurant does capture the spirit of techno-savy, booming Bangalore. True to its name, it offers a dramatically illuminated glass ceiling and glass walls that drench the ground floor dining area with sunlight luring Bangalore’s lovelies and expatriates for long, lush  lunches. The new Sunny’s too boasts sheer windows, beckoning beige upholstered chairs with a theatrical hole through the backrest  set against a metallic wall. And an al fresco sit-out with marble-topped tables and metallic chairs, rimmed by foliage reaching for the sun. Sunny’s has become a must-do thanks to Sajnani’s re-interpreted classics which addicts claim puts the pizzazz back into fine dining. Expect edgy square crockery serving up signature specialities such as Sunny’s irresistible chicken liver pate with olives or baked brie with toasted almonds to black pepper fettuccine, or sautéed roast chicken with raisins and brandy. Sajnani eases the agony of dessert decision-making with sampler wave-edged plates. Expect everything from Greek-perfect baklava to frozen tri-chocolate mousse cake to Paris brest.

Perennials
Flurys, Kolkata, the legendary tea room on fashionable Park Street, founded in 1927 by Mr and Mrs J Flurys, which got a mention in Parineeta, known for its exotic cakes, creamy pastries, rich puddings and perhaps the best Swiss chocolates outside Switzerland!

Shiraz, Kolkata, where the Bengalis head to when they want to dig into an authentic Mughlai biryani.

Koshy’s, Bangalore, easily the most popular ‘monument’ on M.G. Road. The customer still takes as many hours to finish his coffee as the book he may be reading – no questions asked.

Britannia, Mumbai, continues to reign on the fame of its signature berry pulao!

China Garden, Mumbai, Nelson Wang’s flamboyant offspring that he has been nurturing for 25 years, in spite of nasty civic rows and fair weather friends.

360 Degrees, Delhi, darling of the capital’s movers and shakers. The snob haunt at The Oberoi, where sushi and chardonnay make for conversational ice breakers.

Trattoria, Mumbai The Hotel President’s 24-hour, 25-year-old coffee shop for a slice of Italy, romantic trysts (Bobby Deol first set eyes on wife Tanya here) with the coolest pet name – ‘Tratts’.

Copper Chimney, Mumbai. The Worli branch for being eternally faithful to the asli Punjabi palate.

Sea Lounge, Taj Mahal, Mumbai, for the sea view, the crepes, coffee and chaat, the magnificent high tea to the strains of the piano. Legendary venue in the city for boy/girl viewing and marriage fixing.

Karim’s, Delhi, that has spawned many branches from Jama Masjid to Malaviya Nagar and more, so that all its patrons can savour the world famous kebabs in their own neighbourhoods.

Leopold’s, Mumbai, famous even before Gregory Roberts and Madonna stepped in. It continues to be ‘full up’ despite slovenly service, mediocre food and a distinct tilt towards the gora clientele.

Prithvi Café, Mumbai, watering hole of many a television star, Sanjna Kapoor’s personal effect and storehouse of steaming Irish coffee and homemade brownies.

Gaylord, Mumbai, for continental spreads, freshly baked rolls, sponge cakes and stories of how Rajesh Khanna would wait to be noticed by then Bollywood biggies who would frequently meet there.

Beijing, Kolkata, in the heart of Tangra, the city’s China Town, run by the feisty Monica Liu, frequently revisited for the golden fried prawns and excellent draught beer.

House of Mangaldas, Ahmedabad, owned by a noted philanthropist, today flaunts a terrace eatery, among other spaces like a courtyard café and traditional elements – Gujarati thalis, jhoolas, clay pots – with great élan.

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