Friday, 28 March 2014

DINING OUT: The Many Kitchens of Delhi Make For A Dehlavi Treat at the Sheraton in Saket


WHAT: Dehlavi Buffet
WHERE: Baywatch, Sheraton New Delhi Hotel, Saket
WHEN: Up to March 30 (dinner only)
DIAL: 011-42661122

The Sarai ki Biryani, one of the go-to items
 on the Dehlavi buffet at Baywatch, is inspired
 by the food served at the city's historic sarais
to pilgrims and traders bound for distant lands
By Sourish Bhattacharyya

WHEN PEOPLE express surprise over Delhi's rise as the country's foodie capital, I wonder why.
The Capital has been blessed by a constant stream of settlers from around the world who have had a salutary influence on our constantly evolving palate -- from the Afghans and Turks belonging to the era when Delhi existed in settlements that flowered and faded away with dynasties in the area that now sprawls from Mehrauli to Shahpur Jat, to the Mughals, who developed their own composite culture and cuisine, and left behind an indelible mark on our heritage, and the Kayasthas, Banias, Anglo-Indians, Bengalis and Punjabis, who came at different points of time to serve the empires that ruled India from this imperial city or refugees escaping the Partition Holocaust.
Post-Independence, the Bengali migrants who settled in the EPDP Colony (now famous as Chittaranjan Park) created an ecosystem of sweet shops and street-side kiosks hawking delicacies from back home; Tamil settlers have made the city fall in love with idli-dosai-vada and filter coffee; political refugees and medical tourists from Afghanistan have created a market for Afghani restaurants, which stand out in the anonymous lanes of Hauz Rani next door to Saket; Europeans working outside embassies or doing business in the city have been providing patronage to trend-setting restaurants such as Diva, Tres and Chez Nini; and West Asian students are finding gastronomical solace at places such as Kunafa, which has the best baklava this side of Damascus, and the Select Citywalk doner kebab restaurant, Al Turka.
It is difficult for any restaurant to offer this vast repertoire in one buffet experience, but the Sheraton New Delhi Hotel at Saket has achieved it to an extent in its Dehlavi promotion, which will be on at Baywatch (dinner only) till March 31. It draws on the menu the hotel has been laying out at banquets -- at one marriage, 40 Dehlavi main course specialities were on offer, the result of two years of research into the cuisine. And by limiting the Dehlavi promotion's geography to the Walled City, Vipul Gupta, the young chef behind it, restricts the menu to a manageable mix of Mughlai, Kayastha, Rajasthani and Punjabi Khatri specialities.
Still, I would've loved to see the inclusion of some Anglo-Indian dishes -- after all, the nautch parties of the colourful Maratha nobleman Bara Hindu Rao, the flamboyant White Mughal and Delhi's Commissioner William Fraser and the Anglo-Indian mercenary, Colonel James Skinner, were as famous for their food as for their entertainment. I would have also loved to see Bengali mishti among the desserts (though the soft and syrupy jalebas are a treat for the senses!) as a tribute to Annapurna Sweets, which was opened in 1929 opposite the Fountain in Chandni Chowk by a Bengali family from Lahore.
This minor quibble aside, I was happy to see that the Sheraton kitchen had moved away from the predictable bedmi-aloo-plus-nihari routine, though the flip side of it is that there's little in the Dehlavi line-up for the vegetarians, except for the Bhatiyaron ki Daal, which benefits greatly from the chhaunk (tempering) of browned garlic and red chilli paste, and Kathal ka Korma.
My favourites were the melt-in-the-mouth, juicy gilafi seekh; shrimp goolar kebabs, which were of the size of playing marbles and exploded in the mouth, releasing a flood of flavours (unusually, these goolars aren't the standard round shaami kebab equivalents with figs inside); the aromatic shabdegh with mutton nalli (shanks), pasanda (escalopes) and a delicately spicy kofta -- an innovative combination of flavours and textures; and mahi badami kofte, my personal high point of the evening, because the dumplings of rohu (the South Asian carp) had slivers of almonds -- a memorable interplay of textures -- and came in a mustard-flavoured light gravy. These are gentle expressions of the creative impulses that keep talented chefs much sought after. At the end of the day, it's all about balance. The more you have it, the better the food gets.