By Vir Sanghvi
Fodies always travel the world looking for iconic dishes at famous restaurants. The baba au rhum at Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in London, Monte Carlo and Paris; the roast chicken at Chez L’Ami Louis in Paris; the truffle soup at Paul Bocuse’s Lyon restaurant; the pork bun at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant; the bread and butter pudding at Mosimann’s in London; the cauliflower soup at Gordon Ramsay’s London flagship; the black cod with miso at any Nobu; the roast goose at Yung Kee in Hong Kong; and so on. The list is pretty much an endless one.
Do we have iconic dishes at restaurants in India? Well, we do have great street food. But restaurant food? I’m not sure. For what it is worth though, here’s my list of great dishes I have eaten in Indian restaurants over the last five years.
Bistecca fiorentina: Le Cirque (Delhi and Bombay)
This is Florence’s most famous dish, a huge steak carved out of a side of Chianina cattle and then roasted on an open fire. I spent a week in Tuscany last year looking for a perfect bistecca and my conclusion (heresy to all Italians) is that the Chianina is too lean a breed to make a good steak. At the two Le Cirques, they use US Prime rather than Chianina and the portion is so large that two people are expected to share it. The Delhi version is more elaborate and is sliced at your table. The Bombay version is pre-plated. But both are absolutely delicious.
Kakori kebab: Dum Pukht, Delhi and elsewhere
This is the kebab that Dum Pukht made famous and, in my view, no hotel chain other than ITC gets it right. A kakori is shaped like a seekh but should have a melt-in-the-mouth feel. The texture is hard to achieve (many chefs have difficulty in getting the mince to keep its shape on the skewer and choose to make galoutis instead) and the perfect spicing is a secret that only members of chef Imtiaz Qureshi’s family appear to be privy too.
Bacon fried rice: Amaranta, Gurgaon
A hidden gem at the Oberoi chain is this little restaurant serving wonderful South Indian non-vegetarian food at the Gurgaon property. The bacon fried rice is, I suspect, a made-up dish but it has a distinct Syrian Christian influence and is very special.
Murgh Khurchan: Bukhara, Delhi
The great secret dish of Bukhara. I’m not sure if they’ve actually put it on the menu now but for years, regulars and insiders have ordered this alternative take on chicken tikka masala. Soak it up with a crisp tandoori roti.
Crab: Gajalee, Bombay
Eat it any way you like – even with an inauthentic butter garlic sauce – but the crab at the Vile Parle Gajalee is so spectacular that it must count as one of India’s great gastronomic experiences. Gajalee’s fried bombil is also a classic. But I still prefer the crab.
Baked chicken puff: Yauatcha, Bombay and Delhi
The original, in London, is made with venison but this version is still pretty amazing. It is like a patty but with the lightest, flakiest dough ever. I’m sure they do it at the Bangalore branch too but I have still to try it.
Star of India biryani: ITC Grand Central, Bombay
The Grand Central lurks in the shadow of the more glamorous ITC Maratha but it has some of the best Indian food in the ITC chain. (And that’s saying something!) This is a Bohra-style biryani with mutton and apricots. It is on the room service menu and I’m so addicted to it that I take back matkas full of it each time I leave Bombay.
Patatas bravas: Arola, Bombay
Sergi Arola is a rock star Spanish chef (with two Michelin stars) whose signature dish is a variation on the tapas standard of crispy potatoes. In Arola’s version, the patatas are hollowed out and the sauce put in. His Bombay restaurant at the JW Marriott benefits from the strength of Himanshu Taneja, the hotel’s executive chef who ensures that standards remain high and consistent. But be careful: this dish is addictive.
Kadak Seekh: Peshawri, Agra
You won’t get these at Bukhara but at the Peshawri at the Mughal in Agra they make a crisp seekh kebab from chicken mince with whole chillies embedded inside. To die for.
Berry pulao: Britannia, Bombay
A legendary Bombay favourite, this pulao with its berries is somewhere in the no-man’s land between Irani and Parsi food. You can get versions elsewhere but nothing tops this.
Dahi batata puri: Sea Lounge, Bombay
It shouldn’t seem right to eat street food in a luxury hotel. But the relationship between the Taj and city of Bombay is special. Though the Taj is once again one of the world’s finest hotels under the dream team of Gourav Pokhriyal and Parveen Chander Kumar, the Sea Lounge’s dahi batata puri is an old-fashioned favourite that has remained unchanged for many decades now. There is nothing quite like sitting by the window, looking out at the Gateway and the sea beyond and enjoying the Sea Lounge’s surprisingly good version of this street food staple.
Pizza: Italian Cultural Centre, Delhi
The best pizzas in India are not made by an Italian. But they are made for Italians. Ritu Dalmia runs the café at the Italian Cultural Centre and cooks excellent pizzas of all kinds. Though the Cultural Centre is a club, it is easy enough for Indians to become members though of late I suspect that the Italian embassy is getting a little annoyed that people want to join not because of a love of Fellini or even Berlusconi but only to eat at the café.
Madras fried chicken: Pavilion, Chennai
This dish is only a year or so old. It was invented for the ITC Chola’s buffet. The idea was that each table would get some starters before they began on the main meal. The fried chicken uses south Indian spices but its defining characteristics are the crushed curry leaves in the masala and the skillful use of tamarind to keep the pieces of chicken moist. So far, at least, ITC has refused to serve it at any of its other hotels. But it is an instant classic and is certain to travel.