New Delhi, India
September 23, 2013
Dakshin, on the first floor of the Sheraton hotel in Saket, looks a little intimidating at first glance, what with the ornate beaten metal door (with pillars on either side, covered in the same metal). Once inside, though, this proves itself a warm, cosy place, with none of the starched stuffiness that characterises a lot of five star hotel restaurants in Delhi. Peach-and-white woven table linen, off-white ceilings with hanging brass lamps (traditional South Indian style) and more unmistakably South Indian artefacts: wood carvings, bits of fabric, paintings, etc.
We were eight of us—my parents, my husband, my sister, her husband and their two teenaged children. We’d phoned on ahead and reserved a table, so were warmly greeted and seated as soon as we arrived.
The menu at Dakshin needs a little time to understand; it’s divided state-wise, with one or two pages each devoted to the four southern states. The names may be a little unfamiliar to most Delhiites, but descriptions are provided for each dish—and, as we discovered, our waiter was so knowledgeable and helpful, that it was best to ask him for recommendations. Since none of us like very spicy food, we allowed him to guide us with a range of low-spice dishes.
Although Dakshin does offer alcohol, all of us settled for soft drinks: buttermilk (served South Indian style, lightly spiced with grated ginger, salt, and cumin), fresh coconut water, Sprite, and a fresh lime soda. While we waited for our food, our waiter brought us two identical sets of complimentaries—one for each end of the table.
These consisted of a large basket of crisp fried totally non-spicy assorted papads, with four types of chutneys to use as dips: a coconut chutney, a tomato one, a tamarind one, and a ginger one. Also in the middle of the table was a set of condiments, including (besides salt), a couple of types of ‘gunpowder’, the mix of ground spices and lentils (occasionally, also dried curry leaves) that makes such an addictively nutty-spicy accompaniment to just about every South Indian snack.
Our food arrived within about 15 or 20 minutes of our placing the order, and was quickly served on our individual metal platters (each platter, by the way, comes lined with a washed, fresh banana leaf, traditional in South Indian meals). A very mild lamb stew (‘erachi ishtoo’), of boneless goat’s meat cooked in coconut milk, was doled into one of the small bowls on my platter. Beside it, in the other small bowl, was served a slightly more spicy chicken curry, kori gassi, in a tomatoey gravy.
On the banana leaf lining the plate, the rest of the dishes were served: a meen pollichadu (fish fillets marinated in spices and tomato, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled), varattiyatha (a mixed vegetable curry), beans parippu usli (chopped green beans cooked dry with a coarsely ground mix of lentils and spices), and raal poruma kootu (fat, juicy prawns cooked in a low-spice gravy, with chopped drumstick leaves; drumsticks, for those who don’t know, are fibrous pods from a tree—they are popular in curries, or with lentils).
Once these had all been served out, there came the appams, pancakes made from fermented rice flour batter, their centres spongy and soft, their edges lacy and golden and crisp. Heavenly, especially with the lamb stew, which they especially complement. We’d also ordered Malabar parathas, very flaky but richly layered parathas that are good with spicy curries. Dakshin’s were beautifully done, with almost as many layers as a good mille feuille, but silken and soft in texture.
Once the main course was over, we got down to ordering dessert. Dakshin offers about a dozen desserts, most of them South Indian must-haves like payasam (a pudding made with rice, vermicelli, or sago pearls, cooked with either milk or coconut milk—there are numerous variations). Ice cream is also available. I ordered a vattil appam, a ‘South Indian caramel custard’, as our waiter cheerfully described it. This is made using coconut milk, palm sugar, and spices such as cardamom. Dakshin’s vattil appam was as luscious and velvety, with just the right wobble, as any I’ve had in South India. Perfect. (Note that, unlike the main courses—which are in portion sizes large enough to be shared—the desserts are all individual portions).
We had to wait nearly 15 minutes for our bill to be paid, because of some technical problem regarding the credit card company. It was none of Dakshin’s fault, but they were very apologetic for it, and finally took the initiative of telling us that they’d raise the bill through another restaurant in the hotel, so that we wouldn’t have to wait any longer.
While we were waiting, the waiter brought us a box of paan, betel leaves wrapped around a mix of shaved areca nuts, coconut, and other ingredients that act as a mouth freshner. Later, when the payment had finally been cleared and we were ready to go, all the women at the table were offered little farewell presents: a tiny garland each of fragrant white jasmine flowers. These are traditionally used by women in the South, pinned to a plait or bun; since all of us have short hair, we contented ourselves with holding them and sniffing them appreciatively now and then!
Our meal at Dakshin cost us Rs 19,204, inclusive of all taxes and service charges. Expensive, yes; thoroughly satisfying, also yes. This is one restaurant you must put on your list if you want to have the best South Indian food Delhi has to offer.
Dakshin opens for lunch from 12.30 to 2.45, and for dinner from 7.30 to 11.45. Reservations are recommended, since this happens to be one of Delhi’s most popular restaurants in a five star hotel.
From journal Eating Out in Delhi's Hotels