New Delhi, India
June 18, 2012
We were enchanted from the word go, and by the time we’d gone through the menu and Laurent came to take our order (Jerome is the chef), we were sure we’d love this place.
So: our order. The menu has a range of salads, soups, grills and other main courses, but we skipped individual soups and staters and opted for shared hors d’oeuvres instead. A platter of cold cuts, and a meat terrine. We also ordered our main courses right then: a poulet aux mourilles (chicken with mushroom and morel sauce) each for my brother-in-law and I; a grilled basa with lemon and caper sauce for my sister; and onion and bacon flammenkueches for my husband, my nephew and my niece. It was a very hot day, so cold aerated drinks were what we chose for beverages.
The drinks came quickly, along with a basket of lovely crusty sliced baguette and a small bowl of butter. Within a few minutes too, our starters had arrived and been served. The thickly sliced terrine (supposedly of rabbit—if newspaper reviews are to be believed, though the menu didn’t specify the meat) was excellent: meaty, tasty, and without the too-buttery richness of some other terrines I’ve had. The cold cuts platter had a selection of three meats, each in wafer thin slices. The bulk wasn’t in the meats or the terrine, but in the large helpings of lightly dressed assorted leaves that accompanied it.
It didn’t take us long to demolish our starters, and we felt perfect at the end: nicely pepped up for the plats principaux.
About ten minutes went by, and then—just when we’d begun to get worried—my sister’s grilled basa arrived, as did my brother-in-law’s poulet aux mourilles. They waited for a couple of minutes for the rest of our food to come, but we urged them on to eat. And so they ate, and we waited. And waited. And continued to wait.
The Indian partner at the restaurant (we never learnt his name) came and apologised to us for the delay—saying that this was their first really busy Sunday since they opened a couple of weeks back. I could well believe it; Rara Avis was packed, and about three large tables were occupied by a group of French families with toddlers in tow. At one point my brother-in-law leaned across to me and whispered, "Don’t move your chair. There’s a little kid under it."
Later still—when about 30 minutes had elapsed since we’d had our appetisers, Laurent too came by to apologise. Finally, my food arrived, and then a flammenkeuche. My husband and my nephew were gentlemanly only to let my niece eat that one. They had to wait another couple of minutes before their flammenkeuches were served up.
What was the food like? Mostly pretty good. My sister said her grilled basa, with its lemon caper sauce, a side of mashed potato, and ratatouille, was very good. The chicken I got was tender, the sauce deliciously creamy and loaded with morels and sliced mushrooms. On the side I got some lovely potatoes with onions (pommes lyonnaise?), and some ratatouille. The ratatouille didn’t quite fit, I thought—its tomatoey flavours were too robust for the rest of the plate, and tended to clash with the delicate flavours of the chicken and potatoes. Maybe a simple sauté or a salad would’ve been more suitable.
My husband was rather disappointed with his flammenkeuche, and I, taking a bite, agreed. Both of us have eaten flammenkeuche in its birthplace, in Alsace, and frankly, Rara Avis’s flammenkeuche was nowhere as good as what we’d had in Strasbourg or Colmar. That had come loaded with delicious chopped caramelised onions and heaps of lardons and was simply heavenly. The flammenkeuche at Rara Avis had sliced onions (just softened, not caramelised) and rather sparing strips of a very thin-cut bacon, which somehow lacked the generous charm of our Alsace experiences. And it was obvious that the kitchen staff at Rara Avis had been in a hurry; the first flammenkeuche served up had a nice golden-brown tan to it; the next was paler, and the last positively anaemic.
By the time my husband, the children and I had been served, we’d been hungry so long, we’d stuffed ourselves on bread, our drinks, and loads of water, so we ended up having to get half of the three flammenkeuches packed. But all of us have a sweet tooth, so we decided to have dessert. And that proved Rara Avis’s saving grace.
My nephew and I ordered a tarte tatin each, and loved it—I’ve never had such beautifully caramelised apples. The pastry was very light, and the large scoop of vanilla ice cream on top perfect. My husband ordered a crème caramel, which he said was also very good—and, in a refreshing change from the usual ‘caramel custard’ in most restaurants in India, this had caramel done the way it should be: slightly bitter, not sugary. My niece and her father shared a Café Gourmand—a cup of espresso or cappuccino, served with a plate of mini pastries. My brother-in-law drank the coffee—"nice and strong", while his daughter had the plate of five bite-sized cakes and pies. She said they were all good, and gave us a taste of the lemon meringue pie. The pastry was light, the meringue airy but with that paper-thin brown-gold crust on top, and the lemon curd was fabulous, not the buttery, sugar-laden travesty you find across Delhi, but tart and lightly sweet.
When we asked for our bill, Jerome brought it, to apologise again, and tell us that the desserts were on the house. Our bill came to Rs 5,400 (VAT and service charges included). With desserts, that would probably have been around Rs 7,000 or so. Not cheap, but not through the roof either. I’m hoping Rara Avis learn quickly how to deal with Sunday crowds, because I’d like to come back. I’ll probably give the flammenkeuche a miss, but I’m looking forward to trying out the rest of the menu—including a full-size lemon meringue pie.
From journal Delhi Restaurants: Expat Hangouts