New Delhi, India
June 18, 2012
First things first: the décor is very nice. Smart, with lots of natural light streaming in through the almost floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. With sunlight filtering through the blinds, and efficient air-conditioning in the room, we almost didn’t feel we were in summertime Delhi. This is a fairly small restaurant, but (besides the windows) they’ve tried to create an illusion of space by making one wall all mirror, with a pattern of slightly blotchy smudges. There’s a dark metal ‘leafless tree’ that grows out of one corner, and spreads its branches below the ceiling—with a large bowl-like metal ‘nest’ snuggling in the centre of the ceiling. The furniture is dark wood and plain; the crockery is plain white but chunky in a stylish way. All very pleasing.
The menu at Chez Nini is fairly brief: there are only about four or five dishes under each section: salads, soups, entrées, main courses, accompaniments, breads, desserts. It makes it easy to choose, but also, of course, reduces the number of options you have. What struck me about the items listed was that some (from the descriptions that followed them) didn’t sound particularly French, or even what I’d think of as Canadian or North American (except some the day’s specials, which included sloppy joes). There was a Niçoise salad, but there were also lots of dishes with ingredients that ranged from feta, okra, and dates. Fusion, I guess, beyond the mere fusion between French and North American.
After some deliberation, my husband and I decided to share an entrée (bacon-wrapped dates with parmesan), and order individual main courses and desserts. Each of us ordered a crispy pork belly as a main course, to be followed by a mango cheesecake (for my husband) and a sticky date pudding (for me). Chez Nini has a selection of wines, but since we’ve given up all alcohol for the time being, we opted for fresh lemonades instead.
Our lemonades arrived within a couple of minutes, and with them came a bowl of focaccia (?) topped with a thick tomato sauce. It was enough to keep us going till our entrée arrived, and once that happened, even if we’d had any focaccia left, I doubt if we’d have eaten any of it—the bacon-wrapped dates immediately took centrestage. The saltiness of the bacon contrasted brilliantly with the sweetness of the soft dates, and the mustard sauce smeared artistically along the inside of the bowl was the perfect complement to it. Along with that came a heap of okra fritters: light, airy, and almost tempura-like.
Our first course got a thumbs-up from both of us. The second course was good too, but we both felt it wasn’t as great. The chickpeas and rice (not to mention lentils and cubed potatoes and sliced carrots) was flavourful and nice, and the slightly tangy eggplant caviar (a well-seasoned mash of roasted or smoked eggplant) was a nice addition, if you like eggplant (I do!). On the side was a tiny pitcher of black cardamom jus. This had been mentioned in the description on the menu, and we’d been a little apprehensive, but it was a nice, tart sauce that (oddly enough) didn’t taste at all of black cardamom. The crispy pork was very good pork—lovely and tender and succulent. The crackling on top, while it didn’t have that gorgeous golden brown come-hither look of fantastic crackling, was good and crisp. Good; not fantastic.
By the time we’d finished all of that (and the lightly cooked bak choy which accompanied it) we were pretty full and my husband nearly cancelled his dessert. He eventually did have it, and mostly liked it; the cheesecake was a beautifully light and fluffy one, and the generous spill of mango sauce topping it was nice and fresh. The only drawback was the base: packed crumbs and butter that tasted unpleasantly burnt. I had a spoonful from the cheesecake, and would personally have preferred some mango pulp mixed into the cheesecake batter; it was a plain vanilla one, with all the mango being the sauce.
My sticky date pudding, on the other hand, was pretty disappointing. This came in a large shallow soup bowl, a large wedge of pudding sitting in the middle with a moat-like sauce surrounding it. The sauce (butterscotch? I couldn’t tell) had separated—I could see the grease floating in places—and was too, too sweet. After a couple of spoonfuls of pudding and sauce, I decided to steer clear of the sauce, and found that the pudding, on its own, didn’t taste bad, though it was too stodgy and dry.
Our bill was Rs 3,167, all taxes and service charges included. This, mind you, with no alcohol. Too expensive? We’re inclined to think so, but we just might give them another chance.
From journal Delhi Restaurants: Expat Hangouts