Delhi Restaurants: Expat Hangouts

Over the past decade or so, the number of expats in Delhi has boomed. Thankfully, expats who prefer familiar food now have options available. A few reviews of some restaurants that are almost exclusively expat haunts because they offer good, authentic cuisine, not ‘Indianised’ versions.


The best bakery in town

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on July 3, 2012

The first thing I heard about L’Opéra was that its macarons were for Rs 160 each. (No, they’re not, actually; they’re Rs 135 each). "One teensy-weensy macaron for that much? I’d not patronise a place as expensive as that!" said my brother-in-law (to be fair, he was treated to a macaron by a colleague, and did admit that it was very good).

So, my husband and I weren’t really meaning to pop into L’Opéra and stuff ourselves on baked goods, no matter how good. There’s only so much we’re willing to shell out for a macaron or a tart, or whatever. But this last weekend, we happened to be at the DLF Promenade Mall, and there was L’Opéra. This is a small outlet—there’s an L-shaped display counter, a very narrow counter with half a dozen or so bar stools, and that’s about it. The ‘wall’ facing the mall interior is (very cleverly) glass. We happened to peek in, and the mere sight of the items on display was mouthwatering: gloriously colourful fruit tarts, lemon tarts, mirabelle plum tarts, éclairs (both coffee and chocolate), mille-feuille, and rows of pretty macarons, in pink and green and golden and brown, like a wonderful spring garden. We decided there and then that this needed to be checked out, no matter how expensive.

The bar stools were already occupied, so after half an hour of mall-walking, we returned, to find L’Opéra mostly empty. Now came the tough part: choosing what to have. Given a chance, I’d have ordered one of everything on display—all of it was utterly tantalising—but I finally settled for a spectacular fruit tart (yes, the ‘spectacular’ is a part of the name, and is an appropriate adjective!). My husband chose a lemon tart, and we decided we’d split each in half, so we’d get to taste what the other was having. L’Opéra also offers teas and coffees (nothing fancy—the tea, for instance, comes out of a tea bag, which most tea connoisseurs would look down upon). We settled for an Earl Grey green tea each—nice and refreshing, and (as it turned out) a good, gentle complement to the tarts.

The tarts were, both, superb. A very light, very buttery (and the butter always wins with me!) pastry formed the base. For the spectacular fruit tart, this was covered with a layer of smooth custard and topped with loads of fruit—thinly sliced apple, kiwifruit, peach (or was it apricot?), watermelon and grapes, all covered with a very thin glaze, and topped off with a small square of dark chocolate. The lemon tart filling was beautifully tart and lemony, without being overpoweringly sweet or greasy, as most lemon curd in Delhi tends to be.

By the time we’d finished our tea and tarts, we were so bowled over, we decided to indulge a bit and buy ourselves something for our next day’s breakfast. L’Opéra has a range of breads (rye, pumpernickel, walnut and raisin, and cereal among them), plus croissants, brioches, Danish pastry, and sandwiches. This one, too, proved a difficult decision to take, but we finally settled on the chocolate chip brioches and the almond croissants. We got these packed and took them home, to be put in the fridge.

The chocolate chip brioches didn’t look much like the brioches I’ve usually come across, but they tasted wonderful—beautifully buttery, and chockfull of chocolate chip. Interestingly, my husband had his brioche cold, straight out of the fridge—and said it was fantastic that way. I put mine in the microwave for half a minute, and thought that was fabulous. The almond croissants too got a unanimous thumbs up: dusted over with a generous sprinkle of toasted almond slivers and icing sugar, and filled with just the right amount of sweetened, coarse almond paste. Divine.

L’Opéra has several outlets scattered across Delhi and Gurgaon. Besides the one at the DLF Promenade Mall, there are outlets in Khan Market, New Friends Colony, at the French embassy (only for the staff), and one coming up at Select CityWalk Mall in Saket. Other than the wide range of tarts, pastries, breads and desserts on display, they also make pizzas, quiches, savoury tarts, etc. Doorstep delivery is available for orders of a minimum of Rs 2,000—and they can cater for functions.

Our bill at L’Opéra—the tarts, the tea, the brioches and the croissants—amounted to Rs 975, all taxes included. It’s steep; I’d probably pay much less in one of Delhi’s smaller bakeries. But I can bet there’ll be a world of difference between that and this. The food here merits a whole-hearted "Vive L’Opéra!" from me.

L'Opera French Bakery
2nd Floor, DLF Promenade Mall, Vasant Kunj
New Delhi, India

An introduction to French-Canadian food

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 18, 2012

I will begin by saying that I’m really not acquainted with French-Canadian food. I’ve never eaten it, and I’ve never been to Canada. The lady who owns Chez Nini, however, hails from Montreal (or so I’d read in the local newspaper), and the restaurant was being touted as Delhi’s first French-Canadian eatery. My husband and I are keen foodies (and open to ‘discovering’ cuisines), so we decided to go check it out.

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.

Chez Nini
79-80, Mehar Chand Market, Lodhi Colony
New Delhi, India
011-49050665

Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan - and more

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 18, 2012

When it comes to expats, one of Delhi’s more visible populations is that of Tibetans and Nepalis: as students, monk, employees in everything from corporate offices to roadside eateries, etc. While Nepali food hasn’t been particularly well-known in Delhi (I think most non-Nepali Delhiites, even foodies, would be unable to name a single Nepali dish), Tibetan food isn’t unknown. But what is known about Tibetan food are two main dishes: momos (steamed or fried dimsums, stuffed with minced chicken, pork or vegetables); and thukpa, a hearty soup loaded with noodles, veggies, and meat. Both have been served up (and been hugely popular) in makeshift stalls across the city for decades now, with Yashwant Place in Chanakyapuri being home to some of the most loved momo-and-thukpa joints.

So, armed with almost no idea of what to expect, we went off to Yeti with a friend of ours for lunch. The restaurant overlooks the main road of Hauz Khas Village; keep an eye out for the restaurant’s black signboard, which you’ll see on your left as you approach from the main entrance to the village. From the road, it’s two flights up (no elevators here). We arrived when the lunch hour at Yeti was just starting, so we had no problems getting a table that was close enough to the window for us to have lots of light but none of the heat from the sun (I hasten to add: the air-conditioning pretty good).

Inside, Yeti is a pleasant mix of smart (white ceiling with recessed zig-zag lighting; brick walls; and minimalistic dark wood furniture) and ethnic: painted masks; wooden screens carved in auspicious patterns; prayer flags; lanterns hanging from a beam. The waiters wear tunics reminiscent of Tibetan or Bhutanese robes, buttoning on one side of the chest, and with a high collar.

Deciding what to order was a bit of a pain, because everything sounded wonderfully exotic—and yet puzzling. What, for instance, are ‘goat’s lights’? (We never did find this one out) What is ‘buff’? (beef, said the waiter, though further research seems to reveal it’s buffalo meat) What do goat’s lungs taste like? Left to ourselves, my husband and I would’ve probably have been fairly adventurous—but our friend, like non-vegetarian, doesn’t eat pork or beef (let alone ‘buff’ or the other more intriguing items on the menu). And, everything at Yeti is portioned in such a way as to be shared, not a per-person plate.

The dishes extend from Nepali to Bhutanese to Tibetan ones, and there are also a number of dishes from the North-eastern states of India. There’s pork, unusual cuts of goat, and some ingredients one doesn’t encounter in most North Indian cooking. For the sake of convenience, they also offer Nepali thalis (set meals) that offer you a cross-section of Nepali food.

Anyway, we placed our order and sat back to enjoy our drinks (fresh lemonades for all of us, even though Yeti does offer a range of other drinks, including beer, and Tibetan butter-tea, traditionally ‘seasoned’ with yak butter). The waiter also brought us a small complimentary plate to whet our appetites: boiled chickpeas (the small, dark-skinned variety), tossed with chopped raw onion, tomato, green chillies, salt and red chilli powder. With this came two bowls of sauces: a fiery-looking one made from coarsely ground red chillies—which looked too hot for any of us to attempt a taste—and a milder-looking one which turned out to be pretty potent, too.

First up was the appetiser we’d ordered, mushrooms in black bean paste, served with tingmo. Tingmo turned out to be a Tibetan steamed bread, layered like a croissant but with the soft chewiness and moisture of a Chinese bao. The button mushrooms, cooked in a nice sweet-sour sauce with a good bit of black bean sauce, was great with torn-off bits of the tingmo.

Our main course consisted of steamed rice, served with two curry dishes: kokra ko ledo (a Nepali chicken curry) and chickpeas cooked with black sesame. Also, we’d ordered chicken shabalay, a fairly large half-moon of flour pastry filled with minced chicken and deep-fried, something like an outsized fried dimsum. This, hot out of the fryer, was good, crisp on the outside and with a nice juicy filling that was mild but delicious.

The kokra ko ledo was good home style chicken curry (‘home style’ in India mostly means that it doesn’t have loads of cream, butter, nuts, raisins and other ingredients the run-of-the-mill restaurants like to add). The curry had spice, but wasn’t hot—just good, wholesome comfort food. My favourite, however, was the fantastic chickpeas with black sesame. These were small, dark chickpeas cooked in a sauce that just about coated them, a dark blackish-green sauce that wasn’t spicy at all, and was simply delicious. I couldn’t figure out what it contained: cooked chopped onions were the only ingredient I could identify. There would, of course, have been black sesame (as a paste, possibly? I couldn’t see any seeds), and the green may have been coriander leaves pounded into a paste.

Yeti’s dessert menu is brief. Very brief: a fresh fruit platter, and Häagen-Dazs ice creams. We decided to pass that up, and our bill—all taxes and service charge included—came to Rs 2,149. Not bad, for three people. Privately, my husband and I decided we’d come back soon to sample some of the more offbeat food.

Yeti The Himalayan Kitchen
50A, 2nd Floor, Hauz Khas Village
New Delhi, India
011-40678649

Delhi's favourite Korean restaurant

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 18, 2012

Chinese cuisine has been a favourite in Delhi for several decades now. A little newer was Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian food (and that too just the best-known dishes). Sushi began coming into vogue even more recently. But Korean? We used to sometimes come across a Korean restaurant while visiting one of our favourite Chinese eateries (Oriental Bloom, in Ansal Plaza), but whenever I suggested we try a Korean meal, my husband would refuse. Too unfamiliar, and the restaurant was empty all the time.

Well, Gung – The Palace opened in Delhi a couple of years ago, and after a friend recommended it highly (and I’d done some persuading), my husband agreed. He’s now going about recommending it to everybody he meets.

Gung – The Palace is situated in a double-storeyed building in Green Park. When we entered, we didn’t even get any time to look around the ground floor; we were immediately whisked away upstairs, to the first floor, where we were seated at a table in an oddly fussy-looking dining area. The walls are papered over with a pattern suggesting the exterior of a traditional Korean house, with brick walls and roof tiles. On the windowsills, and curving over shelves placed high on the walls, are artificial flowers and leaves. There are laminated table cards, advertising Gung’s own special wines and kimchee (which you can buy). There’s a wall-mounted TV up behind a counter, showing what seems to be a Korean film. It’s rather cramped, though some of what contributes to that air of closeness is quite attractive: traditional Korean screens, medicine chests, etc, made of carved wood.

The menu (both in Korean and English) reminded me of the many Chinese menus I’ve seen in Chinese restaurants in Beijing: a photograph of each dish accompanies the description. Gung offers a large range of dishes, all the way from appetisers and soups to noodles, stews, grills, etc (no desserts here). Even though we’ve never really had much Korean food before, both of us are aware of the cuisine’s signature dishes—and those were what we wanted to have. But how much to order? And what, exactly?

This is where I think Gung scored over a lot of other restaurants I’ve been to: without our asking, the manager (?) came over, a friendly young lady who helped us out, advising us on how much to order (a bibimbap and a wang galbi to share, since that would be quite sufficient for the two of us). Although Gung’s Korean wine has been highly praised (and they offer other spirits, wines and beers), we—since we don’t drink alcohol any more—decided to stick to a 7Up each.

A large pitcher of cold tea (with a lovely woodsy, roasted flavour) had been placed on our table as soon as we’d sat down. Now, while we waited for our food, two waitresses brought a massive tray and offloaded a very impressive array of banchan (side dishes and appetisers). The kimchee made of Napa cabbage was most conspicuous (and most familiar), but there were other little dishes that were fantastic too. Pickled radishes; greens cooked with garlic; gorgeously crisp beansprouts tossed with spring onions and sesame oil; slices of cold rolled omelette; something that resembled a pickled cooked potato; pickled sliced cucumbers; peanuts tossed with honey and sesame seeds… there was lots to explore here, and we loved all of it. Both of us are especially fond of the flavour of sesame oil, so the liberal use of the oil (and sesame seeds) in most of the banchan appealed to us.

We were still nibbling at the banchan and sipping our 7Up when our wang galbi (barbecued pork ribs) were brought over to our table. (If we’d been a little less intent on devouring the banchan, we’d have probably observed the waitress/chef who barbecued the marinated meat at a table-top grill at the table next to ours). With the platter of cooked sliced meat, the waitress brought us a large plate of crisp lettuce, sliced cucumber and carrots, and fat green chillies. Also a small bowl of a dark brown sauce, which was velvety, and with a wonderful sweet-tangy flavour. In front of us, too, the waitress placed a bowl of seaweed soup (beautiful in the simplicity of its flavours) each, alongside saucers of sliced raw onions and spring onions, tossed in soya sauce.

The waitress explained to us how the wang galbi is meant to be eaten (a procedure, I’m glad to say, we already knew; but it would’ve been useful for a newbie to Korean food). Pick up a lettuce leaf in your palm, add a stick of cucumber/carrot, or a green chilli (or all of those); add meat; put a dollop of sauce, and then some of that onion and spring onion relish. Wrap it all up, and you’re good to go. She didn’t mention that Korean etiquette demands you don’t nibble at this wrap, but put it into your mouth at one go. Leaves you unable to say anything for a while, but it’s the perfect way to have all those gorgeous flavours and textures—the succulent, delicious meat, the crispness of the fresh veggies, the sweet tartness of the sauce—explode in your mouth. Simply fantastic.

We were only about halfway through the wang galbi when the bibimbap arrived. This comes in a heated stone bowl, in which steamed rice acts as a bed for heaps of varied ingredients, most of them tossed in sesame oil: cucumber juliennes, carrot juliennes, spring onions, cooked shredded beef, and something that may have been seaweed or bracken. On top of it all, a fried egg is placed. The waitress asked us if we’d like her to mix it for us, and at our nods, she added a healthy dollop of fiery red chilli paste, before using to spoons to mix the bibimbap. I had been prepared for a very good comfort food, and Gung’s bibimbap didn’t disappoint. It was delicious. I can understand why this is one of Korea’s best-loved exports to the world of international cuisine.

By the time we’d finished, we had barely room enough to even taste the complimentary pieces of fresh papaya and watermelon that were brought to our table. Our bill amounted to Rs 2,069 (including taxes, but only a 5% service charge, so we left a further 10% as a tip). I guess if we’d had alcohol, this would’ve been a fairly expensive meal. As it was, we thought it was very good value for money.

Gung The Palace
D-1B Aurobindo Marg, Green Park
New Delhi, India
+91 11 4608-2663

Teatime was never so good

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 18, 2012

Friends had been recommending Elma’s to us ever since it opened a few months back, so my husband and I finally decided to go and check it out. "It’s a tea room," my sister, her husband and their children had told us. "High tea and cream teas—but they’re so huge, you may not be able to fit in dinner afterwards."

So we decided to approach it the other way: since Elma’s opens at 10 AM, we decided we’d do a relaxed Sunday brunch here.

To get to Elma’s, you walk down the lane to Hauz Khas Village and take a sharp U-turn to the right after you’ve passed Kafe D’Or. Walk down the narrow lane here, keeping an eye out on your left; near the end of the lane is a small sign—lettering on a black background—Elma’s. A short flight of stairs leads up to the tea room. And it really is a room—a fairly small room, in fact, with only seven tables, of which three seat only two people each. Elma’s is tiny, no question about it. We didn’t do an exact count, but I’d guess fifteen people could fit here at one time. Or a couple more, if somebody was willing to sit at the piano.

But, small or whatever, this is a delightfully quaint little place, which immediately brought to mind all those lovely little descriptions I’ve read in 19th and early 20th century English novels of tea rooms: windows looking out on trees; a sideboard with racks full of pretty hand-painted crockery, drawers of cutlery, jars and cake stands, delicate coffee cups, and vases of fresh flowers. There’s a white piano against one wall; an umbrella stand with umbrellas; a suitcase-sized ancient radio against another, and tables in between.

Sunday mornings at Elma’s seem to be quiet, because even at 10.20, only one other table was occupied—and only a couple of staff members were present. Worst of all, the ‘bartender’, the person in charge of making the all-important tea—was running late. We were assured, however, that sandwiches were available. So we sat down and had a look through Elma’s menu.

Elma’s serves breakfast (you get different types of scrambled eggs, for example), a range of sandwiches, grilled toasties, and—the specialty, teas. There’s a large variety of unusual ‘boutique teas’, as well as the usual Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Assam, Earl Grey, and other common teas. And, if you’d rather not order à la carte, you can order a high tea (served only between 3 PM and 7 PM), which comes with a three-tier rack full of cakes, pastries and biscuits, along with a spread of finger sandwiches, and tea. Or, you can order (all through the day), a less substantial cream tea.

Since we’d had to wait for the bartender to arrive, we decided we’d order sandwiches to start with, and decided on tea later. My husband chose a spicy sausage sandwich with caramelised onions; I chose a honey glazed ham sandwich. These arrived within a few minutes, served up on pretty white plates with a white-on-white ‘embossed’ pattern of flowers and leaves. Very pretty! Both sandwiches came with their crusts neatly cut off, and each sandwich cut into four large fingers.

My honey glazed ham sandwich, with mayonnaise, mustard, and a little red cabbage, was delicious: a wonderful mix of flavours and textures, to which the little heap of coarse-grain mustard alongside provided just the right bit of spice. My husband liked his sandwich a lot too, but the bit I took from him was a little too strongly flavoured for my liking. The caramelised onion seemed to have been browned a little too much, and the herbs and spices could’ve been less liberally doled out. Still, my husband liked it, so this was probably just a matter of individual preferences.

The bartender arrived (as did some more staff members, including the sweet, shy young lady who acts as hostess and waitress). She let us know that we could order tea whenever we wanted, so—since our sandwiches were nearly finished—we ordered two cream teas. We were allowed to choose the tea we wanted, though the assorted eats with that were standard table d'hôte. "Since you’re ordering two cream teas, you can choose two different types of tea," she told us. So, out of the list of teas, I chose my favourite (Darjeeling), while my husband chose a Nilgiri green tea.

About five minutes after we’d finished our sandwiches, our waitress brought us our tea tray: two white china teapots, a milkpot, two floral-painted teacups with saucers, and a tea strainer. (The only things missing were the tea cosies, but I guess even Elma’s draws the line at how ‘original’ it can be)! Then she got us two dessert plates, loaded with goodies for us to eat while we had our tea. There were two large cheese straws each (very flaky and light, but neither of us really liked the taste too much); two French pastry hearts each (beautifully crisp, and with just the right amount of sugar to make it delicious) and two thin slices of a wonderful coffee cake. This was really a coffee cake rather than a cake to be eaten with coffee; the sponge had a good dose of coffee in it, and so did the thin, light icing on top.

Best of all—and this both my husband and I agreed on—were the four absolutely divine scones. Hot from the oven, studded with raisins, light on the inside and with a perfect little crust on the outside, the scones came with a small bowl of strawberry jam and another of clotted cream. Perfect!

Our bill at Elma’s came to a total of about Rs 1,400 (including VAT, but excluding any tips you may want to leave). It is a little on the expensive side, but well worth it. (Incidentally, my sister and her family, who’ve feasted on good cream teas in Devon, said Elma’s cream tea could match up to many of those). I am certainly going back—perhaps this time to attempt a high tea.

Note: Because Elma’s is so tiny, you might need to line up on busy days—especially about 11 AM onwards, throughout the day on weekends. Try to go there on a weekday, or early on a weekend—or be prepared to wait.

Note: I went back to Elma’s about two weeks after this review was first written, and, alas—some disappointments. While the hot bacon loaf (served with coarse grain mustard, and olive oil) and the spicy chorizo toasted sandwich—covered with chopped chorizo, cheese, etc—were very good, the scones were obviously last night’s leftovers. We knew they were, actually, because the waitress said there were only two scones available, and this just five minutes after Elma’s had opened for the day. The apple cinnamon cake was sadly dry, had raisins sunk to the bottom, and tasted very little of apple. Worse, it seemed to have been nuked, as a result of which the buttercream it had (I assume) been covered with, had separated into a rather unpleasant grease.

And, yes, despite the fact that Elma’s ‘officially’ opens (according to their menu) at 10 AM, both times we’ve visited so far—about 10:10 or 10:15—we’ve had to wait for them to open up.

Elma's Bakery and Tea Room
24/1, Middle Lane, Hauz Khas Village
New Delhi, India
011-26521020

Some teething troubles, but worth it

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 18, 2012

Rara Avis, by Jerome & Laurent, is the name on the signboard on the ground floor outside this restaurant. Beside that simple name is a print of a rare bird indeed—or, rather, a combination of living creatures: a peacock’s tail; the forequarters of a horse; and the head of a lion. It’s intriguing, and gave us the immediate impression of a place that would be cheerily unpretentious. Up we went—Rara Avis is up three flights of stairs (thankfully, there’s a very old-fashioned lift that you need to draw creakily closed)—and into the restaurant. And sure enough, this is a French restaurant with a comfortable, friendly feel to it. The chairs are a mix of bronzy metallic ones, upholstered wood ones, and large comfy leather sofas. The walls are decorated with dozens of small framed pictures: illustrations of butterflies, plants, odds and ends. Our table had a very ‘Chinese ceramic’ cruet set, a small metallic aeroplane, and placemats covered over with words—‘tobacco’, ‘salt’, ‘honey’, ‘sugar’, etc, spelled out in different languages, with accompanying doodles.

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.

Rara Avis
M-27, 2nd Floor, M-Block Market
New Delhi, India
11-41085544

Japanese food, blessedly Japanese

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on June 18, 2012

If you’re wondering what the title of this review means: it harks back to when I was a child, and tasted sukiyaki for the first time. It wasn’t bad, but thinking back, I can’t help but realise that it was probably a somewhat ‘Indian’ version of what sukiyaki is supposed to be. Unlike that long-ago restaurant, Izakaya serves actual Japanese food.

My husband and I visited Izakaya by chance. We’d been planning to eat at another restaurant, discovered that it had shut down, and decided that Izakaya—which was right next door—might be worth trying. The menu sounded good, so we went right in, greeted by a courteous and sweet hostess. The restaurant’s name, emblazoned in black calligraphy on a white background, is very striking, and as we stepped in, it seemed a little like entering a Japanese garden: a white gravel path, with flat black stepping stones, leading to black straight-backed chairs and tables. (One little point we appreciated a lot for its practicality: each chair has only one arm, making it so much easier to get in and out!) Spherical paper lanterns hang above, and except for the artificial cherry blossoms at each table, it’s all muted and pleasant.

The menu offers a range of dishes—from soups to sashimi, sushi, teriyaki, and all the other more familiar Japanese dishes, to somewhat more unusual ones (at least in Delhi). Having never been to a Japanese restaurant—and my husband being determined not to eat "raw fish"—we went the safe way: ordering things we’d already heard about. A prawn tempura sushi; a tonkatsu bento box for me, and a bento box of pork grilled with ginger and soya sauce (buta no shogayaki) for Tarun.

Although the menu has its fair share of beverages, from wines and spirits to beer, juices and aerated drinks, we settled for roasted Japanese tea.

We’d just about ordered, when cool, damp towels were placed beside us—and the tea arrived, piping hot and ready poured in white ceramic cups. I’ve never had roasted Japanese tea before, but it had a lovely woodsy, earthy flavour that freshened us up instantly. The prawn tempura sushi followed soon after: six pieces of good, flavourful sushi wrapped around tempura prawns, with a heap of thinly sliced pickled ginger on the side, and a hefty dollop of gorgeously kick-you-in-the-nose wasabi. The waiter also brought us a little pot of soya sauce, and when Tarun asked him how we should go about eating the sushi, was very helpful and friendly: he whisked up some wasabi in a tiny saucer of soya sauce for Tarun, and showed Tarun how to dip the sushi in the sauce.

Next up (in fact, served just after the sushi had been put on the table) came our bento boxes. For both, the rice and the accompaniments were the same: strips of omelette, pickled vegetables, pickled sliced radish, sliced and finely blanched okra, a piece of potato that appeared to have been simmered in soya sauce, a potato salad on lettuce, and a large bowl of beautiful miso soup, with loads of seaweed, bits of tofu, and onion. With my tonkatsu—breaded, deep fried pork cutlets, cut into thick slices—came a chilli sauce, which the waiter poured over the tonkatsu for me, telling me that he’d get me more if I needed it. There was also, on the side, some fabulously zingy mustard.

Tarun’s buta no shogayaki was a large helping of a fantastic sweet-sour-gingery pork dish, cooked with lots of sliced onions and ginger. The buta no shogayaki was awesome. My (unvoiced) complaint with the tonkatsu was that the tonkatsu seemed to have been sitting around for a while. The pork was dry, the breaded ‘shell’ wasn’t crisp, and the ‘shell’ came away from the meat. I may not know much about Japanese cuisine, but I can tell a good cutlet from a not-too-great one.

Still, we had no complaints—and, by the time we finished, we were so full, we had no space at all for dessert (the menu includes some interesting Japanese sweets).

We paid Rs 2,254 for our meal, inclusive of VAT and service charges (the tea was complimentary). Compared to the prices you’d pay in other spiffy restaurants in Delhi, we thought this was pretty good value for money. The food is excellent, the ambience has a gentle and comfortable soothingness, and the staff is among the best I’ve come across in Delhi. These people were well-informed about the menu, were efficient and friendly, without any of that peering-over-your shoulder intrusiveness that I hate so much. (For example: I’m no good with chopsticks; seeing me struggle, a waiter very gently slipped a spoon and fork next to my bento box. No snide "Would you like cutlery, ma’am?"; no fuss).

Yes, we’re going back here, very definitely (though I may skip the tonkatsu). And, seeing that all the other tables were occupied by people from the Far East—almost certainly Japanese—I can make a pretty good guess that Izakaya is well regarded by them too.

Izakaya Restaurant
317, 2nd Floor, DLF Promenade Mall
Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, 110070
011 46656317

http://www.igougo.com/journal-j76902-New_Delhi-Delhi_Restaurants_Expat_Hangouts.html

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