Delhi 2012

Back to Delhi again - with a couple of days at the start and again at the end of our holiday


A Value for Money Favourite Pt1

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on December 2, 2012

We first stayed at the Tara Palace in October 2010 and we liked it so much that we went back again two years later. During those two years between our visits I kept ‘almost’ getting around to writing about the hotel but something kept stopping me. I’m not sure if it was the desire to keep the place to myself and not tell too many people about this secret little gem of a hotel, or if it was the challenge of how to express how deeply I liked a place that I knew had some surrounding features that might horrify other people.

I’ll confess that it’s maybe not a hotel for India ‘first timers’ as it comes with such a hearty dose of reality check that it might put some people off. It’s not a place for those seeking luxury or those seeking a dirt-cheap deal in a slum (though there are many such places around). What Tara Palace represents is a clean, safe place, run by decent people who won’t try to pester you into buying a tour or hiring a car (unless you ask of course), who will calmly and gently answer every question you have and keep drawing maps on the backs of scraps of paper to make sure you find the places for which you are looking and will cheerfully ring the people you can’t face calling because you know they won’t understand you. And all for a price that represents the best value in town – in my opinion of course.

I don’t come to this conclusion lightly or without experience. I mentally totted up all the places I’ve stayed in Delhi and they number around a dozen. I’ve stayed in two of the most sublime hotels in the city, in some classy B&Bs in the suburbs and in a lot of ‘budget’ places in and around the centre. I have loved at least two thirds of them but no other place comes close to Tara Palace on both value for money and proximity to key attractions.

Our first visit was with my sister and her partner on the ‘introduce you to India’ tour that I arranged. I booked it on the strength of it having a great ranking on Tripadvisor (currently 43rdout of 541) and having read a lot of reviews of it on Trivago.co.uk. I used to do the review approvals on trivago and I got so fed up of seeing reviews of the place that I actually challenged one of the writers to find out more. I had suspected the reviews were fake but she assured me that it was just a really nice place, with super staff who at the time were asking happy customers to do them a big favour and post reviews of the place. I should say that on neither of my visits has anyone asked me to review the hotel or put any pressure on me for feedback.

Our first booking was a mix up. I used the hotel’s online booking system (I think it doesn’t work any more – this last time I contacted them directly to ask for a room) and booked my sister’s room without incident and then booked our room for totally the wrong date two months too early. I was worried that I might have just lost all my money but when I wrote to the hotel they told me there was no problem at all, I’d need to pay slightly more because we’d be in high season but not to worry, the room was reserved and everything was fine. On our first visit the online booking system needed a deposit but this time when I asked if I needed to make a payment I was told that there was no need and I could pay when I arrived. I do find that I trust a hotel that trusts me – Tara Palace was happy to guarantee me a room with no deposit and no credit card number.

One really nice thing about the hotel is that they offer a free airport pick up service. Considering that they do this for even a one-night stay which can cost less than £30 and some hotels will charge up to £15 for that service, it’s a very generous offer. Don’t expect a limo though, and be prepared for some ‘interesting’ experiences. The website currently says they only pick up from the Indira Gandhi International Airport but since the new terminal was opened two years ago, plenty of domestic flights now land at IGIA and on our first visit we were picked up after a domestic flight. Be sure to double check if you aren’t sure whether your flight would be included. Another nice touch is the mail they send to confirm your pick up which tells you where to meet the ‘meet and greet’ man and to take care that you don’t go with someone else who tells you that the hotel is closed, being renovated, burned down or any other such nonsense. The mail actually tells people "Don’t trust anyone until you get to the hotel". It might sound a bit extreme but it’s not uncommon for scammers to copy the names they see on the meet and greet boards and try to take you to a different hotel. On our second visit I hadn’t read the mail properly and called to say I couldn’t find the driver. There was a good reason – he stands at one of the less busy doors where there are few people to attempt to steal his customers.

Our first visit pick up was a memorable experience. With four of us travelling and a late evening arrival, the hotel sent the standard small four seater car, an Indica or something similar. As the last pick up of the evening, the man who came to meet us was going back to the hotel in the car. With three adults squeezed in the back with some of the bags on our laps (Indica boots are not very big), my husband sat in the passenger seat, the driver in the driver’s seat, and the other man perched on the hand break where he helpfully changed the gears for the driver. My sister was concerned that the young man might not father children after perching in such a position.

I was aware that the hotel was in the bicycle market area of Old Delhi so I wasn’t too surprised when we found ourselves surrounded by trucks loading tyres and bike bits onto them when we arrived. I’d also read enough reviews to know that we’d be taken down what might appear to be a dark and seedy alley to reach the hotel. Thus I was as cool as a cucumber when we found ourselves somewhere that didn’t look much like it had a hotel. Sure enough, we hopped out of the car, dragged our bags down the alleyway and into the Tara Palace.

The alleyway became one of our lasting memories of the hotel. My sister’s and her partner are both very short and so for many Indians, they seem a lot less scary than my husband and me. A family lived in the alley – husband and wife sitting around chatting with friends and the children sleeping on one of the trolleys that are used to move things around the local shops. It was clear that the alley was their home and my sister’s partner in particular took a shine to our ‘neighbours’, stopping to chat and give them sweets for the kids. Despite these people living in an alley and having very little, they were so cheerful and always greeted us when we arrived or left the hotel. On our last night, we gave them all the bits and pieces we weren’t planning to take home – some old clothes, part used bottles of toiletries and some fabric I’d bought and then decided to leave behind. Knowing that one person’s throwaways are someone else’s little delights, I hoped they wouldn’t be offended and in fact we were quite embarrassed by their enthusiasm for the things we planned to throw away. On our return this year, the family had gone and I can only hope they moved on to something better.

Rooms come in deluxe or super deluxe types. We’ve always pushed the boat out for the super deluxe so I cannot comment on the cheaper rooms but I assume they are just a bit smaller. Rooms are available for single, double or triple occupancy and for comparison of the two room types, a super deluxe double costs just 200 rupees (about £2.50) per night more than the deluxe. Our room cost 2598 rupees (pennies over £30) per night and included the free airport pick up and breakfast each morning. All taxes are included in the prices.
Hotel Tara Palace
419 Esplande Road
New Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi, 110006
866-539-8117

A Value for Money Favourite Pt 2

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on December 2, 2012

The reception area is clean and tidy but quite small. There’s a computer in one corner with internet access but people who cannot survive without wifi should be aware that there isn’t any even though lots of hotel booking sites incorrectly say that there is. If you should need it, there’s a small office in the building next door where you can book tours or just a car and driver for the day. They’ll also happily give you a map and any advice you need. We told the guy in the office that I’d emailed them to ask if they wanted to bid for the tour we wanted to do but nobody replied. He told me – with regret in his voice that it was "Our loss, madam, very sorry" but then when I told him what I was paying for 11 days in the Himalayas he told me that it was a really good price and he probably couldn't have beaten it. Check in was quick and the receptionist just asked me to sign the guest book and kept our passports so he could fill in the rest of the details which was much nicer than making us wait whilst he did it or making us do it ourselves.

There’s a staircase – in places one that’s a bit scary due to big gaps at the edges – or a lift for getting to the rooms. It’s a tiny lift and takes just 2 or 3 people. When it’s hot you can switch on a fan inside the lift. The hotel has 33 rooms laid out over three accommodation floors. On our first visit we had a room on the third floor on an internal corridor which was very quiet but of course had no view other than onto an internal light well. This time we had a room on the front corner of the hotel on the second floor which overlooked the alley way and the surrounding buildings. I really liked having a view and I enjoyed looking out in the mornings and watching the families living in the run-down buildings nearby getting ready for the day. Yes, I will happily wave to someone cleaning their teeth or having a shave on the rooftop.

Our room was spotlessly clean with all the furniture in good condition and none of the typical damp mouldy smell of most cheap Indian hotel rooms. It had everything we needed but nothing we didn’t and was simple, pared down and perfect. The rooms have both air conditioning and ceiling fans and we always avoid the A/C anywhere it’s offered if we can since it tends to give us colds. The room had grey marble floors and cream painted walls, a very neutral colour scheme of course, but better that than something too distinctive or colourful. There was a large king sized bed with a typical hard Indian mattress which was perfect for me, with clean sheets that actually were long enough to tuck in at the bottom (it sounds crazy but don’t take anything for granted in India) and the classic mid-brown hotel blanket which seems to be the standard issue all over the country. Other furniture included a large wardrobe, a bag stand, a coffee table and two chairs, a small desk and bedside tables on each side of the bed. There was also a long wall mounted mirror and an old fashioned television set.

The bathroom had loo, sink and shower with a wall mounted mirror over the sink. In common with most budet Indian hotels (and some not so ‘budget’) the shower head just comes out of the wall without any cubicle but when the room is large enough – as this was – there’s no need to fret over your toilet roll getting soggy or anything like that. I suspect that the water heater only goes on in the early morning and evening since the receptionist asked us when we arrived in the early afternoon if we’d need hot water and then flicked a switch and told us to give it half an hour until we used the shower.

Outside the room, the corridors are all marble floored and decorated with pleasant framed prints on the wall. One mistake we made on our second night (on the first we were too jet-confused to notice) was to not go out in the corridor and turn off the lights as there was a glass panel above our door which let in rather too much light and made both of us sleep badly. Sadly it didn’t make either of us have the sense to get out of bed and sort it out.

Breakfast is included in all the room rates and is served on the third floor in a small breakfast room or can be taken in the rooms. Personally I think it’s a slippery slope to total slob-itude if you start eating breakfast or other meals in your hotel room so we always went to the breakfast room in every hotel on our trip but were clearly unusual in doing so since there were always more trays leaving the dining room to go to the guest rooms than being served in situ. There are several choices to be had – Indian, European or American breakfast. I recall the difference between the non-Indian options was whether or not you had eggs. I firmly believe my high consumption of eggs on Indian holidays (and it’s the only time I do eat them) works as a talisman to protect me from dodgy tummy so both mornings we had omelette and toast along with cereal for my husband, fruit juice, and tea and coffee. On this particular trip I took my own cafetiere mug and made my own coffee each morning which might seem extreme but stopped me moaning about how crap the local instant coffee is.

On our first evening, after spending most of the afternoon asleep, we decided to eat in the hotel dining room rather than go out in search of inspiration. Vegetable biryani, paneer mushroom, a garlic naan and two sweet lassis set us back a few rupees less than £4 for the two of us. The menu has no meat and no alcohol and I’m not sure if the latter is due to the proximity to the mosque or whether a word in the right ear would find a ‘boy’ sent out to procure intoxicants if you wanted them. That’s often the case but we weren’t bothered by a ‘dry’ dinner. It’s clearly not a vegetarian kitchen by Indian standards as Hindu vegetarianism classifies eggs as ‘meat’ and there were plenty of eggs around.

One of the most fun things about Tara Palace is the roof terrace. It’s not a fancy place and indeed if you go up in the morning you’ll have to fight your way through all the sheets hanging up to dry on lines. From the roof you can see most of the big attractions in the area including the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque, the Jain temple and bird hospital and the Sikh gurudwara (although I’ll admit I didn’t spot that on our last visit so I’m not sure if something got built in the meantime that blocked that view. I also love looking out over the homes of the local people who are just getting on with living their lives.

From Tara Palace you can reach any of the four sights I mentioned above in 5 to 10 minutes. For going further afield, simply turn left out of the alleyway and left again at the end of the road and you are on the famous Chandni Chowk. From there it’s about a 5 minute walk to Chandni Chowk Metro station (not well signposted but turn left after the rubbish sorting depot) and that will connect those who are willing to use the Metro to the rest of the city. Take care at night because the route back from the Metro includes a stretch that’s used as a bedding down spot for lots of the city’s homeless people. There’s not danger at all but some people – especially those new to India – might find it a bit upsetting to be quite so confronted with just how lucky they are to have a nice bed for the night when so many people clearly don’t.

If you don’t fancy the Metro, you can take your chances with the taxis, autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws but my recommendation would always be to see if you can hire a car and driver for the day so you don’t have to fight over each taxi ride fare. Ask the hotel and they’ll give you a price for the day.
Hotel Tara Palace
419 Esplande Road
New Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi, 110006
866-539-8117

At the Mosque - part one

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on November 27, 2012

As someone who’s not really a fan of organised religions, I have a very open and enthusiastic mind when it comes to religious architecture. Churches and mosques are my favourites, probably because I’ve been to so many that I understand what I’m looking at, know what to look out for and I can find my way around. I love gurudwaras too (especially for the free sweets – yum) although I have to admit I’m often baffled by Hindu temples and (shame on me) a bit bored of Buddhism. The Jami Mosque in Old Delhi is a long way off being my favourite mosque – I like a lot more tiling and ‘bling’ – but for an Indian city mosque, it’s probably the best you’ll find.

I’ve been twice. The first time was in the middle of the summer just a few days before the monsoon broke. I’ve never been so hot or sticky in my life and trying to go to the mosque in those conditions was insane. The red stone floors were so hot we had to hop from foot to foot and hunt down cool spots but on the plus side, the place was almost totally empty. Our second time was in October this year when I booked a hotel just five minutes walk from the mosque. I was looking forward to going back because I’d not taken my camera in the first time and I wanted to go in cooler conditions and dither a bit more over looking around.

Masjid-i Jahān-Numā is the formal name of the mosque and translates as the ‘world-reflecting mosque’ but it’s almost universally referred to by the term Jama Masjid or ‘Friday Mosque’. There are a lot of mosques called Jama Masjid around the world and the term refers to what are known as ‘congregational’ mosques, Friday being the big day of the week for mass ‘congregations’ to gather and hear the sermon of the religious leadership. A lot of mosques – especially small ones – are little more than a room where people stop by to make their prayers five times a day. It’s just not possible for every Muslim to track down a big fancy mosque but many who will pray locally for the rest of the week will make an extra effort on a Friday to travel to a larger congregational mosque for their weekly sermon and inspiration. Please note, for what are hopefully obvious reasons, it’s best to avoid visiting the Jami Masjid on a Friday.

The Jama Masjid was built by the great Mughal emperor Shahjahan. Shahjahan is best known as the man who built (or rather ordered lots of slaves and craftsmen to build) the Taj Mahal. His second best known creation is Delhi’s ‘Red Fort’ which formed the heart of his city, Shahjahanabad, which was one of the many incarnations of Delhi. With his city nearby, he built the Jama Masjid just outside the city walls on a nearby mound back in the 1650s. In many respects it’s impressive that so much of his city remains intact today and in the case of the mosque that it’s not just a preserved ruin but a real working mosque used every day.

The mosque encourages jaw-dropping statistics. It’s the biggest in India by quite a long way and whilst you wander around thinking "Yeah, I suppose it’s quite big" it is only when you see pictures of the place packed to bursting on a special Friday that you can actually appreciate what 25,000 people praying in perfect synchronisation looks like. Sadly – for those who like history – or perhaps excitingly – for those who like progress – there’s a new mosque being build down in Kerala near to Kozhikode which will have a capacity for 30,000 but I’m willing to bet is won’t have the atmosphere of the Jami Mosque. For one thing hardly any tourists got there and most Indian’s probably couldn’t pinpoint Kozhikode on a map.

It took 6000 workers six years to build this red sandstone beauty and cost Shahjahan a million rupees at a time when it was an awful lot of money. If you want lots and lots of facts and figures on how tall, how long, how wide etc. they are widely available but I’ll spare you the numbers and just say "It’s big; really big".

The mosque is surrounded by narrow streets and many visitors approach it by cycle rickshaw. Partly this is an attempt by their tour companies to give them a little bit of local flavour, and mostly a way of trying to avoid squeezing a 50 seater bus down a narrow road with several 50 seater buses coming the other way. We approached on foot following a scribbled map our hotel receptionist had drawn us. If you should find yourself staying in the Tara Palace in Old Delhi – and I highly recommend you consider it – then leave the hotel, walk down the alleyway, turn right and at the end of the road turn right again and you’ll end up at the visitors entrance.

There are three ways to get into the mosque via the three iwans (or gateways). Each is set at the midpoint of one of the sides of the mosque. The iwan on the fourth side opens onto the hall of worship or ‘haram’. Muslims can use whichever entrance they like, including the most impressive iwan which takes you directly into the courtyard with everything laid out in front of you. Tourists are only allowed through one of the two side entrances – Entrance 3 – which enables the security guys to pretend they’re interested in whether you’re going to attack the place and gives them a chance to randomly ask to have a look in your bags. I would guess the Muslim entrances also have security but I’ve never been in that way. Having a special tourist entrance also means you can get fleeced for a camera permit – a rather hefty 300 rupees per camera (about £4 and the highest fee I’ve seen in several years). Try not to swear at all the people who didn’t pay the fee snapping away on their camera phones once you get inside. Think calming Godly thoughts and feel thoroughly righteous and you think of your permit in your pocket.

For those who live in fear that their shoes will be stolen, there may be some comfort in knowing that they could only be stolen by another tourist. (By the way I’ve NEVER heard of anyone getting their shoes stolen at a mosque anywhere in the world). Most annoyingly, the tourist entrance gives a bunch of guys the opportunity to rip off women by insisting they cover themselves up with garish long robes.

I know how to behave in a mosque. I know how to dress in a mosque. I wouldn’t dream of going in dressed inappropriately. In countries where such things are essential, I’ll merrily put on a chador and my hair is covered long before I step into the place. I was frankly miffed to be told that I had to cover myself in a ludicrous floral ‘housecoat’. I asked if it was essential, pointing out that there was no skin showing, that I was wearing a long, shapeless top but they insisted. Once inside I was baffled at all the tourists wearing these crazy outfits but with their hair uncovered. It’s like covering your shoulders and walking in with a miniskirt and no knickers. Of course when we tried to leave we knew what to expect. "Money! You give me money!" said the slimy housecoat-wallah. My husband was teasing him. "Sure", he said "I’ll put it in the donations box". They guy nearly exploded. Tony gave him the smallest note he had and then put a much bigger one in the box and dared the guy to give him a hard time.
Jama Masjid/Friday Mosque
Old City, Chandni Chowk
Delhi, India

Friday Mosque - Part Two

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on November 27, 2012

Once you are inside it’s hard not to be impressed. By international terms it’s a rather modestly decorated mosque, mostly built in red sandstone which has been inlaid with marble. The sandstone is the same type that’s used in the Red Fort so there’s a satisfying sense of continuity. As tourists, we tend to miss the grand entrance which is opposite the Red Fort and has an impressive staircase leading up to the mosque, giving you time perhaps to contemplate your sins as you huff and puff up the stairs. The courtyard is enormous with a surprisingly small ablutions pool in the centre. Undoubtedly if 25,000 worshippers stopped to dip their toes there would be total chaos. You’ll find places around the perimeter for ritual washing and I was quite surprised that the ladies area was inside the actual mosque as many places I’ve visited have the washing area outside for people to complete their rituals before entering.

First impressions may well be "So where is the mosque then?" as many people expect that it will be a big covered building. In common with many congregational mosques in hot countries, this is a mostly open-air arrangement and the covered area of the mosque – the worship hall - is only a small part of the total. What you’ll find is that there’s a relatively small covered area which is slightly raised above the rest of the place with a white marble ‘podium’ from which the Imam preaches the sermon. The first time we went we were with a British Muslim girl who headed off into the worship hall to say her prayers and I noticed that unlike many mosques there seemed to be no segregation of men and women inside the hall.

There’s a beautifully ornate covered portico around the perimeter of the courtyard and a large, sunny area for worshippers to line up and go through the motions. At risk of being disrespectful, it must look like the biggest aerobics class in town. The idea of worshipping in the full sunshine surrounded by thousands of other people makes my head ache just to imagine. The other key features are the two minarets standing at either side of the worship hall. You can buy tickets to go up one of them but I’ve never tried this thanks to having a husband with a loathing of circular staircases (and a knee that was once dislocated and a desire that it shouldn’t happen again).

I was a little disappointed that my plan to take lots of photos was thwarted by lousy light conditions. The pollution in the city (we arrived the day after Eid and I think the fire crackers had been going off all night in Muslim-dominated Old Delhi) really loused up my chances of taking photos of the Red Fort from the mosque and gave all my mosque photos a tinge of grubby light. I was yearning for a gorgeous blue sky to offset the red of the buildings but it wasn’t to be. I enjoyed just mooching around but my enjoyment was spoiled by the feeling of being exploited by the men with the disgusting floral robes. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of a holy place without wondering just what kind of stunt they were going to pull on our way out. If I’m to be allowed one final little whinge, it’s really annoying that almost every shot you could take inside is spoiled by wires stretching over the courtyard which make the high camera fee even more irritating. Despite all of this, I still love visiting the mosque, recommend finding a quiet place to sit and watch the world go by, and would put it on any ‘must visit’ list for the city.

As a practical tip, there’s no alternative way into the mosque without going up lots of steps so if you have problems with such things, you might do better to stay away. I’d advise to wear shoes that are easily slipped off for leaving with the shoe man and – if possible – socks to stop your feet getting burned on the hot sandstone. Even though you’re going to be subjected to the ludicrous housecoats, PLEASE show some respect and dress appropriately. This is not the day for shorts and vest tops and an acre of cleavage. To be honest nowhere in India (except the beaches of Goa) are such things acceptable or advisable so it’s just common sense to prepare for any mosque or temple by dressing with sensitivity to local customs. Also once you’re inside, please don’t shout or run around and basically don’t do anything that your mum would tell you off for if you did it in a church.

Unless you are staying in Old Delhi, it’s quite possible that you’ll not spend too long in the area. Be sure to visit the Red Fort (entrance 250 rupees, 2012) and when you come out of the fort, I recommend stopping in at the Jain Temple and Bird Hospital directly opposite the entrance to the fort. You’ll need to take off any leather items – shoes (obviously) but also belts, watch straps, handbags etc – as animal products are banned inside Jain temples. Then take a walk up Chandni Chowk to look in the shops (if that’s what you like), get a McDonalds if you’re having withdrawal symptoms and are sick of rice and daal (no, I’ve never been in) and maybe drop into the Gurudwara and add an additional religion to your visit to the area.

If you’re not with a group, either take a taxi or auto rickshaw straight to the mosque or if like us you’re a fan of the Delhi Metro, the nearest station is Chawri Bazaar (the Thieves Market). Be sure to ask passers-by for directions.
Jama Masjid/Friday Mosque
Old City, Chandni Chowk
Delhi, India

Zen Again

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by koshkha on December 2, 2012

Zen has become a tradition for my husband and me when we go to Delhi. I first discovered it many years ago and since then, it’s just something we do whenever we visit. We used to ‘save’ Zen for the end of our trip as something to look forward to when we were out in the middle of nowhere eating rice and dal day after day but eventually we realised that it wasn’t wise to keep this for the end because our stomachs had often ‘shrunk’ by the time we’d been in India for two weeks. This year we decided to start as we’d hope to go on – eat in our favourite place at the beginning of our trip.

Zen is an Oriental restaurant serving mostly Chinese and Thai food although recently they’ve branched out into Japanese food too. We noticed that they have a ‘daughter’ restaurant called Tao nearby and that’s on our list for next time we’re in Delhi. However on this occasion we wanted a ‘sure thing’ and Zen is so consistently wonderful that we knew we’d be in safe hands.

Zen is located in ‘B’ block of Delhi’s famous Connaught Place – also known these days as Rajiv Chowk. We arrived by Metro and made our usual mistake of completely forgetting which block we needed. But first we were off for retail therapy, heading to ‘The Cottage’ – the Central Cottage Industries Emporium – on Janpath to order some curtains. With our task for the trip completed, we headed back to Connaught Place to look for Zen. Sadly ‘B’ Block is on the opposite side of Connaught Place from Janpath and we had quite a walk to find it again. If you should find yourself hunting for Zen, remember that ‘B’ block is in the North West sector of the circle and approaching from Janpath you should turn left past Palika Bazaar rather than turning right.

We arrived at about 7.30pm on a Sunday evening which was not a bad time. Indian people tend to eat quite late and when we arrived there was plenty of space and we were offered a table for two at the side of the room where I sat on an upholstered bench and my husband had a proper chair. He got the more comfortable seating but I got to watch everyone in the restaurant. We’ve been so often now that I even recognise some of the staff who’ve been there for many years.

Now that Zen has added Japanese dishes to the menu, the list of dishes has become long and quite complex. It’s a good thing we went at the beginning of our trip before our menu-minds had been shrunk down to choosing from the same few dishes every day. The task was made easier by two factors; firstly that I can generally remember what we liked from the time before and secondly because my husband always delegates the task of choosing to me. I am his food and drink ‘consultant’ which means he’s not allowed to moan about what I choose because he won’t take the responsibility to choose himself.

We kicked off with two beers – big cold Kingfishers. I was quite surprised that my husband (being uncharacteristically decisive on this occasion) ordered two. Normally we start with one and then order a second when the first is done to prevent it getting ‘warm’. These were the first and last beers for the next 10 days as supplies dried up in the mountains.

For starters we ordered Prawn Tom Yum soup which has become part of our Zen ritual and then we followed it up with a prawn dish and a bean curd dish. Our standard is one fishy and one tofu but we vary the fishy choice between prawns and fish. The bean curd was in spicy black bean sauce and the prawns were with cashews and ginger sauce. These were accompanied by a mountain of white rice.

The Prawn Tom Yum soup in Zen is the second best I’ve had anywhere in the world and only the same dish at Delhi’s Imperial Hotel restaurant, the Spice Route, has beaten it so far. A good tom yum should be spicy but smooth, sour enough to make you catch your breath but not to make you choke. In most places you will spend half your time picking ‘bits’ out of the broth but Zen have the perfect balance of spice intensity without having to turn your bowl into a lucky dip of wood and leaf debris.

Service is paced nicely at Zen and the staff do seem to watch carefully to ensure they’re not rushing anyone or leaving them sitting with their dishes in front of them for a long period. At the table next two us, two men were eating mixed starters which were already on the table when we arrived and were still there when we finished our soups but that was as it should be because they were slowly working their way through them whilst having some kind of business discussions. When it became clear that nobody had touched any of the food for about 10 minutes the waiter swooped to check and then took away the remnants. It’s hard to say exactly how long is just right between courses but if the food arrives just as you’re thinking "OK, I’m ready for this, bring it on" then it’s probably pretty close to perfect.

Both our main dishes were superb but very big. I always forget just how generous the portions are and this is part of our problem because we can never finish all that we’ve ordered. My husband is a recent convert to black bean sauce, seemingly having taken against it many years ago without actually having tasted it. He’s back in love with black bean sauce again and we enjoyed the zingy spiciness of Zen’s sauce which had a peppery kick that’s often missing in the more glue-like and sticky interpretations. The prawns with cashew and ginger sauce were lovely with lots of big juicy superking prawns and plenty of cashews to give a crunch to offset the chewier prawns. The ginger sauce carefully avoided cloying sweetness.

We have only ever once managed a pudding in Zen and that was during our 2010 visit when we were rather bullied into it. To cut a long story short, the manager invited us to visit them to thank me for writing about the restaurant on a few review sites. His deputy spoiled us rotten all evening and wouldn’t take no for an answer on the puddings. We could hardly walk when we left and we learned our lesson about letting our eyes be bigger than our bellies. Accordingly we skipped pud and asked for the bill.

On this occasion we paid 1750 rupees – approximately £20 – which made it easily the most expensive meal of our trip but also the best quality and best served. I’d happily pay £40-60 for the same food back home and I can say without fear of exaggeration that as long as Zen are in Delhi, we’ll keep going back.
Zen Restaurant
B-25, Connaught Place
New Delhi, India, 110001
91-11-23357444

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