Food from the North-West Frontier

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on March 11, 2013

The Ashok is owned and operated by the government-run Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC). Which, as many Indians will tell you, means it’s not particularly swish. Till a couple of years back, this hotel looked run-down, with the polish rubbed off the wood panels and the carpets gone threadbare. It was, however, given a facelift for the Commonwealth Games (in 2010), and while it’s still nowhere as smart as most of Delhi’s private 5-star hotels, it’s a lot better than it used to be.

Frontier, at lobby level, is The Ashok’s main Indian restaurant. It specialises in Frontier cuisine—food from the North-West Frontier (which is technically now in Pakistan, but has a culinary heritage that spans the Indo-Pak border). Frontier food is the type that "puts hair on your chest": meaty and loaded with protein to help ward off the cold of the Himalayas. Vegetables are conspicuous by their absence. Food is typically mostly cooked in a clay oven (a tandoor).

The most daunting thing about Frontier is its décor. I’ve been here a couple of times and know what to expect when I enter the restaurant, but it still comes as a bit of a shock. The interior is mainly black. I assume it’s supposed to project chic (black is currently in vogue in a lot of wannabe Delhi restaurants), but the effect is rendered bizarre by everything else. The floor is decorated in swirls of ‘underlit’ white; one long wall is a series of mirrors, while another wall (of glass) has huge circular patterns in frosted glass. One wall—the one on your left, as you enter the restaurant—has a pattern of stylised waves, in bright electric blue, all backlit. The blue and the backlighting are repeated in places, most notably along the counter of a show kitchen at the far end.

As if that wasn’t enough, the lighting is weird. From the ceiling are suspended black squares of what look like painted wood; on each of these sit four different types of glass bottles, decanters, and pitchers—all cut and patterned, and containing a light bulb. It looks very odd, and (as my sister and I whispered to each other) "How do they clean those?"

Also very weird are the place settings. Each consists of an oval piece of black glass, on which there’s a splash of dull silvery stuff—it looked like a giant amoeba, and to me, wasn’t very conducive to working up an appetite.

But, it’s the food that matters. Frontier offers a decent array of frontier food: kababs, tikkas (including vegetarian options), some curries, and the requisite breads to accompany them. The curries are pretty much of the type you’ll find in other North Indian restaurants; Frontier’s forte are its fantastic kababs, so these were what we chose straight off. Our final order (for six people) consisted of patthar kabab, burrah kabab, bannu kabab, dal Dera Ismail Khan, tandoori phoolgobhi and an assortment of breads.

While we waited for our food, a waiter brought our drinks—we’d all ordered fresh lemonade, though Frontier also offers alcohol. With that came the ‘complimentaries’: a large sauceboat of yoghurt-and-mint chutney, and a similar sauceboat of thinly sliced onions, tossed with loads of powdered red chillies, salt and limejuice. The latter is very fiery, so beware.

The food at Frontier—like most Indian food—isn’t a pre-plated ‘per person’ serving. You order for a group. Our food arrived within about ten minutes of being ordered, and the waiters served it to us. The patthar kabab (literally, ‘stone kabab’) is a piece of lamb that’s been beaten very thin, marinated and then cooked on a very hot stone. It’s delicious, but shouldn’t be allowed to get cold, because it gets tough. So that was what we started on first, before moving to the rest of the kababs. The burrah is another classic lamb kabab: a chop, lightly spiced and grilled till tender. Along with these, we’d ordered a chicken tikka, called the bannu kabab, which is a mild kabab of boneless chicken, covered with an egg-based batter.

Having ordered so much non-vegetarian food, we’d also decided to salvage our consciences a bit with something veggie. This was a tandoori phoolgobhi, a whole cauliflower that had been covered with a thickish pastry-like gramflour dough and then baked. Along with that, we’d asked for black lentils, cooked with tomatoes, cream and butter—the dal Dera Ismail Khan. The basket of assorted breads included thin roomali rotis, naans, tandoori rotis, and kulchas stuffed with spiced paneer.

The kababs were, each of one of them, delicious. Tender and juicy and mildly spiced. The dal was great, too, as were the naans and tandoori rotis. The kulchas were, around the edges, too thick and a trifle undercooked. And the cauliflower was a disappointment: it was really rather insipid, and had lost all the crunch that might have made it a good veggie dish.

For dessert, Frontier offers only four options: kheer, kulfi, gulab jamuns and rasmalai. I’ve had the kulfi before, and can vouch for its deliciousness. This time, I opted for the rasmalai, a couple of spongy cookie-shaped dumplings made of sweetened milk solids, soaked in thickened milk flavoured with saffron and cardamom. A good end to a largely good meal.

I can’t say how much the bill came to, since this was a small party hosted by my brother-in-law. At an estimate, I’d say the bill (without alcohol and tips) would be about Rs 8,000-10,000 for six people. I do know, though, that Frontier is considered by the cognoscenti to be far greater value for money than other posh North Indian restaurants in Delhi’s big hotels.

Frontier opens for lunch between 12.30 and 3 PM, and for dinner between 7.30 and 11.30 PM.

The Ashok Hotel
Diplomatic Enclave, 50-B Chanakayapuri
New Delhi, India, 110021

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