Rahul Dua and Kainaz Contractor’s Bhawan finally makes its brick-and-mortar debut in Gurgaon ♦
This story was originally published in Conde Nast Traveller India.
In March 2020, Bhawan was “one paint job away” from its much-anticipated opening. Kainaz Contractor and Rahul Dua, the restaurateur couple behind the street food-themed spot, had cracked the capital’s casual dining space with each of their previous projects and Bhawan was their most exciting concept yet.
By then, Bhawan had already been three years in the making. Contractor and Dua had been running their own charming Parsi homestyle restaurant Rustom’s, as well as Nappa Dori’s Café Dori in Dhan Mills for some time. Before that, Dua was responsible for the runaway success of Café Lota, which not only revived the popularity of the National Crafts Museum but was an important milestone in the growing popularity of playful, seasonal, regional Indian cooking.
A gateway to India’s street food
The couple, who are self-described “street food superfans”, now wanted to bring India’s vast and varied chaat, snacks and mithai repertoire to the capital. They’d take “whirlwind two-day food trips” to cities like Banaras, Mathura, Kanpur, Lucknow, Surat, and Indore to observe techniques and understand the balance of flavours behind local favourites.
They initially planned Bhawan as a quick-service outlet, “almost like a Subway, but for chaats,” Dua said. But recognising that most attempts to upscale street food resulted in dishes “so standardised that it doesn’t matter if you’re being served a sev puri from Bombay or a paapdi chaat from Delhi”, they decided to turn Bhawan into an independently-funded passion project to better cherish and celebrate India’s diversity.
When the first lockdown was imposed, “we thought it was a small delay,” said Dua. Within three months, they took the hard call to walk away. It was “literally a 95 percent-ready restaurant which never got to open.”
With a trained team ready to go, the couple decided to pivot to a delivery model. The fresh, consistent food and cute packaging—complete with QR codes for nostalgic playlists—was a hit.
Nostalgia, fried and sautéed
Finally, Bhawan has now opened as the stand-alone restaurant it was always meant to be. Located in Gurugram’s revitalised 32nd Avenue complex, Bhawan is a testament to the couple’s ability to adapt and roll with the punches. A hand-painted sign at the entrance announces the menu’s focus as well as its handcrafted aesthetic. A small but lovely bar and juice counter with art deco accents, and a mithai case recall a typical halwai or chaat-shop set-up, but cane-backed chairs, potted plants and books, mosaic floors and other sweet touches elevate the space.
There are photos of street food vendors from the couple’s travels, as well as a mural that pays tribute to the shops that inspired the menu. The most delightful touch are several TV screens, retrofitted to look like vintage wooden box sets. They play a four-hour loop of old film songs, clips and commercials curated by the couple. It’s the perfect setting for serving up what the menu calls “nostalgia, fried and sautéed”.
The heart of this menu is the chaats, which range from classics to creative. The ragi, atta and sooji golgappas are supremely satisfying; we liked the classic coriander water best of the three we tried, but raw mango and pomegranate are nice for a change. On the other end of the spectrum is rasgulla chaat, one of the bizarre mini food trends of 2021 (there are two stalls, crawling with vloggers, dishing out the stuff just in Delhi). The mix of sweet, sour and savoury isn’t as offensive as one might imagine, but it doesn’t really add up to more than the sum of its parts either. It’s a great icebreaker for those awkward first dates though.
We try one of the dahi-based chaats, thayir vadai with a sour, curry-leaf tempered curd, and a couple of dishes from the short snacks and kebab sections. Laal maas soole, or morsels are beautifully tender and served with a lovely relish of seasonal produce. And prawn papads—super fun cigars of minced, spiced prawn, rolled tightly in papad—have us counting down the days until Bhawan gets its liquor license (a first for the couple, despite the fact that Dua is a trained sommelier). Appam eggs Benedict is another standout (we try the version with choriz and bacon), but every dish we try is comforting with great attention to detail: from kasundi malai broccoli and pumpkin, to gondhoraj fish, mutton dahi bada, and varqi lukhmi.
Bhawan also has a shorter section of main courses—vegetable and meat curries, lentils and bigger plates. The Calcutta-style chicken bharta, white butter chicken and Dal Bhawan we tried were solid standards and we’ll definitely be back to try the Surti khawsa (the port city’s take on khao suey), aubergine pollichattu and other dishes.
Don’t miss the fun desserts. Aamras golgappas is a must for summer; it’s a shatteringly thin puri, dusted with powdered sugar, that explodes into a cloud of pure alphonso pulp in your mouth. There are classics from Lota days, like bhappa doi cheesecake, as well as more fiddly inventions like tiramisu rasmalai. There are wonderfully whimsical juices, mocktails and shakes from a cold brew with chandan syrup to a pyaar mohabbat Roohafza milkshake.
My list of Delhi/NCR restaurants that I’ve loved, lost, or bookmarked for a future visit, goes into the triple digits. But I’ve noticed that in the past few years, I consistently recommend the few restaurants that have Contractor and Dua’s stamp on them. Bhawan is a worthy addition to that list.
Bhawan, Unit 9, 32nd Avenue, National Highway-8, Sector 15 Part 2, Gurugram, Haryana; call 81785-39537; open all days, 12:30 – 11pm. Meal for two Rs2500.