Tripping the bite fantastic ♦
Being high isn’t usually associated with great gastronomic discretion. Smoking up is more likely to leave you seeing the world in a grain of fried rice than it is to get you drooling over haute cuisine. Then again, “usual” is nowhere close to what Smoke House Room is aiming for.
Instead, restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani is advertising his newest high-end establishment as Delhi’s first dedicated home for molecular gastronomy. The restaurant imports its serious playfulness from the Fat Duck, but adds (appropriately for Delhi) a nightclub (Shroom) and a scene (stilettos, popped collars, sunglasses indoors). And while the focus of top Michelin-starred “molecular” joints such as Fat Duck or erstwhile El Bulli tends to be squarely on the food, Smoke House Room is part of a bigger rhizoidal network of reception area, club, lounge and rooftop, intended to be an immersive experience, from stalk to spore.
The complex is perched atop Crescent Mall and has a fine view of that other shroomy structure, the Qutab Minar (blinds are drawn for dinner though). Glass doors swish open at the touch of a button onto a part-Star Trek, part-Naked Lunch-inspired world of psychedelic lights, pleasantly monotonous electronic music and holey walls that could be described as fungibionic. The dining room is conservative compared to the rest of the area, but it’s open to the music and lights from the trippy lounge.
All of this – plus the large tables (none are really couple-sized) – can make it difficult to pay attention to the food itself. Our enthusiastic waiter was good at refocusing that attention, and his informed, eager attitude reinforced the notion that Smoke House Room is not a place for a meal, but for a guided adventure. And there is plenty of guidance to be had. Restaurants with a focus on cutting-edge cooking techniques don’t usually offer à la carte menus, and while Smoke House Room does, it’s really pushing degustation. It has three tasting menus: the Hunter, which we ordered, the Gatherer, for vegetarians, and the Grand Degustation, which requires an advance order and very deep pockets.
While dipping arm-length breadsticks into the cutest pat of mushroom butter, made to resemble a wee tuffet of wild earth, we chose our molecular cocktails. These were slightly less son-et-lumière than we’d hoped, but still tasty, potent and chilled to unnaturally cold temperatures: a vanilla sky with vodka, pineapple juice and jhaag; and a superior “deconstructed” watermelon caprioska with an impossibly thin slice of melon hugging the bottom of a long-stemmed glass.
The adventure began in South America, with a snack of pão de queijo, a sort of upscale Brazilian cheese ball made of tapioca flour bursting with hot Manchego and Parmesan. Then to France, via a tiny tureen of extra buff boullion, reduced overnight and laced with foie gras and truffle oil. The highlight of these palate teasers was chef Gresham Fernandes’ take on Heston Blumenthal’s famous medieval meat fruit (pâté made to resemble fruit). In this case it was two large grape-coloured and shaped globules of chicken liver, plated with two actual shriveled grapes. It was delicious and delightful, even though the crostini came oddly stuck in Lego blocks. The first course, a “gathering” of half a dozen mushroom varieties, differently marinated and cooked, strewn across a plate with three types of “soil”, evoked an early-spring country ramble – a perfect example of presentation complementing ingredients.
The following courses included a meaty cinnamon-honey-marinated quail with smoky cream cheesestuffed chorizo “ravioli”; a standout smoked salmon tartare sandwiched between sesame crackers with roe-flecked sour cream ice cream; black cod with incongruous coconut miso and eggplant curry; and a five-spiced duck confit served with strawberry fruit leather and braised shiitake. The portions are generous, the kitchen almost too efficient, and we were satiated before the final course. No dish disappointed, though taken as a whole, the palate was a bit skewed towards briny tastes: salt, soy and vinegar.
The first dessert – a wonderfully smooth, chocolatey porcini ice cream with a coffee-flavoured marshmallow – was a sweet departure that snapped us right out of impending food coma. The second, a beet cake with chocolate ganache and raspberry sauce, introduced an unexpected home-made note. But the last, strawberry “petit fours”, were the most fun: a lollipop of chocolate that cracks open with a gush of juicy fruit liquid.
They’re an exuberant ending to a meal that is eager to astonish. And astonish it does. Our only reservation was that, from its discombobulating lighting to its desperate trendiness, Smoke House Room seems caught between wanting to be sophisticated and wanting to never grow up. This self-contradiction isn’t uncommon in our city, and probably very much in sync with the sentiments of SHR’s patrons. It’s not clear what the place will morph into, but with its brash self-confidence tempered with an earnest desire to please, Smoke House Room has cooked up a perfect recipe for Delhi success.