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bpb Review: Kofuku, Ansal Plaza

wafu-steak-carpaccio

Wafu Steak Carpaccio

Delhi’s Japanese dining scene may have a slight edge on Mumbai’s in terms of numbers, but with the novelty of Tsukiji-sourced seafood wearing thin in recent years, the arrival of Bandra’s Kofuku restaurant in the refurbished Ansal Plaza ought to rejuvenate this genre, with its casual approach to offerings that go beyond sushi and teppanyaki.

Maki In India

Despite the hype, little seems different about Ansal Plaza, which shows, if anything, signs of an ongoing hiatus from public life. After an invigorating romp through the shiny new Decathlon’s floodlit obstacle course of athletic aspirants, we are grateful to step into the the warm tatami-draped, umami-scented interiors of Kofuku and be ensconced in a traditional booth, rather than one of the many empty tables.

cherry-blossom-maki

Cherry Blossom Maki

It would be wise for first-timers to study the 30-page menu beforehand; it manages to encompass everything from age dashi tofu to zaru soba with remarkable simplicity, but there’s a lot to cover. Our homework gives us more time to ignore our lackluster mocktails—a Frooti-ish Kofuku Special and a cucumber and mint “I Love Kofuku”— and draw, instead, kanji-esque characters with soy sauce on our plates, while contemplating the restaurant’s montages of photographs of Japanese scenes juxtaposed with Japanese painting.

seaood-hotpot-detail

Seafood Nabe Mono

Pleasant, but not as pleasing as the first sight of wafu steak carpaccio, a pink buff beauty of a dish, each piece lightly tanned by grill fire around the edges, glistening in a shallow pool of rice vinegary dressing. The subtle meat doesn’t have a great deal of its own taste, but the texture is perfect. Cherry blossom maki is tasty and pretty, but as Delhi’s sushi snobs have by now learned, unless you’re on the beach, the fish will always be flash frozen and thawed. Still the salmon, avocado, and tuna roll, topped with flying fish roe, will certainly hold its own amongst its local competitors.

Too Darn Hot (Pot)

Kakuni Pork

Kakuni Pork

Our server balks at taking down our order for seafood nabe mono, a table-side hot pot dish usually shared by larger groups, but there are times when duty and greed compel us all. This is a really good choice in spite of its size: laden with shrimp, squid, crab and fish, as well as greens and mushrooms, the soup is delicious, full of crustacean sweetness. The two diners at our table polish it off. It is, however, overshadowed by the much-recommended kakuni pork, a Nagasaki style stew consisting of two blocks of perfectly cooked fatty belly in a simmered decoction of soy, sake, dashi and other magical ingredients, glittering with bubbles of fat.

After all this, it’s best not to ask ourselves how we also managed to pack in two gloriously presented mochi ice cream balls (a bit thick on the ice cream and thin on the mochi), and “dango”, small rice flour dumplings on

Dango

Dango

skewers, dripping a sweet-and-salty soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame, which comes with a mug of utterly necessary green tea.

Dango and good night: Bombay, your banzai buckeroo will do.

Getting there: Kofuku, BG-09, Ground Floor, Ansal Plaza, Khel Gaon Marg. A meal for two with no drinks costs Rs 4,000.

Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream

Accessibility: The restaurant is wheelchair-accessible.

bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.

Originally published in Brown Paper Bag Delhi, January 2, 2017.

Published: January 2, 2017

Saanuk Oriental Bistro & Lounge

Luxe Buddhas and a killer deal ♦

In the early days of Time Out food reviewing, there were no quaint little tea rooms or reservoir-facing bistros popping up every other week. You were lucky if you got to go to a hotel once in a while; otherwise, a high percentage of the free dining experience consisted of resto-bar visits or dhaba dives, interspersed with liberal doses of immodium.

Of course new resto-bars are still as common as hipster boîtes, and we were wary at first of Saanuk’s “Bistro & Lounge” tag and its location in Kailash Colony Market, which – though it has a history of diamond-in-the-rough eating joints – is still a little on the rough side. Then, it’s owned by Sanjha Chulha, a Punjabi chain that’s been around since 1975, but has only ever had a small Chinjabi section among its tikkas and curries. Saanuk’s two floors of dark granite tables, red velvet benches, occasional flatscreens and Buddha accents follow the dictats of the resto-lounge aesthetic, but it is spic-and-span and the ambience grew on us.

Currently, Saanuk’s main draw is not the upstairs lounge (liquor license pending), but the insane meal deal: a soup or mocktail, a starter, a main course, noodles or rice, and dessert, all for the princely sum of Rs249 (vegetarian) or Rs349 (non-vegetarian) per person. If two people order, the price is Rs449 (veg), Rs 649 (non-veg). And we’re not talking piddly little plates of last year’s momos, but full-fledged entrées, garnished with nested strands of beetroot or carrot, fresh ingredients and above-average taste.

There’s a good selection and everything we ordered was available and customisable (we asked them to hold the cabbage). True, the strips of tofu in the hot and sour soup were just a little paneer-like, and the fried aubergine a bit on the salty side, but these are minor quibbles when you’re digging in to minty popiah, pak choi and broccoli sautéed with garlic, and the most yummy discovery – chilly-honey glazed, battered and crispy fried water chestnuts – all for less than you’d pay for one prawn entrée at Speedy Chow or Asian Box down the street.

Special mention must be made of our waiter’s masterful command of the menu (down to informing us which three mushroom varieties were in a soup) and grace under pressure when the first crème brûlée he brought us turned out to be randomly spiked with salt. When we asked for a little soy sauce, he got the chef to whip up a fresh black bean sauce, with whole black beans.

You could do a lot worse than Saanuk if you’re in the area, looking for affordable grub, and don’t mind a little Enrique while you eat. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a market-busting drink deal, and applaud this resto-lounge for doing its bit to improve the reputation of its kind.

Saanuk HS-36 Kailash Colony Market (97171-81583).

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 19, 2013

Espresso Grill

Rich flavours on pretty plates ♦

Delhi’s largest multilevel parking lot on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, which opened to much fanfare last year, is a desolate, glittering island between the hustle of Hanuman Mandir and the panoply of state emporia across the street. A digital display outside lists the impressive number of available spots, 1,408, less than a quarter of which are ever occupied. The fact that the lot is currently free should attract some traffic, as should Espresso Grill, a surprisingly swank little spot on one corner.

From the earthenware to the wooden furniture, straight black is the theme at this stylish open-kitchen restaurant, which, despite its unpromising name, has a fairly imaginative continental menu with appetising descriptions. The complete liquor and wine list wasn’t available when we visited, but if the mocktails were anything to go by, Espresso should make a strong showing in the drinks department as well. Prohibition was a peachy mixed-juice drink in a hurricane glass, while Baby Bellini was a snifter-full of slushy lemon and mint sorbet topped with ginger ale that inspired rude slurping sounds as it neared empty.

Mint is also a garnish on fresh tzatziki that comes with Greek flatbread with a crunchy topping of seeds and spices and hummus on the side. Another of the chef’s favoured ingredients is cracked black pepper, which pleasantly spiked a few of the dishes we tried. A creamy, olive oil-speckled tomato soup with a terrine of mozzarella, tomato slices and pesto daubs was weather-appropriate, though not extraordinary, and twice-cooked chicken wings with pomegranate molasses were sweet but not saccharine.

The ricotta and spinach tortellini with brown butter and slivered almonds was a bit dry, but stuffed with green and topped with crisped spinach. A slightly over-salted potato roesti came beautifully presented, topped with a tangle of zucchini “spaghettine”, a tapenade of olive and tomato and a pool of cream. The non-vegetarian mains cover the gamut from soy-glazed salmon to steak au poivre; slow-braised lamb shanks were a classy rendition of the standard, with red wine, rosemary and chilli glaze and leeks on the side.

The espresso itself wasn’t all that special, but a hot chocolate pudding with a scoop of intensely-concentrated coffee ice cream was one of the best fondants we’ve tried (and when every other menu has one, that’s something). A dense, chalky pavlova melted in the mouth, and went well with its topping of tiramisu cream and brandy-soaked prunes and figs, but was too big a portion for such a limited palette of flavours. Aside from a few flavour tweaks, Espresso Grill is an appreciated addition to the CP dining scene, and a good spot for lunch between emporia shopping too.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2013.

Published: January 4, 2013

Vega

 Pure vegetarian, old-school Indian ♦

The owners of one of Delhi’s oldest hotels (Alka in Connaught Place, established in 1968) decided not too long ago to try their luck at the cursed spot at Tavern on the Greens in Lado Sarai, which has thus far summarily rejected Climax, F Bar and Bar Sávanh. They opened a nightclub, Lure, and not too long ago added pure vegetarian restaurant Vega upstairs. The North Indian eatery is a branch of the Hotel Alka’s no-garlic, no-onion, desi ghee-only restaurant.

The lodge-like room is a throwback to old-fashioned family restaurants, with its heavy, off-kilter glass chandelier, beige tablecloths smudged gently with oil, and steel fingerbowls. The only thing missing was a live singing troupe (handily replaced by a muzak version of “Norwegian Wood”, followed by “Oh My Darling Clementine”),
and the presence of small, screaming children and their ayahs. In fact, there were – on the Monday night we visited – no fellow diners at all, except a large family group that left as we came in.

The forlorn atmosphere meant we had the full attention of the waitstaff , who quickly brought us an intensely pink and sweet fruit punch mocktail and an overly spicy jaljeera. The veggie kabab starters were the definite highlight of the meal: tandoori broccoli with a slightly charred aftertaste and a mess of cream and black pepper in its florets was an interesting variation, and the hara bhara kababs were nice and chatpata (the greenest thing about them were a few chopped French beans, though).

Despite our waiter’s assur­ances, the malai kofta and kashmiri aloo were rather similar concoctions of the usual tomato gravy-and-cottage cheese variety, though with generous stuffing of cashews and raisins, and strong flavour. A laccha parantha was a bit greasy and the butter naan standard and overpriced. Dessert was livelier, with a nice cool matka kulfi complementing a hot, gooey bowl of moong dal halwa.

Vega is decent enough as a vegetarian option, but the food doesn’t live up to its out-of-the-way location and shabby-chic trappings. Stick to the kababs if you find yourself here.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2012.

Published: October 20, 2012

Kavia’s Kitchen

A hidden find for adventurous foodies ♦

Sau Foota (100 Foot) Road in Chattarpur has a couple of random gems, including sweet patisserie-café French Affair. But the most interesting place we’ve been to is a restaurant above a shady-posh gym called Energizer. Run by chatty owner Shobhana Gupta, who has spent significant time in Nigeria, Kavia’s Kitchen is part-community centre and part-eatery, with a covered terrace area, a bar and a small stage for musical acts.

The food menu is extensive, to say the least. There’s Indian, Chinese and African food on the menu, but Gupta also offers regional Bengali food and Thai dishes. Since African food in Delhi is pretty slim pickings, we’d recommend a visit to try Kavia’s simple and hearty goat, chicken and fish dishes, which are best shared among a larger group of people. Wash the food down with sweet, non-alcoholic malt or a cold beer. It’s a good idea to call beforehand if you want to try a particular kind of meat, just to make sure it’s available.

We tried a dry-fried tilapia dish (R400 for two fish), heaped with deliciously sweet, sliced, almost caramelised plantains. The crusty whole fish was flaky and fresh inside, with the bones coming away easily. There was no goat available, so we had two overflowing bowls of chicken jollof rice – a West African staple with moist, tomato-y grains mixed with substantial chunks of broiler chicken and bits of various kinds of seafood. The food tastes home-cooked, and is exciting more for its novelty value than for major culinary fireworks. The prices here are a little flexible, based on quantity of the meat, but nothing is out­rageously expensive – if you’re on a budget, ask before ordering.

Kavia’s Kitchen hosts live music on the last Friday of the month and is also a hub for church meetings for the African community. Drop by for a taste of cosmopolitan Delhi life that’s integrated into the city’s fabric rather than trying to draw attention to itself as different.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.

Published: June 6, 2012

Chez Nini

 Cozy up for a friend-date ♦

Chez Nini’s decor suggests a nest, with twinkling lights, glossy tree trunk tables, branches and quite a few finely feathered patrons, likely out for what they might consider a “casual” dinner. This French café has a few fancy twists in its salads, soups, baked goods, main courses and desserts, but on the whole it succeeds at being the kind of unintimidating place where you’d consider going for an easy, slightly pricey, but satisfying dinner.

Our beetroot salad was a tangle of tastes and textures – slightly bitter, not in a bad way – with generous dollops of goat cheese. The French onion soup was a perfectly decent rendition of the classic, not mind-blowing, but à la mode in terms of presentation, with a slab of cheesy toast atop it. The combination of minced lamb and grainy, pan-seared polenta in the generous country-style meatloaf dowsed in allspice gravy was warm and hearty. A vegetarian chilli, made primarily of (well-disguised) soya with slices of zucchini and other veggies, was no less filling and comforting, with a smear of toasted bread  cream  and a couple of melba toasts. Since alcohol is not yet served, we had a pomegranate ice tea, surprisingly fizzy, but otherwise unremarkable.

The coffee was nice and strong though; good accompaniment to pistachio churros with three kinds of ganache for dipping. The ice cream sandwiches sounded inventive (banana and macaron, white chocolate and rosewater, shortbread and lemon) but were a bit of a miss – we’ll  try some of the tarts and cupcakes next time we visit. We’ll probably also return to rate two classics we didn’t try (service is fine, but we missed the personal menu tour from owner Nira Singh, as a prominent food critic had walked in just after us): the coq au vin and Nini’s poutine, which is, apparently, completely vegetarian.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2012.

Published: May 6, 2012

Cheese Chaplin

Quick bite ♦

Did someone say cheese?
Cheese Chaplin, tucked into the air-conditioned, office-like basement of a tiny building draped with bougainvillea in Lado Sarai, is primarily a purveyor of domestic cheeses, made by the shop’s own brand Dairy Craft (which has been around since the ’90s), and some imports. Cheese Chaplin has been delivering the curdled and coagulated stuff to hotels and other clients for about a year from this location.

But there’s a sign for pizza too…
Some months ago, mild-mannered “team member” (the company has no designations) Vikas Bharti, and his colleagues in the on-site trial kitchen, started making pizzas. There are about six kinds of thin-crust pies, but customers can ask for different combinations (the store stocks olives, sun-dried tomatoes, etc). The pizzas (R90-R150), though small, are several notches above their roadside relatives – the dough is rolled out as thin as possible (and whole wheat is available on request), making for a tasty snack. The cheese, of course, is miles beyond the typical Amul topping you’d usually get for this price. Worth a stop if you happen to be tramping through the village.

Anything else?
Bharti has a couple of Cokes in a fridge, but you can get a R5 fountain soda from the stand a few shops down and bring it over. While we waited for our pizza, we tried a few Dairy Craft cheeses – the pure buffalo milk bocconcini is delightfully creamy, with a thin skin, and the smoked cheddar is a good deal at R135 for 200gms. Bharti was putting a new mascarpone through its paces by way of a few trial cheesecakes, and let us sample (or rather, finish) them.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2012.

Published: May 6, 2012

Wat’s up

The new Ethiopian Cultural Centre ♦

Set in a couple of low-lying whitewashed buildings with red tiled roofs clustered around a courtyard, the unpresuming new Ethiopian Cultural Centre brings a taste of Addis Ababa to Delhi. Director Ashok Verma, who set up the centre in tandem with the Ethiopian Embassy, met us in the coffee “tukul” (a type of thatched building) on the premises. “Ambassador Gennet Zewide is a proactive lady with a lot of Indian friends,” Verma told us. “She decided to set up a cultural centre with a museum, a coffee shop and a restaurant for Ethiopian food, since food is an integral part of a country.” Indeed, the Ethiopian chef at Blue Nile restaurant is a capable diplomat for her cuisine and we enjoyed a varied meal of injera (traditional bread) and various stews (wat) and salads there at a reasonable rate.

The museum with gift shop is reminiscent of our own sarkari cultural outposts, but Verma assured us it would be expanding and that the centre would organise film screenings, Ethopian dances, music and so on. “We will not accept walk-in clients and there is no commercial activity, but we will have a cultural calendar,” Verma elaborated. The centre is still fairly new and not exactly buzzing with patrons yet, so it wouldn’t hurt to try calling ahead and pay a visit.

Ethiopian Cultural Centre 7/50- G, Niti Marg, Chanakyapuri. For membership details contact the Embassy of Ethiopia (+91 11 2611 9513).

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2012.

Published: April 26, 2012

Diva Piccola

Ritu Dalmia’s return to Hauz Khas  Village ♦

Restaurateur Ritu Dalmia has come full circle since her opening first restaurant in Hauz Khas Village, almost two decades ago, and Diva Piccola, her new café venture in that neighbourhood. Not only does Dalmia have the comfort Italian formula down pat, nowadays the mere fact of existence in HKV implies being too hip to fail. It’s not surprising then, that the food at this cozy eatery with an open kitchen, picture windows and quick service, is also excellent. The menu is succinct: appetizers, pastas, pizzas, paninis and three main non-vegetarian courses, and of course, desserts. Eggplant and haloumi wrapped in ciabatta crumb turned out to be three gratinated and reconstituted baingan and cheese tikkis, nicely spiced and served with a delicious scraped-up salsa of tomatoes and basil.

An order of six crispy prawns, each nestled in a brown paper cone, very lightly battered and fried, and served with a lemony rosemary olive oil and drops of caramelised vinegar was very snackable, though we found ourselves wishing we’d ordered the heap of mixed greens at the neighbouring table. The green quotient was easily filled by our pizza, an off-the menu recommendation from an extremely enthusiastic and helpful member of the staff (he described a Bailey’s mousse cake as “orgasmic”). All the pizzas sound brilliant, and we enjoyed our verde prosciutto hybrid: pesto sauce, mozzarella, high quality Parma ham, a salad of rocket leaves and a liberal garnish of pine nuts. Gooey and crispy in all the right places, this is certainly the best pie you’ll get in the Village – maybe even in the city.

We also tried the pork piccata, perfect for those with bigger appetites: a browned cutlet topped with cubes of fried pink ham, in a red wine reduction with white whole moons cut out of a potato for embellishment. We’d recommend sticking with pizza or pasta, but only because you’ll want to save space for dessert. The mousse cake was very good – thick with cream and solidly rich, though, we felt, a little too precise to qualify as “orgasmic”, as someone a table deemed it. A panna cotta with blue berry sauce was also well turned out, a small quivery mound flecked with vanilla, next to a streak of purple coulis. We might have liked the desserts a bit messier – they seemed more appropriate to a five star hotel patisserie than something from Dalmia’s typically personal kitchens – but that’s not a complaint. And “loosen up a little” is certainly not a suggestion you could offer most restaurants in the city.

Diva Piccola 30 Hauz Khas Village, First Floor (4053-6001).
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2012.

Published: April 13, 2012

Sakura

Authentic, not atmospheric ♦

It’s been 11 years since Sakura first opened in Delhi. Since then, the city’s self-proclaimed “first Japanese restaurant” has opened a branch in Gurgaon, won every food award in its category and, recently, revamped its original location and menu.

The new Sakura at the Metropolitan Hotel remains fundamentally the same after its migration to the first floor. The hotel has preserved its Japanese clientele and flavour even after ending its association with the Nikko chain, and Sakura is still a locus for conducting business over sake. The aesthetic is Japanese contemporary; clean-lined, like the inside of a bento box. The (florescent) spotlight is on freshness and flawless preparation – at a hefty price, of course.

The short sake list is expensive (from R400 a shot), so we stuck to icy Kingfisher, which washes down the food just fine. A complimentary appetiser of bacon, potato, carrot and vermicelli stew took the edge off the stomach-rumbling that the 14-page food menu inspires. Sakura’s offerings are too wide-ranging for an exhaustive tasting in one meal. It’s better to by choosy and come back for more. The take moriawase platter is good value for the quality of fish, most of which is flown in fresh from Japan. The platter includes seven of the usual chef’s selection suspects (six nigiri and a simple daikon roll), but each is perfect: buttery sea bass, a fantastically fatty slice of yellowtail, and prawn so fresh and succulent it snapped apart with each bite. We chose a luscious prawn tempura roll to supplement the platter. The menu sprawls with dozens of variations on a few themes, but the chefs are happy to customise anything to your taste.

For our main course, we picked pork steak with teppanyaki dipping sauce. It sizzled its way to our table on a hot plate: tender, biteable pink-inside squares of meat nestled with broccoli, potatoes and carrots daubed with butter. A bowl of miso was gorgeously gloopy with softened seaweed. And the una-jyo donburi (barbecue eel in a box) was as good as we remembered: two thick, meaty cuts of eel, grilled to perfection in sweet sauce, the skin slightly blackened at the edges, on a bed of sticky rice. Accompaniments include a selection of pickled items, including addictive pickled plum. Scoops of grassy green tea and rough-textured red bean ice cream chased the lingering soy flavours from our palates, along with a free mug of jasmine tea.

Sakura is pricey and not incredibly atmospheric, but the food is really as good, and authentic, as everyone says. We’d suggest going often, but picking just a few items – a soup, a couple of appetisers, or just sashimi and sushi – to sample at a time.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2012.

Published: February 6, 2012