If there is a better known restaurant in Delhi than Karim’s , I dont know what it is. Every first time visitor to Delhi is advised ” You must go to Karims.” It happened to us the first time we went to Delhi in 2003 and we remember Karims vividly. It was just after the terrorist attack on Parliament and one of the dead terrorists supposedly had a bill from Karims in his shirt pocket having eaten his last meal there. I don’t know if the story is true or merely apocryphal.
Karims which has been in business for almost 100 years is famous for it’s kababs and biryanis. Located close to the Jama Masjid , it’s approachable only on foot or by cycle rickshaw. The lanes leading to it are too narrow for cars so we parked in the nearby lot and took a cycle rickshaw. Karims is located in an ordinary residential building and ,as it has become more successful, it has expanded into neighboring buildings. It’s dining rooms are now located in several buildings fronting on a central square. Some of the food is prepared in an alfresco kitchen that you pass on the way in. There is no point in describing the dining room, the furniture or the cutlery. Karims is about food , first and last.
Since we were a large group with some big appetites, we were able to try a good part of the menu. We started out with a selection of kababs – seekh kabab, boti kabab, burra kabab – and tandoori chicken. The meat was just right ,lightly spiced and perfectly grilled , soft and tender but slightly resistant to the bite. After years of eating what passes for tandoori chicken in the U.S,Karims tandoori chicken was a revelation.Moist ,succulent and grilled to just the right amount of doneness. In less time than it takes to write this paragraph, it was reduced to a pile of bones gnawed clean.
We then attacked the mutton biryani , the mutton stew , egg curry and naan. There was one other curry dish but I’ve forgotten what it was. The biryani was a surprise. Over the years, the biryanis, particularly the Hyderabadi and Moplah versions that I’ve had, have been spicy .Karims mutton biryani was almost plain in comparison but it was just about perfect. The long grains of rice , perfumed with ghee , were soft yet firm and provided a fitting counterpoint to the morsels of tender mutton. The mutton stew was another masterpiece . The word “stew” does not have happy connotations most often bringing to mind long simmered Irish stews with greasy chunks of lamb. However, in India, stew ( or ishtew, as it is pronounced) is a curry made with whole spices. Karims ishtew was in a class by itself I thought as I happily scooped it up with pieces of naan. All in all, Karims lived upto all my expectations though I didn’t care much for the neighborhood.
As famous in Delhi circles as Karims is Moti Mahal. In the fifties , and perhaps even earlier, it’s name was synonymous with tandoori chicken, chicken makhani and maa ki daal. The original Moti Mahal was in Daryaganj but today there are outposts all over Delhi and abroad. I’m not sure whether they are all related to the original Moti Mahal but , in any case , the name has lost it’s former lustre. My son, who was visiting India after 20 years, had been keen to visit it ever since he had heard about in far-off Boston but our local contacts warned us against it. Still , in deference to him, we visited the Moti Mahal branch in Defence Colony. Located on the third floor, the narrow, dingy room was accessible by a tiny lift . It was not a good beginning but I must say the food was pretty good.We started with the vegetable pakoras and chicken kababs, then tucked into chicken makhani,palak paneer, fish curry, dal tarka, assorted parathas and jeera rice before ending up with kulfi. All the dishes were commendable , if a little heavy,the portions were generous and the service attentive.Unfortunately the ambience was not inviting and I don’t think I’d go there again.
The Defence Colony market was very close to where our daughter’s apartment is and we did the bulk of our restaurant hopping there. One place that we went to again and again was Sagar which serves excellent idlis, vadas and dosas. It became almost a morning ritual for us to go there for breakfast. It’s remarkable how much more cosmopolitan Delhi has become over the years ; one yardstick is that good South Indian fare is easily available there. The fluffy idlis , the crisp vadas and the lacy rava masala dosas were our standard breakfast fare at Sagar and we would wash them down with excellent South Indian coffee. Service was very efficient and friendly and we appreciated the fact that extra sambhar and chutney were served without our asking. The sambhar , by the way, is worth a special mention– so goodit was .
The Colonel’s Kababz is another joint well worth visiting. I believe there are other branches all over Delhi but the one we visited was at one end of the Defence Colony Market. The whole chain is the brainchild of an ex- Army Colonel who was very fond of food and cooking and decided to go into the food business after he retired. At this location the restaurant is located on the second floor. The longish dining room is on the second floor and has the feel of an army mess hall, the tables and benches being arranged with military precision. It’s a popular place and it was full the afternoon that we went there. Service was a little harried but efficient. It’s always good to order the specialties of the house and , for the most part , we stuck to the kababs., eschewing the quormas and other gravied dishes.We had four types of chicken kababs( murgh lasuni kabab, murg achari kabab, Murgh chusa and mugh kalmi) , fish kababs and tandoori khumb ( mushrooms) and some plain rice. From the limited dessert menu, the very limited dessert menu, we had the firni or rice kheer. The grilled foods were all very good , particularly the murgh lasuni kabab , flavored assertively but not overpowered by the taste of garlic. I didn’t think I’d like the mushrooms but I did , their texture a contrast to the chicken Kababs. Good food in relaxing surroundings. Recommended.
Also at the Defence Colony Market was Soi 46, which advertises itself as a Burmese restaurant. The name itself is an anomaly since Soi , I believe , is the Thai word for street.Located on an upper floor, the sign for Soi 46 is barely visible from the street. The food it serves is a mixture of Burmese and Thai by which I mean it’s neither. If I didn’t know the name of the dish from the menu, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you whether it was Burmese or Thai. I’ve been to some good Burmese restaurants in the Washington D.C area and the food at Soi 46 doesn’t compare with them. We started out with some interesting fruit drinks and then had Burma’s best known dish Khowswe ( vegetarian and Chinese versions) and a couple of noodle dishes that were forgettable. Average at best and not worth a visit.
We traveled out of the Defence Colony area to get some Gajak, a North Indian sweet which a friend had asked us to get for him. We found it at Evergreen in Green Park, an amazing, amazing place. It’s huge and occupies two large floors. The ground floor houses the sweetmart and serves snacks such as ragda pattis, bhelpuri, gol gappe, samosas etc. The upper floor serves South Indian, Mughlai, and Chinese-Indian food ,all of it surprisingly good ,and inexpensive to boot.It’s a treat to sit there and watch a turbaned sardarji and his family tuck into plates of noodles. Or a Chinese gentleman polishing off a masala dosa. Or a Westerner demolishing a paneer makhani. I would gladly go there just for the cheerful hustle-bustle and for people watching .
Towards the end of our stay we went to Rajdhani, which serves topnotch Rajasthani food in Connaught Place. The dining room is slightly below street level and is not particularly well lit but the enthusiastic wait staff make you feel very welcome . We had an enjoyable meal there. We all opted for the thali , and a good decision it was since we got to taste the full gamut of Rajasthani food. Rajasthan is mostly desert and the people there necessarily live on a rather spartan cuisine based mostly on pulses, lentils and beans with a limited range of vegetables. Meat is eaten sparingly and was not an option at Rajdhani which is “pure veg”.
We were served in stainless steel thalis and katoris which were kept filled by a constant stream of waiters. There were at least four different types of unleavened bread- chappatis, phulkas, missi rotis, puris etc.- all piping hot and delicious. The accompaniments included two- three types of beans, a couple of potato-veg curries, daal, different chutneys , kadhi , pickle and pappadums. There was also plain rice and khichdi before we wound up with dessert, a moong daal halva which was superb. All of the food was excellently prepared and the service was a delight. On a previous visit we had been to Chowki Dhani near Jaipur and the costumed waiters there kept forcing more and more food on patrons with the result that they got turned off and wound up wasting most of it. No such problem at Rajdhani. The waiters were eager for us to sample more of everything but they were not insistent. Afterwards, at their urging , we visited the somewhat cramped kitchen which was a marvel of efficiency with it’s rotating grill used to cook the various breads. A thoroughly enjoyable place to sample good vegetarian fare.
Final thoughts: As good as the restaurants are, Indian cuisine is best sampled at homes. Indian home cooking offers a variety that restaurants cannot hope to rival. Indian- Chinese can be very good ( espescially at the bigger restaurants) but it can also be horrid ( as we found when we ordered some take-out food) . At the low end the food is so heavily spiced that it doesn’t taste like anything– either Indian or Chinese. I also find myself increasingly unable to stomach Mughlai food – the heavy gravies make me feel distinctly uncomfortable afterwards. My choice would be to stay away from Continental or Pan Asian restaurants in India and just stick to places serving regional fare .
There were many other places we would have liked to visit ( Parathewale Galli for one ) but we were constrained by time and our stomachs. We did sample a crosssection of the vast Indian repertoire and we enjoyed ourselves. Happy eating, foodies !