Icons in their own right

Cuisine India Founding Trustee Diwan Gautam Anand, food author-actor Kunal Vijaykar and food-wine writer Antoine Lewis get us up close and personal with some of the best fine dining restaurants in the country that have created a special place in our hearts


Perfect Japanese Dining: Megu, The Leela Palace New Delhi 

Megu at the Leela Palace in Chanakyapuri might cost you an arm and a leg, but as far as Japanese cuisine in the city goes, it’s unparalleled in quality and flavour. With delectable modern Japanese cuisine, world-class service and cutting-edge yet serene aesthetics, Megu is all set to elevate the Japanese dining experience in the city. 

All dishes are prepared using a novel grilling technique called sumibi aburiyaki which uses a special bincho-tan charcoal found only near Kyoto and is prized for its superior purifying properties. Accompany each bite-sized portion with an extensive wine menu that exceeds 600 labels and even 60 varieties of the potent and delicious sake from Japan. 

The restaurant décor by Design Studio Spin Inc. features a signature Crystal Buddha elevated over a pool of water with a Japanese Bonsho bell suspended from the ceiling. The 800lb bell at Megu New Delhi invokes the classical Japanese handiwork in the Todaiji temple in Nara, Japan. Blending ultra-modern design with elements from ancient Japanese culture, the end result is spectacular: floor-to-ceiling dark oak-wood columns; antique silk Kimono fabric adorning the walls of the private dining room and a bright origami pattern embellishing the sushi bar. Following the East-Asian colour theme of red and black, lacquered channels at Megu showcase the aesthetics of a traditional Japanese restaurant.

Megu invites epicureans to an innovative gustatory experience, whilst each dish is presented in a specially-designed handcrafted plate or bowl inspired by the dish itself. The ingredients used have been meticulously selected by expert chefs over years of research across Japan, the United States, Europe and Canada which now results in the exquisite culinary creations offered. Fish is flown in twice a week from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and prepared simply as nigiri and sashimi, or more elaborately as a salmon tartare with ikura sauce and osetra caviar, or silver cod with yuzu miso.

Megu is the first and the only restaurant in the country to offer sparkling sake, each available by either carafe or bottle. Located on the lobby level of The Leela Palace New Delhi, the restaurant has 72 seats with additional outdoor alfresco seating available from October through March.

Rasa Dehlnavi: Delhi Pavilion, Welcomhotel Sheraton New Delhi

Through most of its history, Delhi has commanded strategic importance in various kingdoms and empires. The once capital of the Pandavas, it has been captured, ransacked and rebuilt several times, particularly during the medieval period. In many ways the history of Delhi is the history of cuisines, fragrances, fabrics and architecture that came with various waves of immigrants and invading kingdoms over the centuries. 

These were so seamlessly adapted into the indigenous culture and tastes that their origins are often forgotten or mindfully overlooked, making Delhi a rich amalgamation of intermingling cultures.

The hidden gem celebrating this munificence is Delhi Pavilion at the WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi, Saket. A stunning triple height 24x7 destination, arguably serving the grand cuisine of Delhi traversing over 800 years of the city’s glory under the auspices of Dehlnavi.

While the restaurant serves a sumptuous three meal buffet that is both – popular and value driven, I would urge our readers to go for an a la carte degustation of its fantastic offering of Silbatte ke Shammi, Shahi Nehari, Daal Dehlnavi and Biscuiti Roti, superb Serai Biryani, or Bibis Pulao (unique), Naggpaul Boti Tikka, Dahi Kebab and so much more. Combine it with your favourite beverages of either a glass of wine or their signature cocktail of Sherazeh, a favourite of Begum Jahananra.

Nestled amongst the frenetic malls of Saket, the Delhi Pavilion is an oasis of heaven and tranquility.

Haal-e-Dilli sunane ke qabil

Ye kissa hai dawat aur mehmannavazi ke qabil

Barson se mukamil voh khwan iske

Jo aaj bhi khilane aur khilvane ke qabil

Kya gazab hai kya adab hai, khubsurat yeh safar hai,

Haal-e-Dehlnavi sunane ke qabil.

A lesson on culinary matters: Dum Pukht, ITC Maurya New Delhi

Above the inner corner arches of the Diwan-e Khas (Red Fort, Delhi), on the north and south is inscribed the oft-quoted golden couplet:

Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast 

Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast

If there is heaven on earth 

It is this, it is this, it is this!

With apologies to its author Sa’adullah Khan, these beautiful words can also aid in interpreting a paradise of show case of North and Central Indian gastronomy, Dum Pukht. The winner of Asia’s first Golden Fork award (and many, many more), The Dum Pukht is a lesson on culinary matters. A high style dining room, opulent and indulgent of an earlier unhurried era, the fine dining space deserves time and undivided attention.  

Courses, each distinct, reflect the very evolution of India’s grand cuisine. Each of its presentation is a masterpiece of slow cooking served with the pomp and pageantry of the wonder that was and is India. 

Salans, qaliyas, quormas, kebabs, biryani, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, magnificence prepared patiently by hereditary chefs, with the choicest ingredients. Nothing is left to chance, every process is meticulously overseen, outcome is absolutely magnificent. 

I’m not hesitant on specific recommendations, I’ve practically had the entire menu (many times over) only that every dish is a masterpiece and by singling one over the other is being unfaithful to both the restaurant as well as the reader.    

A brand that now spells a culinary technique of South Asian Slow cuisine.  

I’m aware that the establishment roots its cuisine in the elegance of Oudh and some moorings of the Deccan, but I sincerely doubt that the later medieval Royal Kitchens ever experienced such sophistication and perfection. 

Simply put: Dum Pukht is not about the glory of the past, it is a reflection of the mastery of the present and the very basis of India’s cuisine greatness globally. 

Khushboo se mehek utthe fiza

Jiski rangat se bhi aa jaye maza

Ho nafees aur lazeez har luqma

Zaiqa iska ho har ek se juda

Khaa ke ho jaye khush jo mehman

Hum bechaate hain wahi dastarkhwan!

The aroma of which pervades the air,

A sight, which adds to its flavour,

Aesthetic and appetising in every morsel,

With a taste unmatched and unique,

Prepared just to please our guest, is the meal

That we serve at our table of Dum Pukht. 

Simply spectacular: Threesixtyone°, The Oberoi Gurgaon

Dining in style is a luxury well afforded by the upper crust, who have made things like brunch a part of everyday life. They breeze through life with a finesse that makes you feel almost envious especially when it comes to good food and fine lifestyle. Brunch is a term that gained success somewhere in the late 80s when you saw your favourite celebs lazing around on a late morning with friends over wine and food. Some establishments saw great scope in this mid-day meal and made a refined practice out of it, by including stuff like champagnes, caviars, gourmet salads and pizzas.One of the restaurants responsible for giving the brunch meal a polished look is The Oberoi’s Threesixtyone Degrees. This all-day dining venture of The Oberoi’s is a spectacular place to kick start your day. Their famous ten champagne Sunday brunch is a stuff of dreams, an idea concocted by their awarded manager.

Threesixtyone Degrees is encased in the stunning property of The Oberoi in Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon. It is much more gastronomically advanced than its fellow venture by the similar name, Threesixty Degrees. The ‘one’ you notice as the addition is due to the elevation in brilliance, ambience and quality. Threesixtyone Degrees is an elegant and pretty all day dining restaurant. The best seat in an indoor restaurant is where they have glass panes which provide a great view of infinity pool; as far as one can see. In winters, opt for outdoor seating where they have teakwood decks which are like dining on a sundeck on water. Also, they have five live kitchen counters including sushi, pizza, Chinese and kebabs. They have a concept of Sunday trunch which means why you have to wait for Sunday brunch when you could enjoy it on Saturday also.

Threesixtyone Degrees is a very expensive place to dine, but their superb menu takes away the sting by treating you to a menu that trots around the globe. While you relish the poolside dining experience, browse through the menu to pick your starters. Keep a light and one the appetisers as their main course are sensational too. Tuck into, Scottish Salmon en Papillote, Lamb Stir Fried with Oyster Sauce, Prawn Coconut Chilli, Mexican Enchiladas and Mushroom Kra Pow. Threesixtyone Degrees has a serene quality that is ideal to begin your day with.

When the occasion calls for a lavish elegant place to dazzle your dinner companion, try picking Threesixtyone Degrees, a gorgeous all-day dining restaurant at The Oberoi, Gurgaon for a special occasion. Named after the iconic namesake in The Oberoi, New Delhi, Threesixtyone Degrees is just as spectacular. Adjacent to a wide sparkling pool, the restaurant is done in an elegant modern fashion so the effect is quite striking. Enjoy their famous champagne Sunday brunch near the pool or savour the best of global cuisines in their stunning dining area for a special occasion. Either ways the view would be lovely.


Style and authenticity: Fenix, The Oberoi, Mumbai

The story of Fenix at The Oberoi, Mumbai is the story of Mumbai itself. It’s urbane, vogueish, swank and all-inclusive. The space itself is scopious, bright and uncluttered; with views of the sea, and a red grand piano in the distance. The tables are covered with starched white damask, with glistening glassware and cutlery and are well-spaced from each other with red leather arm chairs and sofas. Fenix, in true Oberoi gentility is somewhat proper, but yet the menu is all encompassing and approachable. There is something for everyone, just like Mumbai. 

So, there is the finest of Japanese, including sushi and fresh sashimi and what they call, a “Roll Call” of the finest. A mean Chorizumi – Spiced crab, cucumber, cream cheese, smoked salmon, teriyaki sauce roll or the Esi Ebi– Tempura lobster, avocado, cucumber, teriyaki sauce, tobiko roll. Traditional flavours like Miso Shiru– a warm and nourishing soya bean soup with tofu, scallions, bonito flakes. And wholehearted meals like a homely Pork Katsu curry with carrots and potatoes. Behind the scenes is the quiet genius Chef Satbir Bakshi, along with Chef Gurmeet Bhamra and sous Chef Mrugank Desai, whose talents are derived from taking seasonal produce and artisanal sourced ingredients and making magic out of them. 

I’ve often been to Fenix where one guest at the table orders Pistachio crusted lamb chops, fondant potatoes, rosemary jus, the other Butter poached lobster, confit onion brulée, asparagus, while the rest want to go whole hog on nalli nihari with taftan, Old Delhi style butter chicken, and a fish moilee, cooked in a coconut and turmeric curry and soul food like palak bhindi chaat, and fish and chips.  It’s not easy to pull that off, in style and with authenticity. 

Refinement and finesse: Thai Pavillion, President, Mumbai - IHCL SeleQtions

The life of Thai food started in Mumbai with The Thai Room at the Taj President Hotel. The Thai Room was then rechristened as the Thai Pavillion and 25 years later, it still remains the place that serves the best Thai food in the city, if not in the country. 

I remember the founding chefs who came armed with recipes learnt from the secret royal kitchens of Thailand and clandestinely grew their own herbs at the Poolside Garden. For the first time, Mumbai tasted a Phad Thai and learnt that Goong in Thai meant prawns. The Thai Pavillion, after vivacious renovations in 2007 ago, also dramatically souped up their menu to meet new international standards. The restaurant shed its ethnic demeanour and adopted a more contemporary international feel. An interactive kitchen from where the sights and sounds of steam and sizzle gently distract you. Private dining cubbies, separated by a wall of the finest selection of wine. 

The food is still Thai, but it’s not “off-the-street-Bangkok-style”, but a menu with refinement and finesse, albeit keeping the rich earthy flavours of spices and herbs, Executive Chef Uddipan Chakravarthy has made sure of that. Instead of a stir fry, they serve pan-grilled scallops with orange and rice wine reduction, instead of an ordinary satay, they grill chicken supremes and serve with a peanut sauce or with coriander and fresh turmeric. A classic Thai Pomelo salad is served with crispy soft-shelled crab. 

My favourite dish which upstages everything else is the Foie gras or Duck Liver with sea asparagus and mango sauce. It’s gentle, silky, yet vigorous in flavour. My dinner will always end with Galangal and macroot infused mascarpone and chocolate mousse tart. Of course, if it were still available, my favourite dessert of all time at President, Mumbai has been Bitter Chocolate Ice-Cream with Brandy Snaps. But alas, they don’t make it anymore. 


Cerebral and refined: Avartana, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai

Is Avartana going to be as iconic as Bukhara for ITC Hotels? Located at two ends of the country, the two could not be more different in on almost every parameter from the choice of cuisine to the manner of its consumption to the style of cooking and the thought processes behind it. Where Bukhara is hearty, comfort food, Avartana is cerebral and refined.

There are many reasons why it is one of the most exciting restaurants but the most important one is that unlike others in its category, it is focussed on modern South Indian cuisine, elegantly combining little-known and hyper-local elements of traditional, regional southern cuisines with contemporary plating. 

Take the rasam, for instance. Served in martini glasses, it had the clarity and fineness of a consommé which is achieved by distilling the tomato juices, so the flavour is sharp and intense. And, of course, you can taste the spices the pepper, the cumin, the garlic and the green chillli but as an undercurrent. 

There is drama in setting aflame a tube of potato starch paper filled with pan-fried squid at the table, but it also serves a purpose: the squid acquire a smoky, tandoori-like flavour. It’s Modern Indian without any of the whiz-bang or gimmickry – no clouds of dry ice smoke, flash-frozen liquid nitrogen purees, gels or caviar, what you are served is intelligently-designed food deeply rooted in the region.

One of their signatures is the Kodava-inspired, Kachumpuli-flavoured pork belly. Served alongside the pork is a stubby, lit ghee candle with a lotus stem wick, sitting on a podi or dry chutney powder. Traditionally, warm ghee and podi are served as accompaniments for dosas and with the meal; but the idea of the ghee candle is borrowed from a local temple.

Avartana easily ranks among the finest modern Indian restaurants in the country and is well on its way to becoming an icon of contemporary times.

Simply divine: Kebabs and Kurries, ITC Grand Central, Mumbai

Kebabs and Kurries, or K&K as it is commonly known as, is not the grandest, or best-looking restaurant you’re likely to encounter. It doesn’t have the dramatic exuberance of a Peshawari, or the quiet elegance of a Dum Pukht. The live show kitchen running along one side does bring some energy to the caravanserai-ish look, but it is barely noticeable from the best tables on the elevated qila section of the restaurant.

K&K’s secret weapon is Chef Mohammad Shareef. Part of the extended Qureshi clan, when it comes to understanding texture and spicing, the man truly has the hand of god. He can elevate the most banal ingredient into a work of art. Through his cooking, he reconciles the disparate worlds of Dum Pukht and Peshawari into dishes that are familiar and yet new and wondrous. His Nadru ki Chaap looks exactly like a classic Awadhi mutton chaap, with the little bone sticking out, but it is pure vegetarian. Simple beetroot is transformed into Lab-E-Bir pan-fried kebab with a delicate hint of kewra that creates the disconcerting, but very intriguing flavour of mithai.  

The K&K Dum Ki Raan is exceptional; the meat falls apart at the slightest touch and the pieces of pickled baby garlic almost taste like raisins giving the meat a sweet-sour flavour.  

Make friends with Shareef, if for no other reason than to eat his off-the-menu haleem. Not a traditional Hyderabadi version, Shareef’s style of preparation results in a haleem that has an incredible pâté-like texture and is a lot more delicately spiced.  With the garnish of fresh chopped chillies, a squeeze of lime and some fried onions, it is just divine.

One of the least celebrated qualities of K&K is its expertly curated wine list. With the guidance of the hotel’s in-house sommelier you’re assured to have one of the best paired Indian meals in the country. And that is no mean achievement!

Beauty of imperfection: Wabi Sabi, The Oberoi, Bengaluru 

Opened just before the first lockdown, Wabi Sabi is named after the Japanese aesthetic philosophy that has gained a lot of cachet in the design space. At its basic, Wabi Sabi means the beauty of imperfect things, but it can be expanded to mean the beauty in old and worn out things, or even the damaged and chipped. 

The philosophy is most clearly manifest in the thoughtfully designed interiors; textured grey slate panels celebrated for being imperfectly perfect line the back wall. Tables laid with kinstugi (the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery pieces with gold) inspired crockery and a shiny 24 carat gold leaf wall provides a stunning backdrop to the live sushi and sashimi. Looking out into a cool, quiet garden brings a Zen-like stillness and tranquillity to this restaurant specialising in both Japanese and Chinese.

The focussed menu embraces classics like fresh salmon and yellowtail sashimi, Rashomon, a nigiri of torched black cod with a coating of sweet, salty den miso as well as signature sushis, like the Crunchy Crunchy Bang Bang, a vegetable tempura and avocado roll or California Dreaming, with a crab meat avocado, cucumber and spicy kani filling.  Then there’s the Miso Black Cod, where all the elements, the delicate, flaking fish, the crunchy quinoa, the sharp sweet citrus beetroot jelly and the aromatic lemon foam come together beautifully. 

The Chinese is no less stellar starting from the crisp Pan-fried Chicken Gyoza, to the plump Lobster Hargao and the fluffy, jiggly Char Sui Bao with its sweet salty minced roasted pork filling. Don’t miss out on the edamame Green Silk Dumpling which unlike the run-of-the-mill edamame truffle dumplings has a truffle flavoured filling containing chopped and whole edamame, and not a puree.  

And make sure to leave space for the Nokcha and Pistachio petit gateaux with a Korean green tea ganache and pistachio buttercream which is to die for. 

The perfect balance: Sette Mara, St Regis, Mumbai

Mumbai has been unforgiving with specialty Levantine restaurants. As quickly as they have opened, the city has mercilessly chewed them up and spit them out. But then none of them have been as opulent or tastefully designed as Sette Mara. 

To get to the main dining area, you have to pass through a Kasbah-styled, lounge and bar with dark furniture and mood lit in shades of red. Flooded with natural light and done up in shades of azure and white, the expansive main restaurant extends over many seating areas and a PDR at the back. The transition between the two spaces is seamless making you feel like you’ve crossed from Asia into Europe. Ornate wood side-tables and cupboards add a touch of ostentatiousness while suspended from the ceiling in the centre of the room is a massive gold and blue Horologium, or astronomical clock. 

Sette Mara is one of the few restaurants in the city with a specialty Negroni menu offering eight types of Negroni, of which the classic is being offered in two styles: a 60-day oak barrel aged and a 15-day clay pot aged. 

Mezze are, of course, the cornerstone of Levantine food, and they have an excellent selection of cold mezzes including a spicy walnut Muhammara, the creamy Hummus Beiruti (easily amongst the best in the city!) and the garlic Labneh were excellent. Both the hot mezzes the sweet salty, pistachio crusted feta with hot Yemeni side honey and the Kataifi Prawns wrapped in vermicelli thin pastry strands are outstanding, as is the Rubiyan Qalat Daqqa which were charcoal grilled tiger prawns marinated and coated in a sweet, warm Levantine seven spice mix. 

What Sette Mara gets right is the perfect balance between comfort and adventure, between reserve and attentiveness, and most of all, between exclusivity and warmth. 

Inspired by the jungle: Machan, Taj Mahal New Delhi

The iconic Machan at Taj Mahal New Delhi has been a gastronomic legend for over four decades. Famous for its unique offerings inspired by the rich heritage of forests in India and around the world, Machan has stayed true to its roots despite returning in a new avatar in October 2020. Amidst a spectacular ambience and impeccable and warm service, the restaurant delights gourmands of yesterday, today and tomorrow with its delightful spread. Machan has been one of the most famous dining destinations in the National Capital that has defined a part of the city’s culinary landscape and woven itself seamlessly into the fabric of its daily life. 

While a few old-timers (Machan welcomed guests for the first time back in 1978) feel the ‘look that was’ should have been retained, the custom-designed walls that recreate scenes of the jungle along with well thought-out details layering the grand Machan experience now depict the beauty of Nature and the magnificence of the Indian tiger well and truly. The raised platform, the series of terracotta animal masks created by local artists, stunning cane tree canopies, the contemporary lanterns and the banquet seating – all set the scene for a relaxed and social dining experience.

Before you get down to enjoy the delectable spread, don’t miss the staff uniforms here. Sporting the jungle colours of green and rust with original bells and whistles, the shirts have multiple front pockets, much on the same lines as the jackets on a safari. Worth a dekko is the deer horn embroidery and wearers’ service pins that lend a fresh look to the design inspired by the Ranthambore National Park.

A guest is spoilt for choices when it comes to gorging on the delicious offerings here, especially the Great Indian Nashta offerings wherein I relish The Ranthambore (chicken tikka, onion and peppers) Machan Crafted Omelettes along with Buttermilk Pancake or the Mukumdara Khad Murgh and Jhalana Dana Methi Papad Sabzi as my all-time favourites during dinner time. I usually end my meal with an Ecuadorian Jivara Chocolate Forest Berries.

The midnight menu too made a comeback in 2020 with classics priced 30-40 per cent lower. But what takes away the cake, oh! the beverage away is the fabled Kona Coffee, a blend of 70 per cent Arabica and 30 per cent Robusta. While Robusta has a more intense, bitter and persistent flavoUr, Arabica gives the cup a delicate and soft aromatic taste sensation. Perfect for both the body and the soul. n


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