Dakshin (Delhi, January 2016)

chutneys
Once upon a time in Delhi, restaurants at five star hotels were pretty much the only option if you wanted to go out for a fancy meal. The pre-eminent restaurants in the category were the Maurya Sheraton’s Bukhara and Dum Pukht, and through the late 1980s and 1990s they set the tone for similar restaurants at the other five stars: meat-centric North Indian food with either a Northwest frontier or nawabi focus. The hotels usually also all had Indian Chinese restaurants (each of which pretended to be “authentic” Chinese) and 24-hour coffee shops, and some had one outlier restaurant: the Meridien had a French restaurant, for example, (Pierre, I think its name was—for all I know, it still exists.) and the Oberoi had an excellent Thai restaurant for a while: Baan Thai. 

These days it’s a somewhat different scene, on three related fronts. First, there’s been a dramatic rise in what we might call middle class and upper-middle class restaurants (you have to be wealthy to eat at the five stars or have generous relatives and friends or an American credit card); people looking to go out to a restaurant with decent to nice ambience no longer need to go to a five star hotel. Second, there’s been a big outflow of talent from the pipelines of the Bukharas and Dum Pukhts to the upper/middle-class restaurants serving similar fare: the tandoor talent gap has closed. Finally, for the rich,  westernized elite whole new genres of five star restaurants have sprung up whose menus point to different cultural markers of sophistication: Italian or Mediterranean on the one hand, other locations in Asia on the other. (To see this phenomenon writ large see the replacement of the Taj Palace’s venerable Chinese restaurant, Tea House of the August Moon by the Vietnamese Blue Ginger and the Oberoi Delhi’s elegant Kandahar by Travertino, an Italian restaurant.)

Bukhara and Dum Pukht aside—both of which retain their aura and their classic menus—the Indian places at the contemporary five stars are of a very different nature now as well: whether it’s Masala Art at the Taj Palace or Varq at the Taj Mahal or Indian Accent at the Manor or, less celebratedly, Made in India at the Radisson or Fire at the Park, menus incorporate either fusion elements or a larger pan-Indian focus or both. In this we might say that the five stars are following the lead of the upper/middle class restaurants, whose proliferation has been driven increasingly by a greater interest in other regional Indian cuisines. Dakshin, at the Welcomgroup Sheraton in Saket, is both an exemplar and outlier in this trend. Outlier because it is a relatively newer five star hotel restaurant opening in Delhi that focuses on traditional Indian cooking; exemplar because this traditional cooking encompasses South Indian cuisines beyond the idli-dosa-vada complex that used to be more familiar to Delhi diners and thus mirrors what’s happening in the broader market (alternatively, one might say that non-veg South Indian is still an exotic “foreign” category for many North Indians).

The restaurant is not, of course, original to Delhi. It originally opened in Madras (now Chennai) in the mid-1980s, in a hotel that eventually became an ITC property. It wasn’t until the early-mid 90s’, however, that it truly came into its own. The original is highly celebrated and has had an outsize influence; I don’t think anyone would claim that the Delhi outpost is as good. Still, it has a very strong reputation and I was interested to see how its food would compare to that served at the non-five star South Indian restaurants that have sprung up in the last 10-15 years; and so when we made plans to have dinner with a friend who lives in Gurgaon we decided to meet her halfway there in Saket.

As is customary for us, we over-ordered with a view towards trying a bunch of things and taking leftovers home. For what we ate and my brief takes on it see the captions in the slideshow below.

All of the above plus four Kingfishers came to >Rs. 10,000 or about $161, which is quite expensive by Indian standards (though keep in mind we ordered enough for at least five people, so it’s really just above $30/head, if you want to compare to Indian restaurant prices in the US). The food was quite good, on the whole, but I think it’s hard to justify the prices for what you get when you consider what else is out there in the city at a fraction of the price. I certainly don’t think the comparable dishes were any better than at Swagath in its prime; and, indeed, later in the week I ate two very good meals at restaurants focusing on Kerala cuisine whose flavours were pretty close in quality (though the ingredients are arguably superior at Dakshin). Still, there are very few places that offer such a wide spectrum of South Indian cuisines in Delhi and which do justice to all of them. That’s something.

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