Mahabelly (Delhi, January 2016)

I met an old friend at Mahabelly in Saket just a couple of days after our dinner at Dakshin. As it turns out, Mahabelly is located right behind the Sheraton that houses Dakshin, in the service lane at the rear of the DLF Place mall, one of several monstrous malls in a row in Saket.

Mahabelly serves the food of Kerala and the focus is on classic, often rustic preparations. It’s an altogether more easygoing affair than Dakshin: lighthearted decor, no heavy brassware in sight, no overwrought menu book etc. One long wall of the restaurant features playful cartoons which spell out the English alphabet via various self-deprecating Malayali stereotypes. The other wall sports a striking mural of a kathakali dancer—I believe performing the role of Mahabali. Yes, it’s true: the name of the restaurant is a terrible pun: Mahabelly/Mahabali. 

Mahabali is a revered mythical king, an asura (demon, sort of) who was a benevolent ruler but who, at least some versions of the story go, began to think of himself as all-powerful. Vamana, the fifth (and first human) incarnation of Vishnu, accordingly shows up to teach him a lesson. Vamana, a Brahmin dwarf, asks the great king for only as much land as he can cover in three steps. The king grants his wish, upon which Vamana expands to celestial size, covers heaven and earth with one step and the earth and the underworld with the second. Mahabali realizes who Vamana is and to fulfill his promise of three steps offers his own forehead to the god. Vishnu steps on his forehead casting him into the underworld. For his final humility, however, he is granted immortality and permission to return to his lands once a year. Onam, the major festival of Kerala, celebrates this annual return of Mahabali to Kerala.

I’m not sure if in the myths Mahabali is also supposed to have a great appetite. Anglophone Delhi restaurateurs do have a great appetite for puns though. In addition to Mahabelly in Saket there are the Bengali restaurants Bong Appetit and The Big Bongg Theory (I wish I was making this up) etc. Anyway, the food is not silly; this was the first of two meals that week that made  me question the value proposition of Dakshin. It’s solid Malayali food made as it should be—at least as well as you can hope for it to be in Delhi. This was the opinion of the Malayali friends who recommended the place, one of whom I ate this meal with. Now it’s true that this gent is what you might call an animal, devoid of interest in the finer points of culture, but he did grow up eating this stuff.

On to the food! As always, click on an image below to launch a slideshow with images and captions.

Yes, as always, I over-ordered with a view to sampling everything and taking the leftovers home. (This was particularly appreciated by the missus who couldn’t make it to this meal or to the next couple.) All of this, inclusive of taxes and tip, came to about Rs. 1950 or $28’ish (about $7/head if you factor in the leftovers). It’s true that we ordered more at Dakshin, and also a number of beers, but the food portion alone there was almost four times the price. Both meals included one dish that was a misstep (and was taken off the bill without our asking for it to be) but other than the superior appam at Dakshin there wasn’t really much to separate the quality of the cooking at the two places (of course, the appam was the only Kerala dish at the Dakshin meal).

Anyway, if you’re going to be in Delhi and would like to try some good Malayali/Kerala cooking without opening your wallet too wide, I recommend Mahabali; I’d certainly recommend it over the even more informal Kerala Express (which I don’t think ever expanded into a full-on restaurant as I was told two years ago was in the planning). I’ll be back on the next trip to try even more of their menu…but I did like the abbreviated Kerala menu at the place I ate at the next day even more…

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