Varq, at the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi, is said to be one of the most important restaurants not just in the city but in all of India. The force behind it, Chef Hemant Oberoi, is considered one of the most important and influential figures in Indian haute cuisine in the last 20 odd years. He retired last year but his newer restaurants Masala Art and especially Varq remain at the forefront of the movement to re-articulate classic high-end Indian restaurant food in a contemporary/modern idiom. Personally, I am not convinced of the need for this sort of thing because usually when people say “contemporary” or “modern” in this context they mean “Western” and I’m never quite clear on why that should be so. It’s not as though in fashion or film or even non-high-end food Indian modernity is reliant on Western cues.
That said, two of our favourite stops on our last trip to Delhi (in 2014) were Indian Accent and Cafe Lota, both of which, at different ends of the price spectrum, engage in something similar (though not in identical ways). Accordingly, when the chance presented itself to eat at Varq on this trip without having to pay full freight (it is not a cheap restaurant) we went for it. And I can report that while the meal was very good, on the whole, this was more modern Indian plating than modern Indian food.
(Before I go on to the meal itself let me clarify the part about not paying full freight. This is not because any part of the meal was comped. It’s just that my parents had been given a gift certificate they could use at an restaurant in any Taj hotel and they insisted on using it on lunch with us. Accordingly we decided to do it in style at their most famous restaurant in Delhi and pick up the rest of the hefty tab.)
I’m tempted to look for a metaphor for Varq’s food in its location. It is housed in the space that was previously Haveli, the Taj’s previous North Indian restaurant. In those days there were musicians and singers who serenaded diners with ghazals and the general aesthetic sought to replicate the feel of a decadent Nawab’s mansion (haveli), or at least as it was portrayed in the tonier sort of Hindi film. The food, however, was unremarkable—it was hard to imagine anyone choosing to eat there over the similar restaurants at the Maurya Sheraton or even Kandahar at the Oberoi; I myself was fed there by rich relatives visiting from North America. Now, of course, I am that relative (even if we were only paying 70% of the tab). But I’m not the only one whose circumstances have changed. The only thing that remains of the look of the old Haveli, as far as I could make out, is the striking Anjolie Ela Menon frieze along the big wall. And the food too looks very different.
Well, to be fair, it’s not just that it looks different in terms of presentation (though I will come to that soon enough). It’s also what’s on the menu, source-wise. I mentioned in my review of Dakshin a couple of weeks ago that one of the major changes in the Delhi food scene is that even most Indian restaurants in Delhi’s five star hotels now serve foods beyond the old tandoor-based complex and Varq is no different. Our meal included flavours from Rajasthan, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh. And it was all quite beautiful—I’m not sure if I’ve ever eaten an Indian meal quite so camera-ready for dslr-sporting food bloggers (such as myself) or quite so ready to be at home in spreads in American or British food magazines.
When it came down to it, however—in the mouth, not in the eyes—I’m not sure that the food quite delivered on the restaurant’s promise. I don’t mean to suggest that I was disappointed that the food was not some out there version of Indian cuisine passed through a molecular gastronomy or New Nordic kitbag: one of the things I most enjoyed about our meal at Indian Accent was precisely how anchored Chef Mehrotra’s food is in tradition. What we didn’t find at Varq though—with an exception or two—was the formal creativity of a number of the dishes at Indian Accent: not much new seemed to be happening at the level of flavour. Instead, as I alluded to above in a flip manner, it was mostly a matter of plating. So, what was on our plates? Read on. Or actually, look at the slideshow first and then scroll down for the description/evaluation of the dishes.
First the starters which are meant to be individual servings (we divided them up anyway).
- A chaat-like amuse which looked pretty but didn’t make much of an impression.
- Varqui Crab. This is one of their signature dishes and was perhaps the most successful in genuinely re-articulating traditional flavours in an interesting new form. It involves shredded crab cooked with coconut milk and spices and layered between thin sheets of phyllo. The crab was dynamite and the interplay between its texture (enhanced by the reduced coconut milk) and that of the flaky pastry was excellent. The large tandoor-grilled prawn that sat atop it all looked good but didn’t really belong taste-wise.
- Another appetizer of scallops, whose name, alas I didn’t write down expecting it to be on their online menu (it isn’t). Now here is a case where things didn’t quite come together as well. The scallops, dusted with chilli powder etc. and lightly seared, were cooked perfectly. But I’m not sure what the point of the coconut milk foam was other than to put coconut milk foam on the plate. Similarly, the trellis of zucchini that the scallops were perched on was entirely devoid of character and flavour.
- Ganderi Kabab. This is another signature dish: chicken seekh kababs mounted on sugarcane sticks. The sugarcane sticks were fun to bite into but the kababs were garden variety chicken seekh kababs and not themselves in any way enhanced by being mounted on sugarcane sticks.
- Guntur Chilly Chicken. Another striking presentation: deep-fried cubes of chicken in a kettle filled with fried Guntur chillies. The chicken was perfectly fried but take the presentation away and again there was nothing special about it at the level of taste.
And now we move on to the mains and sides, which are more easily shared family-style.
- Martabaan ka Meat. Yet another striking presentation of meat cooked in a tall ceramic dish sealed with dough. Alas, when you open it out comes rather unremarkable, if tasty, mutton curry. It was cooked well but hard to tell apart from mutton curries being made in home kitchens around the city.
- Murgh Sirka Pyaaz. Perhaps the most striking presentation of them all but as obvious a case of old food on new plates as you will see. Another ring of phyllo encases what turns out to be a chicken prep in the tikka masala family, rendered slightly interesting by the use of pickled onions (sirka pyaaz). It was very tasty but there’s nothing interesting happening here. As for the pastry we just got it out of the way so we could eat the rest with naans.
- Nadru aur Anjeer ke Kofte. The koftas (dumplings) made with lotus stems (nadru) and figs (anjeer) were really very good, but again the striking sauce they sat in was hard to tell apart from regular tikka masala sauce. If they’re trying to update the old standby, malai kofta, they need to try harder.
- Gucchi Chilgoza Pulao. A very nice pulao made with morels (gucchi) and pine nuts (chilgoza). This was good but could have been spiced a little less so as to let the flavour of the morels come out more clearly.
- Lal Moth ki Maharani. This dal made with whole moth beans seemed like it would be an interesting alternative to the usual dal makhni but in practice was indistinguishable from it. I guess the achievement here may have been to take a very different dal and turn it into a more familiar one…
- Various Rotis and Breads. Now these were active disappointments. The regular rotis and naans in the bread basket were acceptable at best—the naan at Punjabi by Nature was far superior. And while the mod mini olive naan and mirch (chilli) paratha we got as well were better, they suffered, as all such flavoured breads do, from clashing with the flavours of the things we ate them with.
- Pickles. They also served a couple of very traditional housemade preserves: an excellent slightly spicy pickle of small whole mangoes and a sweet mango chutney.
For reasons that I won’t go into here we did not have time for dessert. A word about the service: it was excellent. It is a feature of most of the signature restaurants at five star hotels in Delhi that their staff take great pride in what they serve, and our server, Thomas was his name, I think, was both solicitous and very well-informed about every aspect of what we were eating.
Oh yes, the bill. After taxes and tip this came to Rs. 16,000 or $235. This was for five adults (one of my nephews came along) so about $47/head. That’s without drinks and there were no leftovers. I wasn’t expecting this meal to be a bargain but I also didn’t expect to come away from it feeling like the prices were as far away from the reality of what we ate as they were. Everything, as I said, tasted very good; with the exception of the breads there was nothing that fell short in that all-important category—and yes, this is several levels above a restaurant like Rasika in the US. But I was expecting far more innovative and creative cooking and with a few exceptions what we got was innovative and creative plating.
That plating, as you can tell, is certainly in line with Western haute cuisine expectations. If it is intended to make wealthy Western diners passing through the hotel take this food more seriously than they otherwise would, fine: I guess that’s a stealthy, laudable goal in its own right. It may also be the case, however, that this sort of presentation is driven by the formal pressures of those stupid “Best Restaurants of the World” lists: if you don’t have the history or cachet of ye olde Bukhara or Dum Pukht the only way to get on those lists, and by extension onto the radars of international travelers, may be to have your food formally resemble what you get at other restaurants on those lists (they show up at #19 on this one).
On the whole, therefore, I can’t say that I would recommend it if you’re not a wealthy international traveler trying to check as many restaurants of one of those lists as you can. If you’re traveling through Delhi try to book Indian Accent instead for your big ticket meal and hit the non-hotel restaurants for everything else.