The Potbelly, Bihar Niwas (Delhi, December 2018)

This was my third state bhawan lunch in five days on my trip to Delhi in December, and it was at the far end of the spectrum from the first and quite a way away from the second too. That first lunch, you may remember, was at Samridhi, the staff canteen at Kerala House near Connaught Place. Samridhi is very much a staff canteen—prices are ludicrously low, the food is low-key (but very good) and no one has given a first let alone a second thought to questions of ambience. The second lunch, as you have memorized, was at Viva O Viva, the restaurant at Goa Niwas in Chanakyapuri. That is a formal restaurant but while someone has spared a few thoughts for interior design it does not, in sum, seem like it was the right person who did so. The food there was excellent, however. I was not expecting to eat another state bhawan lunch of that quality but was very happy to do so anyway a few days later at the Bihar Niwas which is right next door. The Potbelly is the restaurant there and is actually a branch of a restaurant by the same name in a now trendy part South Delhi. As such it’s a formal restaurant and very nicely done up. Herewith the details.

But first let me back up a bit. As I’ve noted on a number of occasions, in the last decade or so there’s been an explosion of regional restaurants in Delhi. The scene is so changed from when I was in college and at work there in the late 80s and early 90s as to be unrecognizable. Then it would have been unthinkable that there would ever be a trendy Bihari restaurant in South Delhi. India, as I’ve also said recently, is a rather racist society; internally, that expresses itself most prominently in the form of regional prejudice (not exactly the same as racism in the US but effectively analogous, given how much more particular regional identity is in India). A lot of Indians from culturally dominant parts of the social structure will tell you that it’s not prejudice but good-natured ribbing; but good luck finding much agreement with that from people from the regions that are the butts of most jokes. Such when I was at University was the position of the state of Bihar and I don’t think the situation has changed much in the intervening years. Mocked as uncultured, corrupt and backward, Bihar occupies about the same position in the worldview of megalopolitan Indians (to borrow Upamanyu Chatterjee’s term) as Alabama does in the minds of the average elite New Yorker. The truth, of course, for Bihar—if not for Alabama—is quite a bit different but you can still find people who should know better condescending cluelessly in its direction.

Nonetheless, between the constant movement of people from all parts of India to the major cities, the explosion of consumerist culture post-liberalization and late capitalism’s willingness to feed any market, restaurants featuring the food of people from parts of India that remain otherwise marginalized or peripheral to elite cultural discourse have sprung up all over Delhi in the last decade and change. And the original Potbelly in Shahpur Jat rode that wave to quite a bit of notoriety. I still haven’t made it to that location—we were supposed to go on both of our last two trips but it just didn’t pan out. On this trip, however, when a friend mentioned that they also had a branch at Bihar Niwas and that she preferred it (no long climb up many steep flights of stairs), I was only to happy to meet her there for lunch.

We got there a bit on the early side for lunch in Delhi, especially on a Saturday and were the first or second table seated. By the time we left an hour and a half later they were beginning to fill up. My exposure to Bihari food has not been vast and so I am in no position to tell you how much their food may or may not have been Delhi-ized but I liked everything we ate a lot and a couple of things were really very good and among the best things I ate on this trip. My only objection is that on the menu they deploy the word “aubergine” in place of the Indian-English brinjal (eggplant) and this is an affectation I do not understand.

We started with their sabudana basket. These are tapioca puffs—and they were served in a mug rather than a basket—and they were very good, especially with the accompanying chutneys. My friend is a vegetarian and she got the tehri platter for her mains while I got the litti-mutton. The tehri platter features a type of Bihari pulao with eggplant chokha (a spiced mash), though for some reason they gave her the tomato chokha (I forget, maybe she asked for it). It was supposed to come with alu-pudina (potato-mint) raita but came instead with boondi raita (made with “drops” of fried chickpea flour). Also on the plate were dabs of their ol (yam) pickle and teesi (flax seed) chutney—these may have been my favourite things on that plate.

I got the litti mutton. Littis are deep-fried whole wheat balls stuffed with sattu (spiced chickpea paste) and are a Bihari classic. Theirs were very good, I thought (again, my frame of reference is vanishingly small), but the stars on the plate were the baingan/eggplant chokha and above all the mutton. Cooked in a rich gravy with whole spices this was one of the best things I ate on the entire trip (including home-cooked meals). My brother-in-law whose family has long Bihar connections and who is a big fan of Potbelly told me later that he likes their Champaran style mutton even more—next time. My father is a big fan of litti and so I ate only one and took two home for him. To mop up the mutton I got a couple of very good rotis.

For pictures of the place and the food please launch the slideshow below (some of the food pictures are not as good as the others—they were taken on my phone). Scroll down for thoughts on service and to see how much it cost.

We were too full for dessert (though we didn’t let this stop us from eating gulab jamuns and malpua with rabdi in Bengali Market an hour later). Oh yes, my friend got an apple lemonade and was not a big fan.

Service was friendly and present. And as the food was served in individual platters we didn’t have to fight off the usual Delhi curse of people trying to put food on your plates for you. And the price was rather reasonable. Including the service charge this came to Rs. 1200 or $16. That’s very good even in Delhi for food of this quality in a nice setting. I will be back for sure with the missus and the kids on our next trip (probably in January 2020).

Up next from Delhi, dinner at another restaurant with “belly” in its name: Mahabelly in Saket. I might squeeze another Los Angeles report before that though.

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