Hornbill (Delhi, January 2020)


Back to Humayunpur, back to another restaurant featuring the food of a North Eastern state. On Sunday I reviewed a dinner at the Manipuri restaurant, Eat Pham—a dinner we really enjoyed. A few days later we went back to the same market and embarked on a very similar hunt for another restaurant, Hornbill, which serves food from Nagaland. While our Eat Pham outing was our first encounter with Manipuri food, Hornbill was our second Naga meal in Delhi in as many trips as a family. We were last here all together in January 2016 (I’ve come on my own in between a few times) and on that trip one of our favourite meals was at Dzükou in Hauz Khas. Dzükou has since closed in that location. I’ve heard tell it has reopened in Vasant Kunj, but we didn’t need to go quite that far from Noida when there are a number of Naga places in Humayunpur and environs, and Hornbill particularly well-reviewed among them. We descended on them with the same friends we’d eaten at Dzükou with four years ago. Here is what we found after we found the restaurant.

And let me say first of all, that it is a bit of a challenge to find the restaurant. We were lucky enough to happen on directions painted on a wall after walking confusedly around for a bit trying to make sense of some locals’ directions. Once you find it you discover that it’s in a basement of a residential building and once you go down into it you find a small but attractive restaurant.

Two of our friends were already there and as we waited for the other two we made our way through a plate of ki paa. This is a sort of salad of kidney beans and sliced smoked pork and garlic and a hell of a lot of naga chillies. It was lethal and it was very, very good. Once the rest arrived we got down to ordering and here ran into a bit of a snag. The menu is not very high on details on the dishes but unlike at Dzükou in 2016, or at Eat Pham on Sunday, our server was neither very helpful nor very communicative. After trying to ask some questions about the menu we settled on ordering a few thalis. In addition to thalis sorted by main protein they also have thalis that feature dishes from different Naga tribes. Our attempts to get our server to yield any kind of clarification on what distinctions, if any, there were among the thalis all failed and so we just trusted to luck. Two people got the chicken thali, one got the Ao thali, another got the Sema thali and the missus and I—labouring after a very heavy lunch that day—decided to split the Sangtam.

It turned out that the thalis were all identical except for the featured dish. In the case of the chicken thalis this was a rather excellent dish of chicken with bamboo shoots in a red gravy. It had been asked for on the milder side but it’s not clear that our server gave a fuck: it was pretty hot. The main event on the Ao thali was smoked pork cooked with anishi—a preparation with dried yam and Sichuan pepper leaves. It was very tasty indeed but also incredibly fatty: the pork itself was mostly fat and skin and there was a lot more rendered fat besides in the gravy. The same was true of the equally delicious smoked pork with axone (or fermented bean paste) in the Sema thali. Our pork dish in the Sungtam thali was the least excessive in this regard—like the ki paa it also featured kidney beans.

The other components of the thalis were rice and dal—fairly familiar thin masoor dal—boiled vegetables and a bunch of relishes/chutneys. Once again we failed in our attempts to get our server to identify anything for us. One seemed to involved eggplant, another tomatoes and dried fish. All involved a lot of heat. Once again, sips of rice beer helped.

Given the mostly identical nature of the thalis, I do think we could have put together a more interesting meal a la carte but for that we would have needed assistance that our server was not up to providing that evening. So it goes. Take a look at the pictures of the restaurant and the food below. Scroll down for

With tax and tip the total came to about Rs. 2800 or about $40 ($7/head again). The food was all very tasty. The standouts, I thought, were the ki paa and the chicken with bamboo shoots. I really liked all three pork mains too—and we all noted how different the flavour profiles of the dishes were from each other—but the thick layer of fat made it hard for us to get very far into them. I will note as well that in addition to the three tribal style pork dishes being clearly distinct from each other, all of this was also quite different from the food at Eat Pham. As there, the dal seemed to be the only dish on a clear continuum with the cuisines of the states west of Bangladesh. Yet more evidence of how difficult it is to talk about a singular entity called “Indian food” or to imagine very many people able to talk about very much of it with anything approaching genuine authority.

On the whole, we had better memories of our meal at Dzükou, and we also enjoyed our dinner at Eat Pham more. But that’s not to say we didn’t like this meal a lot too because we did. I’d be open to coming back again on a future trip and hoping for better guidance from a server.

Okay, for my next Delhi report we’ll take a break from the North East and go down south to Andhra Pradesh. That’ll be either this weekend or next week.

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