Bukhara (Delhi, March 2022)


After a break last weekend it’s back to my restaurant reports from my two-week visit to Delhi in March. I’ve previously reported on meals eaten out at Comorin, Cafe Lota and Carnatic Cafe—and also on a takeout biryani blowout. I now have three reports to go and the first of them is of what was once the most celebrated high-end restaurant in Delhi: Bukhara at the ITC Maurya hotel. I last ate there more than 20 years ago. There was a time when eating there (or at its Awadhi sibling, Dum Pukht) was a highly aspirational thing for me but as the Delhi restaurant scene has exploded in the intervening period it hasn’t really felt like a return to Bukhara (and its very high tarifffs) was very urgent. However, when we were in Calcutta in January 2020 we ate at Peshawri at one of the ITC hotels there and it was truly a fabulous meal. (In case you’re wondering, to preserve the Bukhara branding, names like Peshawri are used for restaurants at ITC’s other properties that present that menu.) And so when I reminded my strapping young nephews that despite having become working professionals they were yet to buy me a fancy meal, it was at Bukhara we ended up. Here’s how it went.

Now, I may have given the impression above that the explosion of the restaurant scene in Delhi in the last two decades has meant a fading of Bukhara’s star but that is not true at all. It remains staggeringly popular. So much so that they do not take reservations at dinner for anything outside a short window of seating from 7-7.30 pm. After that people happily line up for 60-90 minute waits. Such was the case on the Saturday evening we dined there. We had a reservation at 7.30. As Delhi eats very late, the restaurant was not full when we arrived. But it filled up steadily and when we left close to 9.30 there were lots of people waiting outside. The clientele that night was largely wealthy Indians and I’m told that’s representative. I note this because you’ll sometimes hear people saying things like, “only foreign tourists eat at the five star hotel restaurants”. We were seated in the smaller dining room off to the side, which meant we didn’t have a view of the chefs working the tandoors but did make things less hectic.

As with many Delhi restaurants in the pandemic Bukhara had only a QR code menu when we ate there. Well, there’s a large menu displayed outside the restaurant as well but that is sans prices. The menu is famously abbreviated: about 20 dishes total plus breads and desserts. At some point since my last visit they’ve also added fixed menu options which give you an unlimited supply of the listed items for a set price. Theres one set veg menu at Rs. 4500 plus tax and two set non-veg menus, at Rs. 4500 and Rs. 5000 respectively. Now, unless you are eating in a large group it’s hard to order very many dishes a la carte at Bukhara as portion sizes are quite large. And so since the slightly more expensive non-veg fixed menu listed almost everything we’d wanted to try (plus a few more things) we decided to do three of those.

On paper this is a good way to get the range of what Bukhara does. In practice I’m not sure it was a good idea. This because my sense as the meal went on was that quality control was inconsistent—I wondered if there was more of a quick assembly line model to feed people getting the all-you-can-eat fixed menus with a la carte orders perhaps getting closer attention. Which is to say, this meal was not as good as our meal at Peshawri in 2020, even though I got to eat far more of the menu here. But that’s not to say that there weren’t some excellent things on the table; it’s only to say that more things were just very good and that some were a bit meh.

In the excellent category were the following: the seekh kababs, the first round of tandoori jhinga/prawns (the prawn in the re-up was overly tenderized) and the delicately marinated and grilled malai tikka. It goes without saying that the dal was outstanding. That dal has been a cliche for a long time now and many people say heretical things about it but this is the Platonic ideal of dal makhani as far as I’m concerned. One of my nephews got a second bowl all for himself and ate it like a stew. The rumali rotis, the naan and the pudina paratha were all excellent as well. In the very good category were the machhli tikka, the paneer tikka and the desserts (gulab jamun and kulfi-falooda).

In the meh category fell both of the remaining veg items. The tandoori alu is done interestingly: the potatoes have their insides scooped out and stuffed and then the whole is grilled in the tandoor. But the results were stodgy and boring. Ditto for the tandoori phool which is basically done as fried cauliflower pakodas that are then skewered and grilled. Now I have a vague memory of having eaten and very much liked Bukhara’s tandoori phool 20+ years ago and of it having been made very differently. But our server convinced me that this was something I had dreamt: he said he’d been there for almost 20 years and had never heard of it being made in any other way. Ah well, I may have liked it before but it didn’t do anything for me this time. I am also sorry to say that the rendition of Sikandari raan did little for any of us. It’s a whole leg of lamb braised with spices and then given a light smoke in the tandoor and is another of Bukhara’s signature dishes. But it was a bit flabby on this occasion—almost as though it had sat around for a while before being served (which was probably the case with these fixed menu orders probably being dealt with on a buffet basis in the kitchen).

Now, it’s true that even with the meh items, to say nothing of the very good, I would kill to get anything approaching the quality in the US but they weren’t on the level of the best things on the table. For a look at it all and at the restaurant, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and for thoughts on value etc.

As I was not paying I did not get a look at the bill but I’d guess that with tax etc. it came to in the neighbouhood of $80/head. That would be an expensive meal in the US and it goes without saying it’s a very expensive meal in India. it is, however, par for the course for restaurants of this ilk in Delhi. But is it worth it? That’s a complicated question. On the one hand, it’s true that Bukhara’s best dishes—when executed sharply—are best in class and can exhibit wonderful subtlety. On the other hand, you can very easily get to 90% of the taste for 50-70% of the price or even far less in the case of some kabab specialists—though ingredients are, of course, top notch here. If you can afford it, it’s a good special occasion outing, I suppose. But as my nephews—who enjoyed the meal—noted at the end, it’s nothing we need do again for several more years.

Alright, there’s one more high-end meal report to come from Delhi. I might get to that next Sunday. Before that on Tuesday I’ll have a report of a very good seafood-based Mexican meal we ate in South St. Paul on Saturday.


 

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