I have always considered Indian food to be excessively rich, oily and spicy which most of the time leaves you feeling really full and heavy. Though my husband and me immensely enjoy Mughlai cuisine once in a while, it is my son who puts his foot down at the mere mention of going out to eat Indian food. For him anything is good as long as it is not our desi cuisine.
Even for me, though I admit I thoroughly enjoy my kebabs and kormas, I have always felt that there is nothing much that one can do with our Indian dishes and personally speaking, I get a little lost while trying to be adventurous. At most Indian restaurants, the menu seemed remarkably similar with the same handful of popular dishes cropping up everywhere. Think, how much more creative and innovative can one get with our dals and curries? Except for changing some spices here and there, the basic look and taste still remained the same.
How wrong I was!! A dinner at 'Varq' at Delhi's Taj Mahal hotel, where our Bloggers table got together some time back, totally changed my viewpoint. This wonderful experience made me realize how traditional Indian food can be beautifully and artistically presented with a modern twist while keeping the authentic Indian flavors of the food intact. It would not really be completely right to say, that what was presented to us was 'fusion' food rather it was authentic Indian cuisine reinvented with modern techniques and innovative plate presentations. All the dishes that day were lightly spiced and full of flavor with each dish having a distinct taste of its own, taking care that the spices do not overwhelm the taste of the ingredients, a delightful change from the standard heavy oily Indian fare.
Just like its name 'Varq', which refers to the edible gold and silver foil that you see shining on our Indian mithais, rich curries and biryanis, the restaurant too spells out pure elegance and refinement. The brainchild of Chef Hemant Oberoi, the food at Varq is a sheer example of the delicate balance between the traditional and contemporary. The presentation of each and every dish was exquisite, leaving us totally awestruck. Also each dish was beautifully paired with an assortment of teas ranging from Hibuscus tea to a blend of rose petals, cloves and cinnamon, which I being a tea lover thoroughly enjoyed with my meals.
The evening started with a round of refreshing cocktails and mocktails like Orange Tamarind, Pineapple Basil and Curry Patta Martini. I started with a Curry Patta martini but finding the cocktail too strong, I changed over to Pineapple Basil mocktail which was really good.
The first course started with Varqui Crab - Crab minced between filo sheets and topped with a plump shrimp on the top. The dish was exceptional both in taste and in presentation. The minced crab cooked with south indian spices along with the crispy filo sheets was an interesting combination of textures and flavors. The tandoori shrimp on top was huge and a complete joy to relish.
The vegetarians had Varqui Khumb as an option. Instead of crabmeat, they had spiced mushrooms layered in filo sheets and topped with a morel.
The first course was followed by Haleem Aur Kebab - a hyderabadi delicacy served with lamb and chicken ganderi. Innovative and delectable it swept me off my feet. The Ganderi Kebab was a novel dish and gave us an insight into the the chefs innovative mind and creativity, as he had very cleverly wrapped the minced chicken around sugarcane sticks (called ganderi in hindi- if you are from my generation, you would remember small sliced pieces of ganderi /sugarcane sold in the market on hand carts). The Ganderi Kebab was artistically served in a shot glass with mango chutney in the bottom.
I also fell in love with the Lamb Kebas and Haleem which were served with a saffron roti. Haleem was gently spiced with a perfectly creamy consistency. The Galouti kebabs were succulent and almost melted in your mouth. On a recent visit to Lucknow, I tasted the galouti kebabs from the famous Tunday Kebabi and these kebabs were at an absolute par with the ones I had in Lucknow.
The whole platter was outstanding and a complete winner for me.
By the way, there is also a legend behind how these kebabs came to be. The Galouti (which means "melt in your mouth") kebabs were created for the aging Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow who lost all his teeth but not his passion for eating meat. I think we all owe a big thanks to him for this sumptuous creation.
The vegetarian version was the Palak Patta Chaat which looked quite interesting and again was beautifully presented. It had layers of crisply fried spinach leaves with little balls of fried spinach in between.
The next course was the Lobster Rassa which was cochin prawns served in a robust lobster broth and served with a black pepper and fennel rusk. The lobster broth was poured on to a plate consisting of prawns, scallops and squids.The delicate flavors of the the lobster broth combined well with the meatiness of the seafood. This was again a dish after my heart.
For the vegetarians, there was, Kale Channe ki Cappuchino. There were mixed reactions about this black chickpea broth from around the table- some loved it while a few did not.
Next, served as a palate cleanser was a Lemon and Gari(pink ginger) sorbet. My earlier experiences with sorbet have been exceptional and I was quite looking forward to tasting this one too. The sorbet looked quite spectacular served in a white ceramic pot with holes from which white fumes were coming. Ironically the taste did not match up to the presentation. The taste of ginger was too overpowering and left a bitter aftertaste. Not at all refreshing like the sweet and tangy Tamarind Sorbet I had in Blue ginger (which still haunts me), or the Lemon Sorbet at Claridges, Surajkund.
For the next course, non vegetarians got to chose from Sea bass on Spiced Potato Dauphinoise - pan seared chilean sea bass, layered potatoes, raw mangoes and coconut curry or Kali Mirch ka murg - corn fed chicken breast, relish in creamy black pepper curry.
Being a seafood lover, I was quite happy with my choice of Sea Bass with layered spiced potatoes. The fish was perfectly done in the creamy coconut and raw mango curry and had lipsmackingly delicious flavors. This is one dish I would love to go back for.
The vegetarians chose Jaituni malai Paneer which was stuffed paneer with green and black olives tapenade, roasted tomato sauce. There was also a choice of Kali Mirch Ka Asparagus - charlotte of white and green asparagus spears which sounded interesting but apparently had no takers.
The last course, Martaban Ka Meat looked quite promising. Served straight out of the Martaban, a ceramic jar (which was used by our mothers and grandmothers to keep pickles), this dish failed to deliver. Though I liked the tenderness of the meat, the pickling flavors did not stand out at all and lacked that 'wow' factor It tasted quite like an average mutton curry.
We wrapped up the meal with the dessert - a trio of Apple Kheer, Jalebi and Khaas Malpua. The Apple Kheer, presented beautifully in a martini glass, looked tempting and the jabelis were perfectly crisp. Not much of a dessert person, I just had a spoon of the Apple Kheer and found it quite delicious with just the right amount of sweetness.
After a wonderful meal, it was time to say our goodbyes. Our bloggers table was present in full strength also to bid adieu to the charming Ruchira who is moving out of the country with her husband for a work assignment. I haven't known Ruchira for long but whatever little I know of her I admire her for her straightforwardness and fiercely independent nature, someone who knows her mind and speaks it too - a quality I would like to see imbibed in my daughter. She's a lovely person - anyone's birthday on the table and Ruchira would always have a personally baked cake (which would be better than most shop bought ones) and gift ready for them. That night too, she had sweetly brought individually hand written cards with gifts for everyone.
I will also always remember her for being my daughters first boss. I can't thank her enough to give my daughter an opportunity to work with her for Femina. Wishing her all the best for her new endeavors and ofcourse with facebook and the net, we will keep in touch and read about her wonderful baking adventures in her blog The Cookaroo.
Thanks Varq and Taj Mahal hotel for having us over. Your warmth, hospitality and the personal attention given to each one of us throughout the evening won us over and made us enjoy every moment of our great meal. Thanks Deepali, Nafisa and Bhavna for being the perfect hosts and sparing time for all of us. It was wonderful connecting with you all.
In the process of thanking everyone, let me also thank Deeba and Nachiketa for graciously sharing their photographs with us.
On the whole we had a great experience. If you too are in the mood for some authentic Indian cuisine which is not oily or heavy on your stomach - head to Varq.
The others with me on the table were Charis, Deeba, Himanshu, Nachiketa, Parul, Rekha, Ruchira, Sid, Sangeeta and Sushmita