Indian Accent, which opened in the boutique Manor hotel in Friends Colony three or four years ago, may or may not be Delhi’s most talked about fine dining restaurant but it is surely on the very short list of the most ambitious. Its reputation among Delhi foodies–at least among the subset in my group of friends–rests on Chef Manish Mehrotra’s nouveau/fusion take on traditional Indian food. A few things about my feelings about all this before I get to the meal itself:
1) I’m generally suspicious of all kinds of Asian fusion in the US because it seems to me that restaurants that try it are predicated on two things usually: a clientele that doesn’t actually eat/know Asian cuisines in their original contexts; and a bogus narrative in which Asian cuisines are seen as being “modernized” or elevated through whatever is being done to/with them. At best in the high end the use of Asian ingredients/flavours/techniques is seen as proof of the Euro/American trained chef’s openness of mind or creativity while they remain firmly grounded in the Euro/American idiom which remains the guarantor of their credentials.
2) Fusion cooking in India, however, has a different kind of charge. I’m not talking here about the unfussy, relaxed manner in which much of fusion in Indian restaurant/home cooking happens (paneer pizzas or pizza dhoklas anyone?) but of the fact that no one at the high end can reasonably make the claim that it is in their approach that Indian food achieves its apotheosis. And as chefs are far more likely to be grounded in their “home” cuisines, experiments, theoretically, at least, have a better chance of being organic. Thus when Mehrotra was asked recently in the Times of India if he is tempted by molecular gastronomy his response indicated very clearly where his cooking is anchored:
“Mine is the most difficult clientele — they know Indian food.
Also, for Indians, two things are very important — we like our food served hot. Molecular gastronomy, which cools down elements, doesn’t work well with this. Secondly, no matter how fancy our meals get, we need our daal-roti — without this, our stomachs may be filled but the soul doesn’t feel sated!”
It was reading this interview that made me want to eat at Indian Accent, overcoming my knee-jerk suspicion of kababs made with foie gras.
3) Nonetheless, it’s always a little hard to parse whether restaurants that do this kind of thing in Delhi get talked up because they’re actually good at it or because they present an exciting alternative in a food scene filled with more familiar fare. It’s also hard to parse whether the fact that Indian Accent uses the platings and language of current haute European/American cuisine makes it more appealing to the similarly globe-trotting westernized elite, allowing them/us to signal our difference from those eating traditional Indian fare (at your Bukharas or Dum Pukhts) and their/our currency with contemporary western trends.
All this to say that a restaurant like Indian Accent is caught in a complex cultural web, and to foreground both that I have a complicated set of biases going into meals like this and that I was expecting this meal to be very enjoyable anyway.
It’s a very nice space, as you would expect in a tony hotel in tony Friends Colony, and the clientele seems a mix of wealthy European and American tourists and locals (perhaps tilted a bit towards the former group). They do two seatings for dinner–at 7 pm and 9.30 pm, and if you’re willing to dine at 7 you’ll have no trouble securing a table as few Delhi’ites believe in eating dinner before 9.30.
So, how did it turn out? Let’s take a look at what we ate first. There were three of us and we all got the tasting menu–it seemed the best way to sample a number of their specialties on a trip that would not allow a second visit. The tasting menu here–at least on this occasion–consists of a series of small bites and then a large entree portion. As always, click on the thumbnails to launch a larger slideshow.
The meal began with a plate of tiny but perfectly made kulchas drizzled with blue cheese. The blue cheese was not particularly obtrusive and this was a very good first sign.
And this little mug of green pea shorba was a very good second sign. The shorba (soup, more or less) was light yet intense.
I’m always a little nervous when I see chaat on a high-end menu because I always end up wishing I was eating a proper sloppy plate of chaat somewhere far more downmarket. This, intricately constructed as it was, was very good. It’s no better, however, than a proper, sloppy plate of chaat somewhere far more downmarket. But it’s quite likely that a large fraction of Indian Accent’s tony European and American customers will never go to one of those places so it’s good, I suppose, that they get to eat some chaat that tastes as it should.
Close-up of the chaat. As you can see, the potato in this potato chaat is quite literally a sphere constructed from deep-fried shreds of potato (traditionally it would be cubes or slices of boiled potatoes). However, the time spent on the fussy preparation of the potato sphere had clearly not kept them from paying attention to the yogurt and chutneys–this tasted like a proper chaat.
This is where things threatened to veer into cuteness for presentation’s sake. This looked very nice but was hard to get to and I’m not sure everything went so well together. The quinoa, in particular, seemed unnecessary.
And while this was tasty there was absolutely no need for the scraps of duck (sounds unappetizing but that’s literally what khurchan is in this context) to be in a cone. It would have been much better rolled up in a thin roti.
And the sweet mango pickle smeared on these spare ribs also seemed a better idea than a dish.
Okay, so this was one instance when even my stony heart was won over by the cutesy presentation. It helped that the pomegranate kulfi was dynamite as well. I wish I could eat this regularly. This was the palate cleanser before the mains arrived.
I was not particularly enthused by the entree choices on the tasting menu; the restaurant was gracious enough to allow us to make substitutions which also allowed us to each get something different. Our friend got this dal gosht which was not bad but finally unconvincing. I would have preferred slow-cooked cubed meat to this meatball.
This moilee, on the other hand, worked very well with the crusted fish. And the fact that the poriyal was all but submerged in the coconut milk sauce did not bother me as much as I would normally have expected it to. This was the missus’.
This was mine. The lamb was perfectly cooked and the sauce (lightly spiced cream, more or less) was fine, but, on the whole, this was missing some oomph.
Call it dal makhani and say it was bloody good. As was the raita despite having avocado in it for some reason.
These kulchas are a good example of pointless fusion. They were tasty in their own right but on account of the meaty/saucy fillings could not be used to eat any of the entrees or the dal with. But I guess putting bacon or hoisin duck into a kulcha must seem like an exciting idea.
Which was also true of this butter chicken kulcha.
This is essentially the whipped froth from slowly heated milk. Fine but a bit much even in a smaller portion.
This was tasty but not particularly exciting. The only thing Indian about it is the use of perennially popular Old Monk rum.
In conception this has much in common with the “duck khurchan cornetto”–that is to say, its creative component is painfully obvious–but in execution worked really, really well. The mishti doi (sweetened, thickened yogurt) was rather good and the pastry shell was just right.
This was bloody good and is a perfect illustration of how good a fusion dish can be when organically thought through. Using a doda burfi base as the filling for a tart is genius and the whole works both as a burfi and as a tart. Seamless and not calling attention to its cleverness.
And with the bill came this “charpoy” of digestifs and mouth-fresheners. Again, a sign that Chef Mehrotra has Indian diners firmly in his sights: while the presentation is visually exotic these flavours are a hard sell for any palate other than an Indian one.
All in all, a very nice meal and it blew completely out of the water any comparable meal I’ve had in the US (at Indique in DC and Devi in NYC in their primes). Still, not all parts of it worked. As I’ve suggested in my brief notes some of these dishes worked better as ideas than as actual dishes and often seemed more obvious than creative (the cornetto is the chief culprit here); and it does seem as though the regular menu has far more of this kind of thing on it (tacos with phulkas or chicken tikka quesadillas, for example). In other cases, the non-Indian plating style kept dishes from being properly enjoyed: no one is going to be able to eat all of the sauces with the mains with a spoon, for example, so either don’t give as much or give us some rice or appams or proper rotis or something to eat them with. The stuffed kulchas served at this point were particularly pointless.
Nonetheless, it is a sign of Chef Mehrotra’s training and vision that the things that worked best included both the most traditional dishes (the chaat was great and the dal was awesome) and some of the more nouveau interpretations (the doda burfi tart, the pomegranate churan sorbet). In sum, I did not end the meal wishing that Chef Mehrotra had just made us a traditional meal (though I could see clearly how great that would be too).
In other areas, however, Indian Accent is still lagging far behind its ambitions. The staff, while very pleasant and genial, just don’t understand the food well enough to describe it. The most egregious of the errors was one server explaining to a number of tables that the daulat ki chaat was made with tartar sauce! And I was shocked when the Darjeeling tea I ordered turned out to be a Twining teabag on arrival. And on the bill it was described (and charged) as a seasonal tea. Apparently, they do usually serve real tea and were out that night but maybe they could have told us that?
On the whole, I recommend it highly. It must be said that it is not cheap, if not out of line with other restaurants in fancy hotels: it came to about $200 for three people without wine (there is a wine-pairing as well for the tasting menu but we passed on it). We will be back on our next trip to Delhi and on that occasion I think we’ll pass on whatever the iteration of the tasting menu will be then and get some of the other interesting stuff off the carte.