The S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes out every year, researched and comprised by numerous chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics around the globe. It shall come as no surprise that El Bulli has consistently held 1st place in 5 previous lists, followed closely by its biggest rival, The Fat Duck. It’s interesting to browse the annual lists of the past decade and see different culinary trends. The biggest change that I’ve noticed is an exponential surge of world class cuisine exploding out of Spain. An unfortunate drop has come from The French Laundry, which used to grace the top position in 2004 but has plummeted to 12th place in 2009. An unusual Asian competitor is Bukhara restaurant in New Delhi, which used to be #37 in 2007 and named the Best Restaurant in Asia and Best Indian Restaurant in the World, but has dropped down to #65 on the 2009 list.
During my recent trip to India, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of trying out this famous restaurant which has seen the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates. Bukhara, named after the Silk Road province in Uzbekistan that used to be a bustling center for trade and religion, offers rustic flavors of the northwestern frontier of India. The menu centers around traditionally prepared seafood and meat roasted in a clay tandoor oven. Housed inside the cosmopolitan ITC Maurya hotel close to embassy row in New Delhi, this restaurant is always fully booked and thriving with international diners. It’s possibly the most famous restaurant in India, and I was excited to be able to dine there.
Unlike its ‘Best 50 Restaurants List’ rivals like Pierre Gagnaire and Tetsuya, the decor and ambiance at Bukhara is almost shockingly casual and rugged. Diners sit on small wooden logs and have the option of wearing their signature red and white checkered Bukhara bib. Copper pots hang on stone walls in this low-ceiling space that seems like a cave. Here, you have to find the right timing to flag down servers in red and gold vests, who are always scurrying from table to table- they don’t necessarily come to you.
Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Bukhara is the large open kitchen where chefs skillfully heave long skewers of marinated meats into the blazing oven and wrestle with the famous Bukhara Naan, an enormous 3 foot naan that goes for 1350 rupees ($29 US) and can probably feed a whole village. As if sitting inside this cave-like dining room wearing a bib and eating with your hands wasn’t primitive enough, watching these strong male chefs churn out whole chickens and lamb shanks on kebabs is enough to transform any proper lady into a chest beating ape. This place is not for vegetarians, and it’s not for those looking for a quick light bite. It’s hearty masculine fare that’s rough at the edges but satisfying in your belly.
There were many excellent choices on the menu such as tandoori pomfret (whole roasted flatfish) and sikandari raan (marinated leg of spring lamb), but we stuck with the classics. We started with paneer tikka, roasted Indian cheese marinated with yellow chiles. The huge chunks of unaged cheese, which had the appearance and texture of freshly made tofu, were delicious. The slight charring at the edges gave it a distinct charcoal aroma that went beautifully with the light flavor of the paneer.
Seekh kabab, minced lamb kebabs hot off the metal skewers, was my favorite dish of the evening. Lamb is my favorite red meat, and Bukhara couldn’t have done these tender animals any more justice by creating this memorable and fantastic feast. The kebabs were intensely seasoned with ginger, green chiles, coriander, royal cumin and saffron, and each bite was dripping in fresh lamb essence. Although the seasoning was a bit too cumin dominant, I really enjoyed the sharpness of the flavors.
Murgh tandoori, which is classic tandoori chicken, was a whole chicken marinated in yogurt, malt vinegar, ginger, garlic, lemon juice, chili, turmeric, and garam masala. We ordered garlic and butter naans to complement our perfectly roasted meats. There’s something so satisfying about using your bare hands to tear meat apart and stuff it in your mouth. It’s carnal, primal and most of all, it’s fun.
Bukhara is probably most famous for its dahl, which is so popular that it’s sold in supermarkets all over India as ‘Dal Bukhara’. Indeed, this bowl of hearty and smoky dahl was the real deal. Unlike others that I’ve had before, Bukhara’s version was creamy and thick with a subtle sweetness that kept me dipping my naan all night.
In case you were wondering… yes, I did put my Bukhara bib on. Shameless, perhaps, but practical. It was the only safe way to protect my clothes, as proper table manners went out the window in this delicious carnal feast. It was a peaceful and satisfying moment to finish the last scrumptious morsel of tandoori chicken off the bone, lick my fingers, stretch out my limbs, shake my mane and stick my dirty fingers into the warm finger bowl. Ahhhh….
My dinner feast at Bukhara in New Delhi was filling and satisfying. It was some of the best Indian food that I have ever had, but I am only saying that because I haven’t had enough good Indian food to compare it with. Although I was happy with my meal, I question whether it’s worthy of being on the 50 Best Restaurants list. It certainly had the price tag of a Best Restaurant contender though. Talk about emptying your wallets- the paneer tikka was 1475 rupees ($32 US) and the small bowl of dahl was 550 Rs ($12 US). It may not seem that expensive compared to $100 steaks with black truffle sauce or 80 Euro foie gras dishes, but we’re talking about New Delhi where food normally goes for a few cents.
I’m anxious to see how Bukhara does in the 2010 list, but more curious to see if they’ll finally start acknowledging more Japanese restaurants on their Top 50. Tokyo now officially has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world, surpassing Paris in a big ego blow. If I don’t start seeing these places on the Pellegrino list, then it will be hard for me to accept the full validity of the list. I stand by my country!
ITC Maurya Sheraton & Towers Diplomatic Enclave
Sadar Patel Marg
Tel: 91 11 2611 2233
The S. Pellegrino world’s top 50 restaurants list for 2010 will be announced on April 26th, 2010.
Random trivia: Did you know that cumin is the second most popular spice in the world, following black pepper in first place? In ancient times, cumin was thought to keep lovers from straying. Women gave their men bread baked with cumin to prevent them from wandering.