Trying to cross the road at the Old Delhi spice market, I dodge a motorcycle, a rickshaw, a truck, finally grabbing hold of something big and sturdy. The ox shudders and emits a deafening bellow. Rakesh Sethi, India's Emeril Lagasse and my guide for the day, jumps to my rescue and we continue our tour of the sprawling bazaar, so dense and cacophonous, it makes Arabian souks seem like Tiffany's.
Rakesh leads me past basins of virginal-white paneer cheese, fantastical candied fruit displays, and gaudy offerings to Vishnu and Lakshmi. Soon, the rising decibels of commerce ravage my eardrums and everything begins to disappear into a muggy aromatic haze. I ask whether upper-class Delhites shop here. Rakesh laughs. Many of them, he tells me, have never even set foot in a grocery store. If they aren't ensconced at elaborate meals orchestrated by servants, the city's elite dine at tony New Delhi hotels like the Oberoi. That's where Rakesh works as executive sous-chef, when he's not seducing Indian matrons on his television cooking show Mirch Masala, or "Chilies and Spice."
THE OBEROI EXUDES DISCREET LUXURY from all sides: in the lobby, dominated by a fountain strewn with rose petals; in the ritzy shopping arcade; in the world-class Thai, French, and Chinese restaurants. It's hard to impress locals with Indian food, but Kandahar, the hotel's "native" restaurant, rises to the challenge with a menu emphasizing healthfulness. According to Rakesh, who receives hundreds of fan letters a week, this is how enlightened Indians want to eat. The kitchen turns out remarkably delicate spit-roasted tandoori kebabs: springy-soft boneless chicken marinated in cream, cloves, and cardamom; ground baby lamb seekh kebab with a tingle of ginger, a pucker of chilies, and toasty accents of coriander. Whereas Indian vegetable curries tend to be sludgy, Kandahar's sabzi gulistan is almost a stir-fry. The paneer palak is a still life of emerald spinach, white cubes of cheese, and garnet pomegranate seeds.
While the Oberoi draws a rather patrician crowd, the Imperial Hotel, recently restored to its original white Deco glamour, is the epicenter of young local action. Over cocktails at its new bar 1911, my friend Ambika expounds on the fundamentals of the Bombay—Delhi rivalry. Bombay is film, Delhi is fashion. Bombayites are egalitarian and laid-back; Delhites, flashy and class-obsessed. Bombay nightlife revolves around clubs and freestanding restaurants. Here, when society offspring aren't misbehaving at "farmhouse" parties in rented out-of-town villas, they hang out at hotel discos and bars. An ex-model with a royal lineage, Ambika is the queen of the late-night scene, and I trust her when she pronounces 1911 the city's watering hole of the moment. Named for the year that the British decreed the capital transferred from Calcutta to Delhi, the bar is decorated with sepia portraits of dagger-wielding maharajahs. Otherwise, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Cheers, which is just fine with the preppy jeunesse dorée who lap up drinks like "oxidized lizard special" and "twelve inch my tais."
We could have ordered French onion soup—proclaimed Viceroy Hardinge's favorite on the menu—but a serious meal awaited us at the Imperial's Spice Route restaurant. Having taken nine years and God knows how many rupees to build, Spice Route is a Vegas extravaganza: narrative frescoes of Hindu epics next to Thai terra-cotta panels next to hazy modern abstract panels. Guests can even take a guided tour of the restaurant and learn that some of these southern Indian antiques were seized just as they were about to be smuggled out of the country.
THE DIMINUTIVE CHEF, Veena Arora, darts up to our table explaining the seasoning in her elaborate Spice Route—themed menu: Sri Lankan—style squid, Indonesian duck curry with fresh turmeric, and Siamese stir-fried chicken. Still, it's her Keralan dishes that leave me swooning. Pineapple rasam is a fiery broth bolstered by fried curry leaves. Gently spiced vegetable curry is ladled over spongy rice-flour pancakes. Big, sweet shrimp resound with tamarind, mustard seeds, and the juicy crunch of grated fresh coconut.
When local epicures aren't indulging their cosmopolitan cravings at fancy hotels—say, woodburning pizzas at the Hyatt's La Piazza, or the persuasively authentic hot pots and dim sum at the Tea House of the August Moon in the Taj Palace Hotel—you might find them at Dastarkhwan e-Karim, a new branch of the Old Delhi original in the intensely Muslim neighborhood of Nizamuddin. The alley leading up to the restaurant is a jungle of chapati vendors, shoeshine men, and cows, so Karim's valet waits by the main road to accompany guests. Inside the dim, shabby-plush room, a mood of slightly dour dignity hangs in the air. Patrons eat a lot and say very little.
Befitting a restaurant located steps away from the Humayun Tomb, Delhi's great Mughal landmark, the menu showcases royal-style Mughal dishes. Classic curries, like the creamy, almondy badam pasanda, are rich and complex. But the pride of the kitchen is the white-hot tandoori oven. From its smoldering clay depths emerge billowy rogni naan with a glossy sheen of butter and saffron; dense, charred parathas; and mutton sausages neatly bundled in a handkerchief-thin bread called roomali roti. The butter chicken is sensational, too, tandoori-roasted and finished in a voluptuous, sweet-tart sauce of yogurt, tomatoes, and indecent amounts of butter. And the burra kebab—hunks of lamb shoulder cosseted in a tangy, lush yogurt marinade and kissed by fire and smoke—is the Taj Mahal of barbecue dishes.
Another non-hotel restaurant with a devoted local following is Kwality, whose pink walls and murky paisley upholstery recall a British department-store coffee shop caught in a time warp. The surroundings, however, are not the draw. This afternoon, the whole town is here. Brahman matriarchs shrouded in gilded silk discuss the indolence of their maids over decorous bites of vegetables au gratin; beturbaned Sikh merchants polish off dals and Punjabi breads as if they've been fasting for days. The menu is a post-colonial mix of Indian and old-world Continental.
MY LUNCH DATE AJIT—A TOWERING DANDY who left his lofty perch at the head of Citibank India to pursue organic farming—is uncompromising in matters of taste. He wants no biryani, no curry, not even a bite of my celestial rice-flour dumplings in a cooling, smooth yogurt sauce. Chole bhatoora is what brings him to Kwality. This quintessential northern snack consists of bread fried until it puffs into an enormous balloon. Its brittleness melts away when you use it to sop up the warm chole—chickpeas simmered in a slurry of spices and tinted dark brown with tea leaves. Drizzled with tart ginger chutney, it's an unforgettable mouthful.
I spend the afternoon sipping masala chai at the frosted colonialist United Coffee House—a café-cum-diner beloved by everyone from businessmen to shoppers roaming Connaught Circle—before dinner at the Maurya Sheraton. Stepping into the ungainly seventies pile, I wonder if Bill Clinton, who stayed here recently, had the same urge to flee. I also wonder if the ex-prez got to try the Sheraton's legendary Indian restaurants: the refined Bukhara or the intriguing Dum Pukht, my choice for tonight. Dum means "to breathe in" and pukht is "to cook"—the phrase refers to a method of steaming food in vessels sealed with dough, popular in Lucknow and Hyderabad, India's great epicurean centers.
It's well after 10 p.m., yet the refreshingly under-decorated white room is only starting to fill. Why so late?I ask my dinner guest, Peter Nagy, an avant-garde New York artist who runs a gallery in Delhi. "Because Delhites usually eat late and then they're off," he notes cattily, "even society hostesses don't bother serving dinner until midnight." While we talk, the waiter proffers an appetizer of kakori kebab. The ground mutton is tenderized with papaya and pounded until it achieves a strange pâté-like consistency. Legend has it that the recipe was created for an aged maharajah who wanted to eat his favorite dish but had no teeth. Chicken khushk purdah, however, is something to sink our teeth into, a taut, juicy whole bird cured in star anise, grilled in a tandoor, and then steamed under a layer of dough to lock in the aromas. Lamb chops in a syrupy, bittersweet pomegranate sauce is another revelation, as is this evening's vegetable, whole baby eggplants in a lush mantle of tamarind and pulverized peanuts and sesame seeds—typical Hyderabad flavors. We decide that the pink rose-water syrup drizzled on the kulfi ice cream should be bottled and sold as perfume.
It's my last morning in Delhi, and I'm craving a proper southern Indian breakfast, which brings me to the Sagar Ratna restaurant in the tatty Lodhi Hotel. The painfully plain surroundings fade with one bite of the vada, a single crisp rice-flour doughnut afloat in an explosive rasam. There's also uthappam, a pizzalike pancake charred around the edges and scattered with chilies and coconut, and an incomparable masala dosa. This gigantic rice-flour crêpe with the texture of lace is folded around a dry potato curry. I eat it with dabs of coconut chutney and a spoonful of spicy-tart, soupy vegetable stew called sambhar. The flavors of chilies, cumin, and tamarind still sing in my mouth as my plane touches down in New York.
Kandahar Oberoi hotel, Dr. Zakir Hussain Rd.; 91-11/430-4256; dinner for two $40.
1911 and Spice Route Imperial Hotel, Janpath; 91-11/334-1234; drinks for two $10, dinner for two $45.
La Piazza Hyatt Regency Delhi, Bhikaiji Cama Place, Ring Rd.; 91-11/ 679-1234; dinner for two $47.
Tea House of the August Moon Taj Palace Hotel, 2 Sardar Patel St., Diplomatic Enclave; 91-11/611-0202; dinner for two $32.
Dastarkhwan e-Karim 168-2, Hzt. Nizamuddin W.; 91-11/469-8300; lunch for two $20.
Kwality 7 Regal Building, Parliament St.; 91-11/373-2310; lunch for two $17.
United Coffee House E-15 Connaught Place; 91-11/332-2075; snacks for two $8.
Dum Pukht Maurya Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Sardar Patel St., Diplomatic Enclave; 91-11/611-2233; dinner for two $35.
Sagar Ratna Lodhi Hotel, Lala Lajpat Rai St.; 91-11/436-2422; breakfast for two $10.