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.