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New Delhi-cious

John Robshaw

Photo: John Robshaw

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.

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