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New Delhi-cious

John Robshaw

Photo: John Robshaw

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.

THE FACTS

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.

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