The upcoming Punjabi food festival at Dhaba, The Claridges, promises sumptuous fare

May is a tempestuous month in Delhi. Mornings are only mildly pleasant. Days often recreate a public furnace. And evenings are often heralded by thunderstorms. Rain splattered roads are generously sprinkled with fallen leaves. It is on one such evening that I head to Dhaba, oh yes, my favourite Dhaba, to taste the latest creations of the wonder chef Sweety Singh.

Now Dhaba at The Claridges, is a place that puts me at ease, inhibitions gradually take leave and all around there is the familiar air of a highway eatery minus its dust and din. There is indefinable joy to the place. Its matted false ceiling is notable for half a dozen lanterns hanging there. They emit light without causing pollution. But hey, I am not alone in this election time to favour the lantern if the reports coming from Bihar are anything to go by. Apparently, the Rashtriya Janata Dal with its lantern poll symbol, is poised for a mega comeback. Here at Dhaba, it is comeback time for Singh, some eight years after he had curated a highway motels festival at the restaurant.

Today, he is in fine fettle. The chef whose family hails from Rawalpindi, helps build the mood in this run-up to the Punjabi food festival with his unabashed gaiety. There are pickle jars, usually called martabaans on the left and an age-old radio with big-sized push buttons just over our eye level – I use the expression ‘our’ simply because keeping me company are a couple of representatives of the hotel: the lady appropriately cheerful and cheeky for her years, the gent understandably sober, wearing lightly all the years he has spent as a globetrotter. With them is my old buddy, Aslam Khan, who is in a particularly gregarious mood, egged on no doubt by Singh’s Punjabi laced conversation.

Even as the radio plays O.P. Nayar’s foot-tapping numbers, we begin our meal with a platter consisting of seekh kabab, tandoori kukkad, tandoor bhuniya meat. The kababs are pretty hot and mouth-watering. I however favour the seekh. It is soft, so soft as to render our teeth superfluous. The bhuniya meat though brings them into action! The taste of the kababs is enhanced by dhania chutney, served generously. Of course, the age-old onion rings and a slice of lemon cannot be too far away when it comes to serving kababs from Punjab.

The kukkab comes laced with spices. It is cooked right to the bone. Neither over-prepared nor under-cooked, it is made to perfection. I pour some chilli accompaniment. It tastes different. I revert to the original preparation. My co-diners meanwhile cannot stop raving about the food. I prefer to let my actions to do the talking.

A platter demolished, another ordered. It has Kandhari murg ke tikke. This too meets the same fate, except this time I find tandoor bhuniya a tad under-cooked. The meat offers a challenge to my fork and knife. They lose, the meat stays on the plate as we move to the main course. This time the highlight is brought up by nalli gosht. They serve various kinds of bread to go with the nalli and palak-gosht. This time, the mutton is tender, the nalli has enough marrow, and the gravy is a bit watery, as it should be. The masalas do not overpower the taste of the meat. I pair it with roomali roti, not keen to let the taste of the vegetable-stuffed naan take away the joy of the preparation.

At the beginning of our meal, the chef said that he would believe his work is appreciated only if he finds us licking our fingers at the end. Right on cue, he appears as I lick off the last bits of the gravy! I say not a word to Singh, he gives me a sweet smile and disappears.

As I nudge Aslam to leave the table, Singh surprises us with two absolutely must-have desserts: kheer and beetroot halwa. I fall for the kheer straightaway, leaving others to try out the halwa. Their warm recommendation emboldens me too. Am I grateful for their judgement!

As we, yes, we leave the restaurant, I tell Aslam that the Naya Daur song we heard during our dinner, attracted such a crowd back in 1957 that the cinegoers’ queue to get a ticket at a cinema hall extended to a kilometre. He is not much interested in my words, merely quipping, “Khana, waqaiye bahut achcha thha.” I burp and nod.

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