Nawaab's at Express Avenue offers the splendour of royal kitchens
A restaurant called Nawab: It's the classic curry cliché. From Amritsar to Aberdeen there are North-West Frontier restaurants, lavishly bedecked in silk, cluttered with an array of incense-veiled brass statues and redolent with the smoky scent of the tandoor smugly functioning under the name, or a variation of it.
‘Nawab Indian Cuisine' in Virginia Beach, U.S., proudly offers samosas, or as they put it “Seasoned potatoes and green peas filled in crisp turnovers.” In Santa Monica, they're more inventive, with the “Nawab of India: House of Exotic Indian Cuisine.” (Because when you eat at restaurant titled ‘Nawab of India' there's always a danger of being served French bouillabaisse, sushi and Chinese fried rice?) Their samosas are “a delicate whole wheat skin wrapped around delicately spiced corn.” If that's not enough delicacy for customers, there's always the fish pakoda: “delicately spiced fried fish fritters.”
Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata all have their own clutch of ‘Nawabs' restaurants, with subtle variations and largely similar menus. Taste of Nawabs, Grand Nawabs, Bade Nawab, Chotey Nawab. Hyderabad in a reckless break with tradition has a restaurant called ‘Nawab ‘n' Nizams'. The presence of the ‘n' presumably tells us they're hip, happening and young. Because nothing says unique, feisty and independent like losing a vowel.
It doesn't end here. Travel to the U.K. and you'll be treated to ‘The Nabob,' which might sound like a Nawab with a gulab jamun in his mouth, but is actually a British twist on the word. (It begot ‘nabobery,' ‘nabobism' and ‘nabobish' by the way.) Of course this gives way to a whole new line of thought: Enter the Great Nabob, The Jolly Nabob, The Nabob Bar.
The bottom line is all over the world when people think of Indian food, they tend to interpret it as a North-West Frontier meets Lucknowi meets Royalty affair. Perhaps because this genre travels best. It's exotic, associated with the splendour of royal kitchens and colourful histories. It's incredibly aromatic, blending a huge variety of spices sourced from mountains and valleys, hills and plains. And undeniably dramatic, with flaming tandoors, steaming dum vessels and chefs adroitly juggling roomali rotis.
Nawaab's — The Royal Kitchen Of Lucknow (Note the crafty use of a double ‘a' to stand out) is a conglomeration of all the clichés. In an age when everyone's trying to outdo their neighbours when it comes to being edgy, unique and new, it's comforting to enter a restaurant that is comfortably static. Although the restaurant just opened at Express Avenue, it's so self-assured it might as well have been here for the past few decades. No new-fangled design nonsense here. The space is large and cloaked in time-honoured golden lighting, lavish gilt and tandoor smoke. It's been broken into different levels and partitions to give each table an illusion of privacy. It would be serene, if it were not for the constant hustle-bustle, inevitable for a mall-restaurant. Though the constant chit-chat between waiters and display-kitchen chefs doesn't help.
Our waiter, Somraj, turns out to be refreshingly candid, steering us though the menu towards what he considers the best items. Of course we start with Galouti kebabs, appropriately light and mellow, with a pleasingly piquant backbone. Our desperate attempt to find something for the vegetarians that doesn't involve paneer or potato (why do restaurants not make an effort to think beyond these two items?) results in achari bhindi, a rather average spicy mush interspersed with thin slices of onion.
The bread selection is vast, making decisions tough. I'm thrilled to find sheermal. It's stodgy, slightly sweet and scented with saffron. Our waiter suggests we team it with a yellow chicken curry called ‘Murgh Begam Bahar'. A velvety blend of curd thickened with ground almonds, this is rich but subtle.
The highlight, not surprisingly, is the aromatic dum biriyani, carefully cooked with a whisper of spices so its flavours are shy, but enticing. We end with phirni, cold and creamy, infused with the romance of the mud pot it is set in. This is the advantage of sticking with traditions.
There's so much history, legend and expertise to lean on. These, after all, are recipes perfected over centuries. Sometimes clichés aren't such a bad thing.
Nawaab's is on the ground floor of Express Avenue. A meal for two costs about Rs. 1,500. (Make allowances for fairly small portions.) Call 2846 4255/ 355 for reservations.