Vark at the Taj Mahal hotel at Delhi breaks the rules of traditional Indian cooking, yet manages to retain its soul
I looked at the waitress aghast. Dramatically producing a lethal-looking contraption, she deftly sprayed a thick foam of coconut cream over a plate of juicy tandoori scallops.
This was contemporary Indian fine dining in London, in 2005. A three-course meal, replete with theatrical food and glamorous ingredients at Zaika, set in fashionable Kensington. A far cry from Southall's curry house butter chicken engulfed in equal amounts of oil and food colour. Indian contemporary cuisine at a time when the genre was still being hotly-debated and defined.
While chefs all over the world pushed the boundaries of the respective cuisines, from straitlaced French to flexible Californian, desi khana stayed constant. After thousands of years of work, our cuisine seemed to have evolved to point of eternal stability. A place that could not possibly be improved by coconut foam and all its associated maverick ingredients. Reinventing Indian food with molecular gastronomy or even just plain fusion seemed wrong. Like putting your grandmother into a leather miniskirt.
Yet, a few days ago, I found myself diving into a delicious tower of crabmeat and tandoori prawn layered with crisp, buttery filo pastry in Delhi at Vark, the Taj Mahal hotel's latest offering. Replacing Haveli, which offered staid Indian, Vark breaks rules of traditional Indian cooking, and yet manages to retain its soul — barring a few overly pretentious experiments.
Although Vark's style of cuisine is ground-breaking, it has the advantage of leaning on the experience of the Taj's Bombay Brasserie, which does largely a similar style of cuisine. They call it “authentic Indian flavours transformed into a contemporary gourmet experience.” Over more than two decades this London-based restaurant has steadily worked on redefining Indian food, creating a style that will endure, as well as appeal to both Indian and international diners.
Under master chef Hemant Oberoi, Taj Cape Town introduced South Africa to this style of Indian food with Bombay Brasserie a couple of months ago. Opening night featured roasted corn soup the colour of wheat fields in a Bollywood dream sequence. It was topped with fluffy turmeric popcorn. Then there was juicy tandoori Norwegian salmon flavoured with tart Bishop's weed. We finished with baked Alphonso mango yoghurt.
The Taj's answer to updating Indian food has been to plate it artfully, and add innovative ingredients. It's more organic than regular fusion, which means there are fewer jarring notes. The kebabs we begin our meal at Vark with, for instance, are made of apricot and potato, and served with a raw mango chutney. They're novel, but still follow a familiar format, with shades of gorgeous street food flavours.
However, our pan seared Chilean masala sea bass set on a bed of sautéed spinach and mushrooms, is largely ho-hum. It's a pity the hotel feels a need to fly in exotica for the requisite drama. Hopefully, they will eventually be able to create astonishing meals with locally sourced ingredients, the mark of great — and responsible — restaurants in this age of frequent fliers and unnecessary food miles.
Surrounded by gold leaf work and a mural by Anjolie Ela Menon, Vark is an appropriately theatrical setting for the food. In a well-meaning attempt to promote Indian teas, each course is accompanied by a fancy brew. Tomato mozzarella samosas with hibiscus cold tea. Sea bass with kari patta cha. And the main course, an ambitiously presented, but average-tasting heap of baked lamb paired with deliciously fluffy olive-studded naan. It's accompanied by Aadhavan tea, tingling with mint and fennel.
Honestly, the tea's more fun than functional. Unlike wine it doesn't add any nuances to the food. Or perhaps my palette is too pedestrian. After all my idea of a good pairing is strong ginger chai with spicy samosas at a tea shop down the road.
As you can imagine, the Vark process can get rather airy-fairy in parts. Yet, it's a refreshing take on a cuisine that's been largely immovable over the last few decades. It's appropriate that chefs experiment with food, no matter how much heart burn that causes traditionalists. After all, cuisine has always been fluid, influenced by conquerors, traders and visitors from all over the world. It would be unnatural for any food style to stay static.
Hence we throw ourselves upon the dessert tray with abandon. (Not that dessert has ever needed an ethical excuse.) Jelebi's dusted with fresh pepper. Apple kheer. And the crowning glory, Oreo chenna toast. Spongy, decadent, rich. The ideal cross-cultural, uber-contemporary, cheerfully-accessible ending.