T's the one Indian love affair that never goes sour. Gourmands from all over the world may take pride in boasting about the most expensive, exclusive, extravagant restaurants they have ever eaten at. In India, however, the truly respected foodies are the ones who discover roadside cooks, street stalls and tiny dhabas cloaked in the scent of kebabs and smoke. Our affection for unpretentious food is loyal and unwavering. And, a good thing too. This kind of food is accessible to everyone, builds on local traditions and is what makes India so unique.
The romance of the dhaba is unbeatable. After all we've all been raised on a diet of movies and stories featuring those legendary truckers' stops, where lassi comes in huge mugs, the music is loud and the clientele vivid.
NH1 at Khader Nawaz Khan Road doesn't have the advantage of colourfully swearing truckers and buses thundering past. The night I visited they made up with thundering music and were a little broken when I requested them to lower the volume. As it turns out, a blaring rendition of ‘Chunari-Chunari' doesn't make you stand up and start jingling every glass bangle you own. Especially since there are no well-gelled, meticulously muscled, turban-wearing Bollywood heroes emerging from the kitchen.
Other than that, the restaurant works hard to stick to the theme. Interiors are fairly basic, bordering on blah, but in a comforting way. When you're elbow deep in buttery dal makhani and tender raan, the last thing you need is crisp linen and gleaming crystal. While the recipes have been honed over hundreds of years, and the cooking involves a sophisticated layering of spices, the bottom line is dhaba food is fairly rough. And it should be served this way. Garnishing, plating and bow ties would just be redundant.
The theme, no prizes for guessing is the National Highway 1, which stretches from Delhi to the town of Attari in Punjab near the India-Pakistan International border, according to Wikipedia. This was once a part of the Grand Trunk Road of Sher Shah Suri, which you would remember from history class if you weren't so busy doodling in your text books, or playing ‘FLAMES' with names of every ‘potential' boyfriend/ girlfriend in class. (Don't pretend you don't know what that is. And if you really don't know, check with anyone a generation below you.)
The objective of the NH1 restaurant is to master the cuisines of the most notable states that the highway snakes through: Mughlai, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Peshawari. It's a great idea, especially since most dhaba-imitators tend to focus on just Punjabi food, which is the easiest to translate for palates across the country. Mughlai and Peshawari are as easy to source. The Kashmiri element is a nice surprise, especially considering how few restaurants offer Kashmiri food. And I'm not taking into account those ghastly curries randomly offered on multi-cuisine menus everywhere, bustling with sugar, nuts and raisins.
A new twist
We begin with char grilled skewers of lamb mince, tender and malleable, tasting of fresh ginger and chewy with the relaxed sweetness of slow dried figs. There's plenty for vegetarians by the way. We try Bhuttian te Kishmish Seekh, a concoction of juicy sweet corn mashed with soaked raisins, then skewered and cooked in a tandoor. The food, as it turns out, is not straightforward ‘dhaba.' There's some tweaking, twiddling and poshing up, introducing new ingredients to make the choices more varied. Like the Chow ki Tikki, Potato cakes packed with raisins and pine nuts and served with sweet banana chutney.
Does it work? Most of the time. Though I'd suggest you ignore the offer to cook your food in olive oil for ten per cent more on the bill. Let's face it, olive oil might be healthy but it's not a super hero that will simultaneously improve your cholesterol, walk your dog and improve your love life.
We end with langarwali dal with rotis, cooked in the style of the gurudwaras. Spiked with ginger and chillies, it's steaming hot and deliciously mellow. The ‘Special NH1 Biryani' is rather a confused clash of flavours. However the hot, dark gulab jamuns that end the meal more than make up for any deficiencies. Put a turban on them, and they can play hero any day.
NH1 is at 20, Pycrofts Garden Road, Nungambakkam. Call 4428265000 for more details.