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Lazeez... as good as the name

Uma Sharma tries out some vegetarian delicacies at Lazeez Affaire on Malcha Marg in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy.

AN INVITATION to meet over a meal takes eminent Kathak exponent Uma Sharma by surprise. The restaurant, Lazeez Affaire on Malcha Marg, is not one she has heard of, though the shopping centre where it is located is a familiar landmark. Arriving there, on being told the hallmark of the restaurant is Awadhi cuisine, the celebrated dancer wonders whether it is Awadhi merely in name, since the décor - low, tiger striped sofas and chairs in a completely Western ambience - has no relation to the colourful memories of the Nawabs of old. Coming from a renowned representative of the Lucknow gharana of Kathak, repository of rare gems of the tradition, the question demands attention.

It used to be furnished with a royal ambience, she is informed, but recently the management decided to give it a contemporary look. Not seeming very impressed by the reasoning, she looks over the menu and asks the restaurant staff to make suggestions. Then follows a scrumptious procession of kababs and starters. Paneer Ka Sula - stuffed paneer cooked on skewers - and Tandoori Aloo - roasted potatoes stuffed with dry fruits and paneer - and the cylindrical vegetarian seekh kabab. There is also the ingenious Dahi Ka Tikka, for which the expression `melt in the mouth' is tailor-made. Tiny circular creations fried and sizzling on the plate, they seem to disappear off the tongue and leave it wondering where the taste came from. Awadh has made an appearance at last, in fragrances and flavours. There is plenty at Lazeez Affaire for vegetarians like Uma Sharma to choose from, but for the non-vegetarians too there is an extensive menu, including a whole range of chicken and lamb kababs - in boneless, drumsticks, egg coated or garlic flavoured variety - and the typically Awadhi Kakori kabab.

Today vegetarianism is accepted both as fad and common sense the world over, but for an artiste who has circled the globe for four decades, it has not always been easy to get the right food on tour. "Once when I was very young, in the 1960s, we were in the Soviet Union, and we could not get vegetarian food at all. Finally the Indian Embassy people arranged for people to send us food from their houses. But this could not last for three months, so I was persuaded to start eating eggs. But when I got back to India, I felt so disgusted that I stopped again," she recalls.

But here at Lazeez, it is a table without meat or eggs. Though one could make a meal of the tikkas and kababs alone, there are the main dishes to be tried. For the staple there is a vegetable biryani cooked and served in an earthenware `handi' sealed and slow cooked underground in the fashion typical of Awadhi cuisine, as well as a variety of breads - Kandhari Naan, Khurmi Naan, missi roti - made of mixed flours - and khasta roti. To go with these come various curries: Mushroom Jalfrezi, Methi Matar Malai - fenugreek leaves, green peas and cream - and Sabz Khada Masala, season vegetables flavoured with mango powder and tamarind. Mirch Makai Ka Salan - a combination of green chillies and baby corn with peanuts and sesame - and Paneer Lababdar make a gravy rich complement. It is an eclectic spread, wholesome and rich without heaviness, lavish without losing its delicacy, elaborately cooked yet fresh to see and taste, a surprisingly homely experience for a Delhi restaurant. To wash down this royal feast, there are simple drinks like fresh lime, or exotic mocktails whose colours stand tantalisingly separate in the glass. Somewhere along the way our guest decides that the routine of a light lunch will have to be substituted with no dinner.

The crowning glory is the kulfi, served in tiny earthenware pots. While pronouncing it all delicious, "each and every item", Uma Sharma, ever the holistic artiste, suggests placing a matching plate below the little `kulhar' of kulfi instead of an ordinary saucer to improve the aesthetics of the luscious kulfi.

It has been a quiet affair; lazeez (delicious) is indeed the word. But upstairs at the restro-bar, where you can shake a leg while swigging a drink or two and feasting on an array of dishes, the air pulsates with the music of a private party, booked, no doubt, by some modern-day nawabs of South Delhi, who like to chill out in style. As we part ways, the renowned dancer, in the manner of the meticulous teacher that she is, comes back to a question she asked as soon as she walked in: "Why did you choose this restaurant?" But now she answers it herself: "Because of the food!"


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