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Mouthing Off

By the Editors of Food & Wine Magazine

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Dinner at New Delhi's Varq

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jalebi

© Taj Hotels
Varq's haute take on jalebis.

 

For our May travel issue, we polled chefs, sommeliers and food writers around the globe to come up with the 100 best new food and drink experiences on the planet. Varq restaurant in New Delhi made the cut, and it ended up being my most revelatory meal in India.  

Chef Hemant Oberoi, the Taj hotel group's corporate chef and the visionary behind Varq, and his right-hand man at Varq, executive chef Ankit Sharma, have taken India's street foods and traditional regional dishes and modernized them by applying new techniques and introducing new ingredients, like scallops and foie gras--then serving those dishes on Thomas Keller–designed Limoges china in a very glamorous dining room.

Ganderi kebab, minced chicken marinated with spices, gets deep-fried on a sugarcane stick so that it looks like a corn dog and served in a shot glass with amchur chutney in the bottom. Atta raan, perhaps the most theatrical dish on the menu, is a supertender leg of lamb that has been marinated in mace, cardamom and red chile and baked in a saffron-dough shell. I adored his refined take on the street snacks that I'd been dubiously eating the past week. I'd become addicted to jalebi, a sticky, sugar-high-inducing sweet that looks like a mini funnel cake and has the electric orange color of Cheetos. On the street they are fried in enormous cast-iron pans, fished out of sizzling pools of oil and eaten piping hot. At Varq, they are perfectly shaped spirals of warm, crunchy dough, more yellow than orange (the result of less-sugary syrup), decorated with silver leaf and lined up side by side with a pistachio yogurt for dipping.

When I later met up with Oberoi, I asked him why I can't find that kind of Indian restaurant in New York City. He let me in on a little secret: He's planning a stand-alone Varq in NYC for the near future.

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Tasting Tour of Varanasi

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Nadesar Palace

© Taj Hotels.
Nadesar Palace, Varanasi.

 

I became fascinated with Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet and one of the world’s top pilgrimage sites, after reading Geoff Dwyer’s slightly mad book Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The city, off the River Ganges, is a chaos of cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, cattle and people bathing on the ghats, while just up the river, a burning body is being sent to rest in the same waters. It was the third stop on the Maharajas Express Celestial India itinerary and after a sunrise boat ride along the ghats, a rickshaw ride through the markets and a shopping binge on the city’s famed Banarasi silk saris, I was desperately ready for an escape from the city’s bedlam.

I found it at the new Nadesar Palace, set on 40 acres of mango orchards and jasmine fields. Originally built by the East India Company to house its officers, then turned into the Maharaja’s palace, it is now a 10-room Taj Hotel with marble bathrooms, four-poster beds draped with Schiaparelli pink netting and original art from the Maharaja’s collections. I spent the afternoon with chef Sanjeev Chopra, who took me on a horse-drawn carriage ride past his organic garden before taking me into the kitchen. Chopra has created a fascinating menu totally focused on local cuisine: He spent months visiting the villages, lanes, elite houses and royal kitchen of Varanasi to learn the ancient royal cooking techniques and find lost recipes. He then asked housewives, royal cooks and maharajs from Dharamshals to visit the Nadesar kitchen to cook and train his team. I ate my way across castes, sampling matar ki puri (green peas stuffed in a deep-fried wheat pancake) from the royal kitchen and the ubiquitous street sweet gulab jamun, cottage cheese dumplings soaked in sugary syrup. It was one of the most satisfying, and definitely the most enlightening, meal of my trip.

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India’s New Maharajas Express

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Maharajas Express

© Maharajas Express
India's most luxe train, the Maharajas Express.

 

I spent the last three weeks eating my way across India. This week, I’ll be posting updates on my most exciting experiences. I kicked off my trip on what is being touted as India’s most luxurious train, the Maharajas Express. The 82-passenger train has four-, six- and seven-night itineraries; I was aboard the inaugural Celestial India journey from Calcutta to Delhi. How luxe could a train possibly be? I had my own butler and private room with Wi-Fi, a flat-screen TV and a bathtub. I even had enough room to do yoga (though yoga on a moving train proved quite a challenge). At night, passengers shared their day’s adventures over Indian wines, excellent mojitos and great Indian chaat in the bar car before moving on to dinner in one of the two glamorous dining cars with white linen tablecloths and custom gold flatware and plates. Each night, the chef created a different three-course menu, offering both Continental dishes (foie gras and mushroom ravioli) and regional Indian ones (laal gosht, a classic, spicy Rajasthani lamb preparation with Kashmiri chiles).

The itinerary: stops at iconic sites, like the Taj Mahal in Agra, and off-the-beaten-path spots, like the forts of Gwalior and small villages around Khajuraho. True luxury, at least for me, is getting an insider's perspective on the ground. The Maharajas team created fantastic, immersive adventures in each city, such as the visit to the Bodhi Tree at sunset, as well as, upon my request, a street-food tour with a local through Varanasi’s alleys, so I could taste a just-made lassi and kachori (a fried ball stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas).

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