© 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.
© 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.
© 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).
© Hotel Amano
Mario Grünfelder created the cocktail list for the bar at Hotel Amano.
For the last few days (and very late nights), I found myself restaurant-and-bar-hopping around Berlin with Mario Grünfelder, the star mixologist of the city’s coolest bar, Tausend. F&W’s European correspondent, Gisela Williams, had been telling me about a number of ambitious projects the Swiss-born spirits genius been working on. He already co-owns Tausend, along with W Imbiss and the superhip Café 103 (which he says will be transforming into something even cooler very soon). Mario is good buddies with the brilliant, semi-maniacal chef Christian Lohse, so we met for lunch at Lohse’s Michelin-starred seafood-centric Fischers Fritz to talk about potential collaborations, which included talk of a 24-hour bar-hopping bus.
Later, Mario invited us to Cantina, the new restaurant in a room behind the bar at Tausend. The former chef of Berlin’s popular Shiro I Shiro is turning out casual Latin-Asian dishes like Peruvian tiradito, tuna tataki wrapped in foie and Momofuku-rivaling pork buns. Over a second round of the stellar pork buns, Mario shared his newest passion, making his own spirits, including an unbelievably smooth wheat-based vodka he’s named Greenfield and Harter 73 (Greenfield being an Americanized version of his last name; 73 referring to his date of birth; and Harter the last name of Tausend co-owner Til Harter). I’m hoping we’ll see bottles stateside soon.
When Tausend gets too crowded late at night, Mario heads to his newest bar project at the chic, affordable new Hotel Amano in the Mitte neighborhood. The low-lit lounge serves late-night snacks and Mario’s cocktails, like the Grischenko (Xoriguer gin, cordial lime juice and Limettensaft bitters) until 4 a.m. The prolific spirits obsessive is now off to Barcelona. Maybe he’ll be opening his first project outside of Germany soon.
Food & Wine’s super-plugged-in European correspondent, Gisela Williams, is based in Berlin and has been taking me to all the hottest new spots in town. Here, a quick rundown:
Wahllokal is in a somewhat awkward location between the business and tourist sections of Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood. Everything about the space is playful, from the tasting menu (divided into Beforehand, Right in the Middle and Thereafter) to the bleacher-esque, stadium-style seating and the wacky basement bathrooms (with showers instead of sinks for washing hands). The food, however, is more straightforward and very well-priced. Highlights were an ever-so-lightly breaded codfish with ox-muzzle salad and Thai asparagus and the watercress risotto with coconut and pomelo honey.
Raffaele Sorrentino, the miracle-working concierge at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, recently opened two Italian spots side-by-side. The more casual Antica Lasagneria specializes in huge slices of lasagna from a classic meat-and-cheese to a spicy-sausage-and-broccoli. The dining room feels like a wine store with great Italian bottles literally from floor to ceiling. Il Punto is a Berlin favorite that Raffaele reopened in a new location in June serving stellar Italian classics and top Italian wines.
Daniel Achilles is the incredibly young chef everyone is talking about since he was recently awarded a Michelin star for his cooking at the new Reinstoff. Achilles has designed two tasting menus: "Quite Near" is more classic (calf's tail ravioli) while "Far Away" is much more experimental (scallop tartare with brussels sprouts and oyster emulsion). The wine list highlights Spanish and German producers.
Our February story on Park City, Utah
, was fun to research—but the best part was heading out there last month and experiencing it for myself. One moment I've been reliving in my head is stopping by the St. Regis Deer Crest Resort
after a long day skiing. The property, which you can enter via gondola or on skis, overlooks the slopes of pristine Deer Valley
. The views were breathtaking as I sat outside, a steaming peppermint tea in my hand, watching as kids in the heated pool below had a serious snowball fight and skiers completed their last runs of the day. The Terrace Café menu (done by Jean-Georges Vongerichten) also had tempting choices like Snake River beef chili and Valrhona chocolate pudding, but next time I go I'll step inside for his Asian burgers at the resort's J&G Grill—or I'll try making them at home with the recipe
from our February issue.
© Photo Courtesy of Talisker
Chef John Murcko
Until very recently, most visitors to Park City, Utah (me included) could only get a passing glimpse at the luxurious world of Talisker
. Created by a high-end real-estate developer, Talisker is made up of three private communities whose members enjoy exclusive access to clubhouses at many of the area's ski resorts. But that all changed earlier this year with the opening of Talisker on Main
, a new restaurant that's open to everyone. I visited the place recently and found it a sophisticated alternative to downtown's many rustic spots, with pressed-tin ceilings, crystal chandeliers and sheepskin chairs. Chef John Murcko, a 15-year Park City veteran, has some outstanding meats on his menu, like seared Utah elk served over glazed yams, but even though I'm a carnivore, my hands-down favorite dish was the salad of thinly sliced, roasted brussels sprouts with toasted hazelnuts and a touch of Jerez sherry vinegar. I only wish I had been there a few weeks earlier, during the Sundance
festival, when I could have spotted Adrian Grenier, Paris Hilton and Joan Rivers.
© Photo Courtesy of Restaurant Margaux
Chef Michael Hoffman
I’m in Berlin this week, and in between business meetings I’ve had some extraordinary meals. One surprise: In a city I normally associate with Wiener schnitzel and currywurst, tons of restaurants are offering really interesting vegetarian options. Chef Michael Hoffman of the Michelin-starred restaurant Restaurant Margaux
is perhaps the city’s biggest vegetable champion; he even has a cookbook dedicated entirely to cooking with herbs (an English version is in the works) and a second vegetable-centric cookbook in the pipeline. He and his lovely wife, Kathrin, who runs the front of the house at Margaux, recently planted gardens in nearby greenhouses so they can source vegetables and herbs year round. Hoffman promotes his seven-course vegetarian tasting menu with equal, if not greater, enthusiasm than his regular tasting menu. I was truly impressed with dishes like a seaweed salad with candied lemon and ginger, jus of pumpkin and lime and a savory baked “sushi” of pumpkin and couscous (pumpkin and couscous wrapped sushi-style in a superthin layer of phyllo dough). And his sommelier was up to the tricky challenge of finding perfect vegetable-friendly wines
(the remarkable 600-plus-bottle wine list is nearly 70-percent German) with choices like the 2006 Weingut Bernhard Eifel Barriques Weisser Burgunder from the Mosel.
© Courtesy of Sugar Buzz
Park City's Sugar Buzz
Last month, I spent a long weekend in Park City, Utah, hitting the slopes and checking out the emerging food scene we highlighted in our February travel story
. One of my favorite finds was the adorable retro-chic candy shop Sugar Buzz
, which opened about a year ago, just off of Main Street. The walls are lined with a dizzying assortment of glass candy jars, showcasing everything from licorice to lollipops to dark chocolates to caramels. I loaded up a paper sack with my nostalgic favorite, German raspberries, but also couldn't resist the red velvet cookies, topped with cream-cheese frosting, that were at the bakery by the register. I skipped the Illy espresso this time around but will surely pick one up the next time I am in town.