The 10 Best places to eat in India: Ajit Chaudhuri

One of the alumni of IRMA – my senior from IRMA, Ajit Chaudhuri – wrote this wonderful article on the 10 best places to eat in India.  I thought I would share it with the Drishtikone readers.  He has graciously allowed me to share it on this blog.  Ajit writes his blog at "Kaalu on the Road"

Can you please share your candidates for YOUR best places to eat in India – whichever city it may be – in the comments area for other readers?

To the genuine foodie, there is one and only one criteria by which to judge a restaurant – the food! Whether the Maitre Dei welcomes you in French, whether the waitresses are topless, whether the décor is resplendent, whether the wine cellar is well stocked, whether the view is splendid – these are all irrelevant! The service matters to the extent that it adds to the eating – the rotis need to arrive hot and on time, as do the second (and third) servings.

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What follows is my take on the ten best places to eat in this country. I have eaten in each and every one of them many times, and over years, and can personally vouch for consistent excellence. I write this in the chronological order of my familiarity with the restaurant (and not in any order of merit). The list does tend to leave out some fantastic places that I have eaten in only once – may be the subject of another list another time.

1. Bukhara – Maurya Sheraton – Delhi

This restaurant is famous! It is in a 5-star hotel, and is expensive. You cannot book a table in advance here – you have to hang around outside and wait for a table to be free – and this takes time, it is always full. And you have to be careful – the place attracts the well-dressed sort of crooks that steal handbags, laptops and whatnot (an attempt was made on my wife’s handbag once – maybe a one off, maybe not). But – the food is worth having to enter a snotty hotel you would not normally be seen dead in, worth the dollops of money you would have to pay, and worth the hanging around with Delhi’s hoi polloi outside the restaurant with your hands on your belongings. The cuisine is from the Northwest Frontier, and the Sikandari Raan, the kebabs and the Dal Makhni makes you think that perfection does exist. I am unable to eat here too often, the leanness of my wallet being the major constraint, and haven’t for some time. But if I get an opportunity (please read as ‘someone willing to take me’) I would jump at it.

2. Chhotu-Motu – Outside Railway Station – Bikaner

This restaurant serves puris made in desi ghee, hot aloo bhaji and a certain pickle type of thing, topped up with tea or makhaniya lassi. There is a certain taste to the aloo bhaji that I have yet to experience anywhere else, and while you know that the puris will contribute to your cholesterol levels you will still indulge in that second plateful of five. The restaurant’s location is convenient – the Bikaner Mail from Delhi arrives early morning, one just steps out of the station and settles down to breakfast at Chhotu-Motu’s, and it is only after stuffing oneself that one continues for the day. Worth a visit to this otherwise rather unremarkable town!

3. Pawan Dhaba – Outside Bus Stand – Barmer

This one is the most obscure of the listing – it is a mere hole in the outer wall of Barmer’s Bus Stand, with a few benches out encroaching on the desert sand between the wall and the road, and it serves only dinner. The clientele, usually 3 or 4 other people at any point of time, are mostly farmers visiting Barmer town and bus drivers and conductors. But the food – fresh bajra rotis that resemble thick plates, served with a wet sabzi and khato (a Rajasthani kadhi)! The rotis need to be softened and crumpled in desi ghee and then mixed into the sabzi, and eaten while gulping the khato on the side. I usually also add some curds into the combination, into which I mix some jeera, lal mirch and salt. A full meal for one in the early and mid-1990s used to cost about Rs. 12. And it has never disappointed!

4. Tundey Kebabs – Kashmiri Mohalla – Lucknow

I once spent a month or so, back in 1996, in Lucknow on a survey. It was a month without vegetables in the diet, the city has so much to offer for the carnivorous foodie. And one place stood out – the Tundey-Kebab joint in the alleyways of Kashmiri Mohalla in old Lucknow. These are beef kebabs cooked on huge flat pans and then cut up and served hot to the multitudes, who eat it standing there or pack it up to knock off later. It is an experience!

5. Karim’s – Jama Masjid – Delhi

This is another famous restaurant that is on everybody’s list – but if you’ve ever been there you will know why. The Jama Masjid Karim’s is not to be mixed up with its poncy imitation at Nizamuddin. This is the original and, to the foodie, the only one. It is now easy to reach -the Metro from Connaught Place to Chawri Bazaar, a cycle rickshaw at Rs. 5 per person and voila, there you are. It is not an expensive or fancy restaurant, but a certain ‘we are simply the best’ arrogance permeates through the décor, the service, and the food. And it has to be said that it is almost as good as it thinks it is.

6. Gopi – Ellisbridge – Ahmedabad

Everyone wonders why I only stay in the rather crummy Hotel Golden Plaza when visiting or passing Ahmedabad, and why I never eat when on the evening Delhi to Ahmedabad flight. Both have to do with the existence of Gopi – the hotel’s proximity to it, and my need to have an empty stomach before tucking in to the Kathiawadi thali there (Gopi also offers the regular Gujarati thali with sweet dal and all, and I have yet to eat it). The Kathiawadi thali is served only in the evenings and is served in two forms – the Kathiawadi Fix and the Kathiawadi Unlimited. The latter is advisable only when seriously hungry to do justice to multiple helpings of dal, kadhi, three types of vegetables, white butter, chaanch, a choice of wheat or bajra rotis and various knick-knacks like farsaand, pakodas, and whatnot.

7. Annapurna – Bhuj

Under normal circumstances, I go through withdrawal symptoms if I am forced to eat vegetarian food for more than 3 meals consecutively. That I have no such difficulties in Bhuj is thanks to a small restaurant that is within walking distance of my regular hotel. Annapurna serves Kutchi food, not the sugar-in-the-dal stuff that is available across Gujarat, it is spicy, oily, curdy and is eaten with coarse Bajra rotis that are soaked and crumpled in home-made white butter (with fresh ones served hot just as you finish the previous one), washed down with chaanch and rounded off with a sweet shrikhand. You come out stuffed to the gills in about Rs. 50. Annapurna is the main reason for all my hard work under the Kutchi sun not resulting in a corresponding reduction in the waistline (and my wife suspecting that the time away from home was probably in Mumbai’s nightclubs).

8. Bar-b-q – Park Street – Kolkata

Punjabified Chinese food, but this is as good as it gets. The Sichuan cooking is genuinely spicy, the Hot and Sour Soup is both hot and sour, and the waiters do not look at you vaguely when you ask for a bowl and chopsticks.

9. Ponnaswamy – Royapettah – Chennai

South Indian non-vegetarian cooking at its very best – varieties of sea food, chicken and mutton, and even exotic stuff like rabbit and whatnot are available at extremely reasonable rates, eaten with rice, appam or porrotta.

10. Ahdoos – Lal Chowk – Srinagar

The Ahdoos Hotel, like Srinagar itself, has seen better days. And you can imagine this restaurant once having been a bustling and happening place. But some things do not deteriorate easily, and quality of cooking and service is one of them (more so when there are no alternative job opportunities for waiters and cooks). The wazwaan here is out of this world – the rishta, the goshtaba, the tabak maaz, the yakhni, followed by pherni for dessert. It sounds horrible to say this, but I am grateful to the earthquake for having introduced me to these pleasures.

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