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“Legends of India” Restaurant in New Delhi

Sample Menu at Legends of India Restaurant

Sample Menu at 'Legends of India' Restaurant

You may not agree with everything Jiggs Kalra, grand daddy of food writing and consultancy in India, does but you have to agree with at least some of the things! Jay Inder Kalra, who began his career with Khushwant Singh’s Illustrated Weekly and went on to become the country’s best-known authority on regional cuisine “discovering” hawkers and kebabchis, dhabas and one-degh places for wider audiences, rescuing endangered family recipes, recording them in his many books, and above all, standardizing into scientific grams and spoonfuls all the creative flair of chefs working primarily on “andaz” or instinct, also managed to irk a lot of people en route. Hoteliers and chefs still crib about his omissions and commissions and high-handedness and in the last few years, Kalra, now pushing ninety and battling illnesses, has been but a pale self of himself. But amidst all this what even his worst critics have admitted to is his prodigious research— into cuisines of little known places and little known people. While food festivals and some five star restaurants like the fabulous Singh Sahib (whose original concept as brought forth by Kalra and then partner Marut Sikka was food of the undivided Punjab) at the Park Royal Intercontinental in New Delhi have often revolved around this research, for the first time now, a standalone restaurant attempts to encapsulate much of it.

Legends of India is a biggish restaurant—it can accommodate almost 250 people. But located, as it is, in Connaught Place, heart of the city, crowded in real estate more expensive than it is in Manhattan, it would be easy to miss it. Kalra says he himself wanted a place where Chandni Chowk or Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar could be recreated in all medieval splendor to house his treats, essentially traditional street-food from much of northern India, but as they say, this one isn’t a bad location at all: CP is heritage enough, “Rajiv Chowk” or not. Once you enter the space, you realize it would be possible to go through two types of meals here: Chaat, spiced-up bits, first created during the Mughal times, as Kalra reminds us, in the old city of Delhi from where it travelled to other places with Muslim courts in varying avatars, and a fuller main course of (essentially Lucknawi) kebabs and curries and sundry delights from the Punjabi tandoor. An open kitchen/service station is divided into several subcategories that Kalra has extensively researched on during his long and fruitful career. There’s the khomcha, originally the cart (later stalls) set up within palaces for royal women who could then enjoy an evening of snacking it in privacy: This is where our own chaat (served to us on plates, quite fashionably) comes from. And apart from the likes of aloo tikkis, suitably crispy on the outside, the section also serves fare that you’ll otherwise find only in traditional homes (fermented kanji-vadas; this being still post-Holi ).

The khomcha to my mind is the best that Legends of India here offers. But there is more: A section devoted to the mahi tawa, first designed by dexterous kebabchis of Lucknow, fashioned of a particular alloy (the restaurant gets theirs from a particular, exclusive shop in Lucknow), on which tender galoutis are done to perfection. Both the expertise as well as the masala for the kebabs come from the famous Tunde kebabi (one of the “legends of India” Kalra takes credit for “discovering”, at least as far as popular imagination is concerned) and the restaurant staff tells us that they, in fact, tried very hard to make the (relatively expensive) masala in-house at first but just couldn’t get the taste right. There are Kakori kebabs too, attributed to Lucknow’s neighbourhood, off the sigri, open grill, another traditional Muslim method of cooking revitalized. There’s the ulta tava for your paranthas and there are two types of traditional ovens, including one made entirely of metal where temperatures reach very high and from where, thus, emerge our perfect taftans and sheermals. Scan the rest of the menu and you’ll find it is a mix of populism and old-time favourites, regulars on Kalra-inspired menus—a surprisingly efficient Nihari, Dilli speciality, stuffed quail and bhatti ka murgh from Amritsar.

But the question that I want to ask is this: Is Legends of India really the “dream restaurant” Kalra has been talking about for a couple of years now. Yes and no. While this is a first as far as standalone concepts go, Kalra is emphatic that many things he’d have personally liked to see have been left outside its scope. The likes of Tara from Amritsar, a dhabawalla, who makes mince (bhurji) out of everything or Surjit, the best tandoori chicken-maker even in our overladen land, food from Benares, its malai ki pudi, a sweet found only there, Lucknow’s “real” shahi tukdas and malai paans, but above all, an Irani chai shop— Bombay style with all those pistachio sweets and scones served with hot tea. “Now, wouldn’t you have enjoyed that?” he asks me. To be fair, the restaurant does have a tea lounge on the top floor. But here, you’ll find the more cosmopolitan white teas and Darjeeling silver needles of modern connoisseurs. Yet, there’s always another time.

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