Craving dhaba cuisine? No need to hit the dusty highways. The yummy soul-food is available right here, ambience and all.
On a recent Sunday winter morning, I travelled back to the memory of cherished pit-stops at wayside dhabas when taking the long drive on the Grand Trunk road. The rustic ambience, fields of mustard, a comfy cot sagging like a hammock, and hot delicious staple from the open kitchen. The dhaba that had the most number of trucks parked, was definitely offering the best food. This was in and around the 80’s in the last millennium. Today I was heading out to another kind of dhaba in Central Delhi, the Indian restaurant Dhaba at The Claridges New Delhi, which was hosting a popup by Chef Sweety Singh. He not only rustled up a fantastic gastronomic experience, but also joined us briefly, bringing his authentic earthy vibe, his joie de vivre and details of why we are going to be very happy after trying out his special recommendations. We were! Very happy and beyond.
At the outset, compliments to The Claridges for getting the right chef with the correct lineage. Chef Sweety is from authentic stock, where his father started out with his small venture. Although afflicted with blindness, as Sweety Singh shared, such was his expertise that he was able to tell the spices and flavors by just a whiff of the aromas. Sweety Singh has come a long way since, with an establishment under his name, ‘Delhi 2 – By Chef Sweety Singh’ in DLF Phase 4, Gurgaon. This is managed by his son while Chef Sweety travels across the length and breadth of the country, hosting popups such as these.
Do expect to find the usual tandoori staples of mutton and chicken kebabs, seekh, tikka, fish too, and masala prawns, mutton burra et al. Add to this a slew of vegetarian options, more than paneer, potatoes, gobhi, broccoli and soya chaap. The vegetarian starters and main course variations are all delicious. Yes ..yes.. the kanastari baigan or roasted baigan bharta is on par and a must on the plate.
Any trepidation about a heavy spicy rich meal soon vanished. Chef Sweety assured that all dishes will not be infused with oil, ghee, butter and cream as is the practice, including the famous Dal and the butter chicken. “It will be just as flavourful. Same taste. But we don’t infuse too much malai and cream. Same for all other dishes,” said the Chef. True enough. A large meal later we were not overwhelmed with the expected aftereffects of a heavy spicy meal. How did he do that? What was the substitute? I didn’t get around to finding out.
Back in time, nearly four decades ago when Claridges refurbished and opened its restaurant Dhaba, it created quite a buzz for its interiors replicating a true dhaba setting of the time, with half of a real truck used as a prop. Returning again after a long gap, the interiors were just as interesting. The mud-wash walls, colourful bunting patterns, the blackened ‘kanashtars’ propped on wooden stands nailed to the wall, as also ceramic pickle jars or ‘burni’, a black board announcing the day’s special, gleaming metal vessels, decades old calendar of actress Madhubala, lanterns hanging from the bamboo rafters, an old valve radio, and not-to-be-missed is the black and white photograph hanging above the door. And of course, the ubiquitous truck! The signage pointing to the ‘theka’ or booze shop can be ignored as alcohol is already on the menu. Take your pick from the Santa Banta Tequila, Tandoori Vodka, white rum Paan Mojito et al.
There’s more, but best left to discover by oneself.