Spice Route, The Imperial, New Delhi
I confess to a deep-rooted cynicism when entering a restaurant that’s said to be in the Top X list and so on, especially so when in Delhi. The herd-like movement when it comes to restaurants is a known fact – if someone rich and famous endorses something or perhaps someone from out of the country (especially Australia, the US or Canada) and if it’s expensive, it’ll be welcomed with open arms by all, including the well-heeled residents of Delhi, their jowls a-quiver in anticipation of being seen at someplace so phamus.
Many really expensive or famous restaurants in Delhi therefore are just that – really expensive and famous; food really isn’t a part of the equation. While most well known Chefs have a higher hit rate than most well known restaurants, there’s still the odd chance of a poor food writer sitting in the company of a well known chef, coming away with an intimate knowledge of their tonsils.
My first visit to Spice Route at the Imperial was influenced by these thoughts and I didn’t know what to make of the very warm and awed tones used when speaking of the Chef, Veena Arora. I didn’t know then, that I’d come away with a slightly changed paradigm, of both restaurants and their Chefs.
Entering Spice Route reminded me of the interiors of a south Indian temple. Initially dim and gloomy, I could only discern the shapes of thick, tapering pillars, the subtle aromas of food of mixed provenance mingling with the fragrances of Jasmine and Sandalwood that wafted through the air accompanied by the soft murmur of conversation. When my eyes adjusted, the room appeared to have a mellow aura at which point the classical Sitar music in the background made it’s presence felt. The decor was probably one of the most esoteric I’ve ever seen. The mixed influences of Kerala, Thailand and Indonesia served to point out the cuisines on offer at Spice Route, which also serves up Vietnamese and Sri Lankan cuisine in addition to those embedded into it’s decor.
Chef Veena Arora walked in a few minutes later; stern at first glance, efficient at second and a knowledgeable and warm host throughout. Some people one feels reluctant or unable to ‘review’ and Chef Arora is one of them. Over the course of a meal that began with curiosity and ended with warm satiety, I believe I can safely vouch for all that’s been said about Spice Route and it’s Chef, most interestingly, the same Chef who participated in the conceptualization of the restaurant seventeen years ago.
We began with Som Tum Chae (550), Por Pia Chae (550) and a bowl of Tom Kha Kai (500). The raw papaya and peanut salad was as it was meant to be, a tangy and crunchy blend with a mild sweetness that set the stage for more to come, especially the very crisp, deep fried vegetable rolls without a hint of oil on the outside; excellent when dipped into the Thai Sweet Chili Sauce that accompanied it. The coconut milk soup was slightly different with the addition of a flavor I was unable to identify, but still familiar, comforting and delicious. Kaeng Cherd Tauhu Lod (475) another soup on the table would have been my first choice however; a clear soup of vegetables, tofu, very subtly flavored with delicious overtones of garlic.
Moving on to the mains, I served myself little piles of (ambiguously named) Chef’s Special (700, stir fried meat and vegetables with oyster sauce), Kaeng Kheow Waan Pla (850, fish in green curry with pea aubergines), Phad Phak Ruam Mitr (650, vegetables stir fried with garlic and soya) accompanied by Khao Mali (300, jasmine rice) and Khao Neow (300, sticky rice). On suggesting appams and stew and probably, correctly reading my expression (I avoid carbs where possible and that’s one of my favorite dishes), she asked for some for our table, which made for a riot of flavors and textures on our table, even if the appams were a little too refined. When was the last time you ate warm, fluffy appams dunked in coconut stew?
Some restaurants truly deserve all the nice things said about them and Spice Route is one of them. It’s quite expensive, so you may want to visit for a special occasion… unless you’re loaded, in which case, drop over at the next available opportunity.