More than two decades later, a young, affluent, open-minded clientele hops from bar to restaurant to club, and staid old Delhi has discovered the joys of nightlife. Take the quirky Farzi Café, for example, overlooking the Royal Crescent-inspired Connaught Place: around the central bar are various dining areas featuring birdcages strung from the ceilings, AstroTurf-covered walls and distressed wood, while to one side is a stage with a drum kit.
It was lunchtime and the percussion stayed mercifully silent, but the live music drums up an evening crowd that knocks back pints of Kingfisher Ultra and grazes on a menu that cleverly reworks Indian cuisine’s greatest hits, while lobbing in some exotica – mac ’n’ cheese pakoras, Amritsari fish and chips, Baileys lollipops – to tickle its adventurous patrons’ palates.
Panipuri (or golgappa to Delhi-wallahs) – crisp, deep-fried unleavened bread shells filled variously with chickpea, potato, yoghurt and tamarind, and drenched in a thin, sweet-sour liquor – are served DIY-style alongside terracotta pots of fillings and sauces from Uttar Pradesh, Agra and Kolkata. Each is a perfectly judged little flavour bomb. Raj kachori, another puri-based street snack, is perked up with pomegranate seeds and crisp shards of deep-fried okra, the whole bathed in a tamarind foam; a “taco” made with fenugreek seeds is filled with slow-cooked lamb and lentils; and the Southern-style prawn fry was excellent, in a tangy, piquant, curry leaf-rich sauce.
Chef Saurabh Udinia has great technique and a penchant for playful, stylish presentation. When I saw him, he was writing the menu for Farzi Café London, due to open on Haymarket this summer. I will be first in the queue.
Exciting though Delhi’s culinary new wave is, no trip to the city is complete without a visit to Karim’s, the century-old Mughal stalwart in Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s chaotic, sprawling old market district. Any rickshaw driver will know where to find the right side street, though. Outside, cooks in white topis hunch cross-legged over simmering pots of curry and press breads against the walls of flame-blackened tandoors.
Inside, the food is as sublime as the decor is basic. If you want nihari (beef stew) or paya (sheeps’ trotters), arrive early – they are breakfast dishes – otherwise, bag a seat at a Formica table for superb, fragrant seekh kebabs; karahi gosht, mutton simmered in a deep, richly spiced gravy; and chicken, finger-scorchingly hot from the tandoor with a fresh green chatni on the side, all mopped up with billowing, crisp-edged naan breads. The shock of the new or the tried and trusted? I strongly recommend you try both.