Rickshaw rides in Chandni Chowk
For some reason, well-meaning Delhi-ites always try to dissuade you from visiting Chandni Chowk. I don’t think it is because they are ashamed of this old crowded part of Delhi. Rather, they only see the logistical hassles involved. It is like New Yorkers dissuading tourists who say they are going to drive to the Hamptons on Friday evening. You know it will be great once you get there but you also know what a hassle it is TO get there.
For the record, Chandni Chowk is a must-see. Don’t listen to the concierges, tour guides, friends and well-wishers who tell you to “postpone it to the next trip when you have more time.” That said, there is a way to do Chandni Chowk. Leave early but not too early– the shops won’t be open. The spanking new Delhi Metro will whizz you into the area in a few minutes from Connaught Place in Central Delhi. I left my hotel by car at 10 AM and was at Chandni Chowk in fifteen minutes. The same trip an hour later would have taken an hour. I got off near Red Fort. No car will enter Chandni Chowk unless it belongs there. The lanes are too narrow. My driver fixed a rickshaw for me (like a tuk-tuk and just as wobbly) for a grand sum of Rs. 50 (about $1.3). I ended up tipping the man almost double mostly because he didn’t ask for a tip. And then, I sat back, got my camera out and prayed.
The streets are very narrow and four rickshaws, countless pedestrians and several cows all jostle to get through. There is an informal clicking noise that rickshaw-wallahs make with their tongue. It serves to signal their impatience with the stalled traffic in front and a horn. But I forgot all this at the wonderous sights around me. In Chandni Chowk, I saw the Delhi that I had read about in history books. The Delhi unvarnished by the modernity that India is racing to embrace.
Sights of Chandni Chowk
I am not sure that I would eat the food in Chandni Chowk but I know Americans who have and survived. They follow the rule of, if it is fried it is fine. The shops are tiny but they offer a plethora of foodie delights. There is fresh paneer that will make its way to the city’s top hotels by noon. There are countless dry fruit stalls selling mounds of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, figs and dates. Delhi homes serve these on winter afternoons, salted and fried in a little ghee as an accompaniment to piping hot tea. There are chikkis or peanut-brittles, made by crushing and stirring peanuts in carmelized sugar. My husband is addicted to these so I bought a bag. There are shops boiling milk in large vats till it reduces to almost quarter its size. This condensed milk is the stuff of Indian kheers or hot milk puddings. There was an old man frying puris that truck drivers gulp down with hot potato saag and a glass of freshly churned lassi (buttermilk). In the middle of a tiny crowded lane, I saw an open home. I peeped in and was transported to Arabia. There was a young boy playing ball in the courtyard– a sight so incongruous and therefore memorable.
Hotels: The Imperial and the Shangrila
There are some hotels that I just don’t get. The Claridges in London is one; the Raffles in Singapore is another and the Imperial in Delhi is a third. My husband loves the Claridges. I just don’t see what the fuss is all about.
The Imperial is one of those Delhi hotels that everyone loves. All my friends told me that I must stay there. But frankly, I was a little underwhelmed. The service was polite but just that. Nobody extended themselves. When I asked the receptionist for some scotch-tape, she told me to walk across to the bell-desk for some. A gentleman beside me was arguing with the receptionist who had just informed him that he could use the house-phone to contact a guest. Why can’t you just ring the room for me, the gentleman asked. My room was a standard room with all the right trimmings– Porthault linens, Fragonard toiletries, reasonable size, forgettable decor. The food was decent but nothing I would rave about, like I would rave about Bukhara at the Maurya Sheraton or Masala Art at the Taj Palace.
But…. Yes, but…and here is where I sort of see my husband’s point of view. The Imperial has something which fewer and fewer hotels have these days. It has character, not so much in its rooms but in the public areas. The Imperial has a wonderful collection of British art about India—lithographic prints by English artists on Indian themes. I happily spent an hour walking down the main lobby peering at prints of Tipu Sultan offering his two children as hostages to some British Lord and prim English ladies having tea. There are walls filled with swords and other war memorabilia and archival photos. All of this adds to the whole ambience. Character, history, call it what you will, but it is something that you cannot fake.
Round the corner from the Imperial is the Shangrila, the new kid on the block. The Shangrila has no history or character but the service is ever-smiling and gracious and the breakfast buffet is the best in town. Make sure you ask for dosas (crepes). They aren’t displayed but the chef will make them on order. I didn’t know that I could do this. After a full breakfast, I longingly watched waiters bear crispy golden dosas to the nearby table. They looked really good, especially laced with some tomato or coconut chutney and sambar. The Shangrila offers great views of the boulevards of Delhi and on a clear day, you can even see India Gate at a distance. I would stay there again.
Everyone in Delhi has an opinion about Veda and most of it is bad. Established by Chef Suvir Saran who also runs Devi in New York City, Veda, everyone agrees, scores high on decor. It looked like an Indian boudoir. But the food, and the prices. Delhi matrons throw up their hands in disgust. I went to Veda with low expectations and consequently I was pleasantly surprised. The food is modern Indian, tasty and best of all, light. No Mughlai sauces, no smothering of spices, no fiery chilies that beat the daylights out of your tongue. Service was sympathetic. By that I mean that the waitstaff will think for you. I ordered several dishes. That’s too much, said the waiter. Take out the mushroom-dish; its not in season. I would go back.
I wanted to visit Diva for three reasons. It is one of the few stand-alone Italian fine-dining restaurants; most of my foodie friends rated it as serving consistently good food; and the chef, Ritu Dalmia is a Delhi woman who has previously dabbled in, of all things, granite quarrying. If you suddenly crave Italian in New Delhi, Diva is not a bad place to visit. It is located in the popular M Block market where you can shop for everything from bejewelled shoes to shawls. The cool minimalist confines of Diva are refreshing after the chaos and cacaphony outside. Service is good-humored. I found the food a trifle too salty but that may be because Indians prefer it that way. Risottos, pastas, soups, breads, a wicked molten chocolate cake. These are the staples of Diva.
Delhi is a meat-lovers city and Bukhara restaurant therefore is a shrine. I met Chef J.P. Singh who is refreshingly free of the marketing savvy that accompanies most young chefs today. He was clearly nonplused when I dropped in and introduced myself as a journalist. Get him behind the tandoori counter however and he is transformed. Singh and 16 chefs under him marinate and cure meats and chicken all day to be served at Bukhara’s dinner-menu. No wonder Bill Clinton ate four meals in a row at this restaurant. His daughter however has the dubious distinction of having a vegetarian dish named after her: the Chelsea Platter.