A culinary heritage

Written by Advaita Kala | Updated: Jun 8 2014, 16:12pm hrs
The term restaurant district is quite the buzzword in the capital right now. Over the years, neighbourhoods have distinguished themselves as food havens by hosting multiple restaurants. Foodie destinations like Cyber Hub in Gurgaon have expanded the range of culinary options for the diner in a given space. However, there is one area that continues on unobtrusively: the Pandara Road municipal market. Tucked in a government residential area, this little food corner has been in existence for over 50 years. Unlike other areas, though, there is not much diversity here. Since my school days, Pandara Park has always been known for its uniquely-Delhi comfort food offerings of butter chicken and naans. The restaurants here have not digressed from that focal point. The menus have expanded, but the signature dish remains. There is no fusion cuisine or modern twistsonly the seating has become more comfortable. One would expect furious competition among the restaurants here, but, as a younger owner tells me, they get along just fine as they have been neighbours for decades and generations. Pandara Park was once our post-nightclub haunt when our collective funds couldnt ensure a midnight brunch at a five-star hotels coffee shop. Yes, a lot of city hotels with nightclubs had started midnight brunches for revelers post a furious evening of dancing. Those brunches were mostly discontinued and, inevitably, the hangout of choice became Pandara Park: the family crowd would head home and the party crowd would emerge, the love for butter chicken uniting all.In this city of multiple superficialities, Pandara Park, for me, remains the one destination that has hosted all kinds of peoplefamilies, netas, babus, errant high-schoolers, high-heeled clubbers and tourists. Its a triumph of sorts when neither price nor location weigh in on the love for food.

And, of course, everyone who has been visiting over the years has their own personal favourite restaurant. Mine is the unapologetically-titled Havemore. The reason it has scored for me over the others is good food and familiarity. In fact, familiarity is the most comforting aspect in these times of high-concept restaurants. Havemore has also withstood my food precocity and schooling in the hospitality arts to remain a favourite. Sure, it has changed, but ever so slightly. The only thing retro that continues is the old-style Coca-Cola bottles that have been spared the fuss of being poured into glasses and are instead served in the bottle itself with a straw. The music has now moved on from cheesy instrumental from the Kenny G school to a cooler lounge style. The young owner tells me its a compilation.

The menu has kept the starter courses compact. The choice of soup, for example, is limitedtomato or sweet corn. The service is no-fuss. The tomato soup, with the croutons rendered soggy for being dunked too long in the broth, has lost its crunch, but contains memories of a more innocent time in our culinary heritage when all things Europe and beyond were simply continental.

Even when one is not in a hurry, the food comes fast. Those impressed with the concept of quick-service restaurants have presumably never visited the Pandara Park restaurants, which have been following the concept for years, if not decades. The butter chicken brings with it a timeless taste and the bread basket has been expanded to include different kinds of naans, kulchas, paranthas and the humble tandoori roti. However, the embellished accompaniments do not take away from the butter chicken. The prices remain competitive and have never swayed with opportunity.

What further makes the experience at Pandara Park most interesting is that the meal experience continues outside the restaurants. The meal is finished off by the famed kulfi and/or the paanwalla, who has been pushed back from his spot on the road to share a counter with a gelato man, a most incongruous combination. But it works, with both attracting their share of customers.

The night I returned to Pandara Park was the first day of the new Parliament. Wandering and newly-relocated netas are a common sight every five years, but this time, with over 50% of them being first-timers, this famed food destination hosted parliamentarians from across the country with their families. There was a spirit of cheer and optimism and I left once again thinking that this was possibly the happiest place to be in Delhi that night.

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad