Megu, the Japanese restaurant at The Leela Palace in New Delhi, is fancy, make no mistake about that. It has exquisite interiors—the seated glass Buddha, which forms the centerpiece of the main dining area, rises above a pool of water dressed up with rose petals, with long stemmed bamboo cups resting around it. There’s a little ritual: you may fill the cup with water and offer it to Buddha in the hope that what ails you will disappear. It’s this little thing that makes this dining experience more intimate—a quirk for some, but there is a purpose for everything at Megu. It doesn’t intimidate despite its lofty reputation. Megu has the reputation of being exorbitantly priced. It has the trimmings—expat chef, imported ingredients, prime location, wine list and authenticity—justifying it all. But it’s taking on this reputation—in the best possible way—by bringing in a whole new menu, with the buntings in place and a mark down.
I once temped at a Japanese steakhouse—the upscale definition, I suppose, of the humble ‘surf and turf’ meal experience. There was a separate sushi counter, teppanyaki grill and steak room. The sushi room was always meditative; very little happened out there. Once the restaurant below discreetly bowed out for the night, the upper bar area, with its pool table, began to be let out for parties for college co-eds, raucous evenings of fun. It was a small college town in the American South, the home of corn bread and sweet potatoes. It was a wonder that a Japanese restaurant of sorts existed at all, let alone survived.
Delhiites have decisive palates as well. No matter how posh you get or the number of continents you have travelled to, good ol’ Delhi fare still hits the spot. New cuisines are quick to come along, but have to make their space in the culinary landscape and keep it. In fact, a few nights from today, I will try out a South African restaurant. Japanese food, however, has made a home for itself in the capital. Maybe it started around the time the Metro was being constructed and hardworking Japanese engineers made the capital their home. A full-scale Japanese hotel emerged in the city. I may have the timeline wrong, but when one spoke of ‘Oriental’ food (yes, that was a legit classification), it was always Chinese. And then it was Thai.
Japanese food first arrived at the fancy five-stars, whilst some shied away, taking their time, travelling from their sister hotels in other cities to Delhi. Japanese food became synonymous with sushi and the needle paused. The restaurants moved out of hotels and went the free-standing way—some succeeded, even poaching a chef from a five-star hotel. Imagine that! It was quite unheard of at the time. And then there were others that quietly folded, did the authentic, did the avant garde and the sun downers when all else failed and finally rode into the sunset.
What Megu brings with its new menu is modern Japanese cuisine that synthesises culinary influences and presents dishes that are mildly familiar and yet a whole new experience—while still keeping it real. A Japanese herb butter to go with the prawn skewers is a clever example. Or the Hokkaido Scallops Ceviche—yes, indeed ‘ceviche’—the Latin-American special, which some refer to as the sushi of Peru, served cold on a plate and gentle to the taste. Then there is the charred duck confit and the Tofu caprese served with balsamic vinegar. Then the masterchef emerges—the very Japanese Takanori Fukuda, speaking little English, but holding forth in smiles. He is the real deal alright. He’s just having fun, tossing out a Japanese-style ceviche or confit.
Megu tells you they want to do it differently. They want to be accessible and authentic, but also fun. They want to serve you this great Chardonnay that’s young and fresh, with a smooth finish and zero acidity, available at the local store and in their restaurant. Megu is fun and it’s easy to forget it’s fancy. And when the bill isn’t either, it’s easy to believe it as well.
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.