The rooftop pan-Asian restaurant at The Suryaa Hotel is possibly one of the most underrated restaurants in the national capital. The Suryaa Hotel, nestled in New Friends Colony, has been a neighbourhood hotel for many years, having been the address for weddings, births and other celebrations—and, once in a while, for its nightlife. Many moons ago, I recall spotting Salman Khan sauntering in—this was the time when Delhi nightlife had its moment when stars from Bollywood descended.
Sampan, the rooftop restaurant, offers a panoramic view of the city dwarfing all else, as it’s the tallest building in the vicinity. Its ambient lighting is set to dragon colours—that is, various hues of red—making its Oriental provenance undeniable. Intriguingly, it has no “expat” chef, the standard five-star offering to assert authenticity. When I ask if they have one, I am good-humouredly introduced to some Nepalese chefs! It’s this chutzpah, self-confidence and complete clarity of what it stands for and offers that makes Sampan a delicious experience. The food unabashedly caters to the Indian palate, the bar slips into the restaurant and makes for a perfect venue for a pre-dinner cocktail or glass of wine. The entertainment of the evening is courtesy a band called Flaming Lips—although ‘band’ is much too expansive a term here, as it consists of one singer and her laptop. She cues the music and starts to sing in a beautiful voice, her repertoire extending from The Carpenters to Madonna.
The Delhi palate-synced cuisine doesn’t seem to put off the predominantly expat clientele. For tentative sushi eaters, it isn’t quite spring, but the Asparagus Maki can be a wonderful substitute for a salad, to start with. Healthy and sometimes spiked with mayo, it is the perfect beginning with a dab of wasabi and soya-soaked galangal. The crunchy freshness of the asparagus is a perfect bite into the meal—those who enjoy their seafood can try the salmon tuna rolls.
The prawn, chicken and vegetable crystal dumplings, that span across Chinese, Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisines, are a speciality in these cuisines. Made on special occasions because of the translucent skin of the dumplings, they are a must-try at Sampan. The vegetarian options, that range across Japanese, Chinese and Thai cuisines, are aplenty—corn and spinach and the vegetables in bean sauce are a must-try.
The main course can be the familiar chicken hot garlic sauce and veg hakka noodles or you can veer to Thai with the green or red curry option with vegetable or meats. The comfortable familiarity of the food in Sampan, either by name or taste, is what makes it a truly special experience. It is a meal that can start with Ebi Uramaki and end with hakka noodles and chilli chicken. The food in Sampan easily navigates familiarity with uniqueness without playing either up.
Chef Vikas Pant runs a tight ship and when he brings out the Chocolate Lava Cake, one is grateful. Here is a chef who isn’t putting a Chinese/Thai/Japanese dessert on your plate to stick to the theme. And let’s be honest, not every night is fermented rice pudding night!
The general manager of the hotel, Dhananjay Kumar, has enjoyed long stints with The Oberoi and Hyatt chain of hotels, and hails from a food and beverage background. That special attention is visible in Sampan which, even with its long history, still seems fresh and vibrant. Here is a tip: a good way to gauge the strong point of a hotel is to check the GM’s background—this is because, invariably, their interests and strengths end up being the USP of those sections of the hotel. This is, of course, anecdotal and a generalisation, but I have rarely seen this assumption proved wrong.
In the end, Sampan is a memorable and special experience. And although a “five-star” restaurant, it is a place where you feel like you can put your feet up, maybe even loosen your trousers and dig in—although you wont, it’s a little too pretty for that level of familiarity.
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