A few weeks ago, I was invited to a conclave of food and beverage professionals and asked about my favourite restaurant in New Delhi. The answer took me a few seconds: it was Dakshin, the ITC’s speciality south Indian restaurant. Housed in the demure Sheraton hotel in Saket in New Delhi, this restaurant has been consistently delivering cuisine experiences that not only score high on the authenticity scale, but also seamlessly travel all through the south of the Vindhyas. It is an intimidating repertoire of culinary delights, but Dakshin has always delivered on my numerous visits.
It got me thinking about what makes for a favourite restaurant, the kind you go to (as I did) on your birthday. In a city like Delhi, we are not spoiled for choice when it comes to food. The city may rightfully be called the culinary capital of the country without exaggeration. Even Mumbai residents who can be most disparaging and competitive with Delhi will grudgingly concede that mantle to this city. So picking a favourite restaurant is a challenge.
I have always been partial to south Indian food, but Dakshin does a little more than that. It takes the uninitiated on a journey that opens up beyond gateway dishes like idli and dosa, which erroneously pass as representative of the diverse cuisine.
It begins with an introduction to dosai—mini dosas, almost pancake-like, and with a flavour palate that runs from savoury to sweet. Thick in consistency (no paper-thin version), the dosai is a starter to pique one’s appetite, paired most felicitously with a tamarind or coconut chutney. My favourite is the Kerala-style banana dosai—made of ripened bananas, rice flour and maida—flavoured with cardamom powder and cooked to a delicious golden-brown. It is so delicious that it could be an entire decadent meal on its own.
The signature dish of ‘Dakshin Yera’ is renowned wherever there is a Dakshin restaurant. In this dish, the prawns are marinated in a ginger-garlic and chilli paste and deep-fried till a crispy golden-brown. Crisp to the bite and oozing flavours tinged with a curry leaf bite, this dish is the perfect kickoff to the meal and one can guess why it carries ‘Dakshin’ in its name.
Tomato pappu (no political reference) is a lightly seasoned dal that is cooked with tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic and lightly balanced with chillies, a wonderful filler, light in consistency and an easy accompaniment. Of course, one can also ask for thimble-fulls of rasam, which comes in various notes of pungency. If you go hot enough, the rasam can have you sweating long after you have consumed it! My favourite in the main course selections is from the Chettinad branch of the cuisine.
The recipes at Dakshin have been deeply researched over years and keep a keen eye on authenticity. At the time of its inception, chefs travelled the length and breadth of the region under the mentorship of chef Anand and discovered ancient recipes, encouraging possessive home cooks to part with culinary family secrets. It has worked, creating an authentic and yet homely food experience.
And, of course, there is the filter coffee. In the Starbucks era, to serve an authentic, delicious, zingy caffeine alternative is a challenge, but the ‘kaaphi’ at Dakshin hits that mark, even if it has you wired for hours after! Freshly-ground south Indian coffee is percolated for hours in a traditional brass ‘barista’—drip by drip and then the decoction is mixed with frothed and boiled milk. The server brings the coffee to the table and is happy to give it a ‘metre’ coffee turn by cooling it in front of you. The experience is mesmeric and quite a performance. One can go on writing about Dakshin, but writing this article makes me feel like going back there again and my birthday was only last month! But maybe, a good thing is more than a once-a-year experience.
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