The rustic charm of Bukhara is reflected in its service style and plate presentation, simple and hearty. Eating by hand is the way to experience Bukhara and almost everyone complies.
“The restaurant where world leaders dine” is probably the best way to describe Bukhara. In existence since 1978, this favourite dining spot of world leaders when they visit New Delhi could tell stories that would fill up a book or two. We had to settle for only a few with the effervescent executive chef of this restaurant, JP Singh, who has worked here since 1990 and is in no hurry to go anywhere. There is a timelessness to the experience at possibly the most famous restaurant in the country. The decor—cave-like and in dark brown tones, with handwoven thick rugs hanging from the walls—has remained unchanged for its entire existence. The place settings are simple—just plates and copper urns for water. There is no silverware, as it’s discouraged (if not denied). Eating by hand is the way to experience Bukhara and almost everyone complies.
Singh was going to be a doctor, but life took him to kitchens and he embraced the role with little regret. His 27 years at Bukhara make him an institution. At one point, he is at the tandoor, placing long skewers into the earthen furnace, the next minute, he is at your table, regaling you with interesting anecdotes about the many famous diners this legendary restaurant has hosted. The menu in all these years has remained unchanged, but for two items that were included.
The banquet seating, a rage in the Seventies, lives on. The stools, not entirely comfortable, have not made way for chairs. This is Bukhara and this is how one is meant to remember it, for there is only one. The temptations of franchising this restaurant have not won out and, today, Bukhara is synonymous with the Maurya. British Prime Minister Theresa May would know about its charm. Although she was staying elsewhere, she found the time to pop by for a meal. Other heads of states have had kebabs packed for their flights home. Airline food is, after all, airline food, even if you have your own jet!
The rustic charm of Bukhara is reflected in its service style and plate presentation, simple and hearty. The portion sizes are large, the raita is served plain, with dollops of freshly-cut cucumber, tomatoes and onions that one can season to one’s palate. The chaat masala in a simple bowl is left on the table to add a measure of flavour. There is an extensive wine list, but the ever reliable Pouilly-Fumé is the best option, as you move through courses.
Bukhara is known for its ‘meaty’ menu options, but the vegetarian list is a heavy-hitter as well—never mind that a well-known foodie politician comes in only for the Dal Bukhara and a naan. It’s granuality melting away at first taste, the Dal Bukhara—painstakingly cooked on slow simmer for 24 hours—is a delight and has its exclusive fan base.
The jumbo prawns are done to perfection in a tandoor, translucent, juicy and steeped in subtle Indian flavours that are hard to discern and yet form a pretty symphony in the mouth. The tandoori pineapple and stuffed potato starter options won’t let you miss meat, and, for paneer lovers, there is tikka. The signature Sikandar Raan, brought to the table in an unfussy platter and served ‘as is’, falls away from the bone and justifies the absence of a fork and knife.
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Bukhara isn’t a one-visit restaurant. One could go in for each course and make a whole meal out of it. As I glance around, I see a lot of people are doing just that, focusing on their favourites. I could go on, but before I end, a special mention for the breads. The famous Bukhara Naan—made of eight pedas, weighing 160 gm each—is a delight to behold and triggers curiosity across the restaurant, as it’s meant to. Singh tells me that it’s about breaking bread together. Bukhara is a place for communal dining.
I look over at the lonely table for two with its two stools and know that this restaurant means it. But if the famous Bukhara Naan, once called Clinton Naan (after Bill Clinton), sounds likes too much maida for you, every bread can be done in aata as well. And between the pudina parantha, amal naan, Bukhara Naan, tandoori roti, etc, you could return to this legendary restaurant just for the bread as well.
Author is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad.