Jaipur has more to offer visitors than just the shopping, forts and culture. The Rajasthani dining experience is something that shouldn’t be missed.
There is much to lure one to the pink city—the shopping, the forts, the culture and, most importantly, the food. Hidden amidst towering antiquities, colourful streets and busy bazaars is a culinary treasure that doesn’t get enough airtime.
However, on a recent visit (not my first), I found myself turning away from the familiar and exploring all that the city has to offer to tourists, as well as residents. My first stop was at the current ‘go-to’ place for an authentic Rajasthani thali—Virasat. This three-storey-high restaurant has quickly replaced Chokhi Dhani as the place to visit for the Rajasthani dining experience. Being in the heart of the city, Virasat can’t boast of the ‘sprawl’ that is Chokhi Dhani, but it does manage to provide some variety—it’s a meal-only outlet, with a small gift shop at the entrance.
A collage of photographs of assorted TV stars welcomes you when you enter the restaurant. It’s sort of old-fashioned, with touristy tinsel that still holds appeal for some.
The first level offers the royal experience, where your feet are washed and food served in (what one assumes are) silver thalis.
Thick carpeting, floor seating and what looks like a throne at one end of the room are supposed to deliver this experience. Since entry is barred unless you opt for this option, a peek from the outside is all one has to offer as explanation for this ‘exclusive’ experience.
The second floor is à la carte, where you can order from the menu of vegetarian Rajasthani and Marwari cuisine. It looks much like a regular sit-down restaurant and, frankly, doesn’t really beckon the curious diner.
The third floor lacks pretension and is the best option available for those who don’t mind dropping money for the royal experience, but are a little intimidated by the foot-washing ritual unless at a spa!
The restaurant is all-vegetarian, so if you were anticipating laal maas, this is not the spot you should pick—however, the expansive thali menu will not let you miss non-vegetarian delights from the cuisine. There is floor seating here as well and the plush carpeting of the royal room has been replaced by a multicoloured wall-to-wall dhurrie. For the elderly, who find it difficult to sit in the lotus position, it is possible to stack one small table on top of another and sit on a modha—not entirely comfortable, but authentic enough.
The entertainment consists of a trio of male singers who belt out Rajasthani songs of welcome and a dancer who whirls around the central portion of the restaurant with an urn balanced on her head.
It’s all very quaint and very Rajasthan, even if the ambience of the restaurant (with its bright lighting and chintzy decor) does not transport you to the sand dunes.
However, it is really the food that is the signature here as it should be. The gatta curry and ker sangri are the showstoppers in the very busy thali. Ker sangri is a desert vegetable that has a tangy taste and uplifts a meal much like a pickle can. The gatta curry has been a longstanding personal favourite—a dish of besan dumplings in a tomato- and curd-infused gravy, this is best enjoyed with a bajra roti and is a staple. The other elements of the thali are the slightly-sweetened khichdi, dal baati choorma (possibly Rajasthan’s official dish) and a simple salad along with the ubiquitous boondi ka raita. For dessert, there is a single gulab jamun, which, frankly, feels excessive by the time you get to it.
Before I forget, the meal starts with a delicious glass of chaas, lightly spiced and frothy enough to increase one’s appetite.
Virasat, with its faux-heavily-embossed, haveli-style gold door might jar at first sight—and its all-too-pedestrian experiential accoutrements might undermine its cuisine and give it the feel of a ‘run-of-the-mill’ touristy trap—but it’s far from that. The food is quite simply the best Rajasthani food I have had.
Some folks I recommended it to went to another restaurant and then hastily beat a retreat to Virasat, only to return as fans. You, dear reader, have been advised. With these fuel rates, best to go with recommendations!
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