We had some foreign visitors to entertain at work, so I booked a table at Dum Pukht - the Maurya's first 'brandname' restaurant, and probably one of the first in India. Dum Pukht came up years ago - in the 80's, I think, and created one of India's first 'master chefs' out of Imtiaz Qureshi. The restaurant has been popular ever since, which is quite rare for a restaurant, especially in faddy Delhi. The Maurya is also home to another landmark restaurant in Bukhara - a frontier cuisine speciality restaurant, which has been on the list of top 10 restaurants in the world as well. Maurya is also anecdotally the best in terms of sheer hospitality and guest service. So clearly the Maurya knows what they are doing. Perhaps indulgence comes naturally to them, given their key business is in cigarettes:)
The cuisine at Dum Pukht is Lucknowi and Nawabi at its best. The food is delicately and complex-ly spiced but not spicy as in flambe-your-tonsils. Dum Pukht cuisine essentially is the art of slow-cooking food in a sealed clay-pot - the food is prepared, spiced and placed in the pot, which is then sealed off with dough, and then slow-cooked. The steam is not allowed to escape ( the words literally mean to choke off the steam), and the food cooks in its own juices and aromas. Legend has it that the origin of this style of cooking dates back to the 1700's and the days of the Nawabs of Lucknow. One benevolent nawab, at a time of famine, began the construction of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow to provide employment for the starving people, and asked for them to be provided with food. His chef came up with the concept of putting the rice, meat and veggies, along with spices, into a large clay-pot with live coals on top and the coalfire below. It was a simple and elegant way of serving hot food at any time and making it a one-dish meal. One day, as the pots were being unsealed, the Nawab who was passing by noticed the extraordinary aroma and asked to taste the dish. The chef who came up with this is supposedly Imtiaz Qureshi's ancestor, and so the secret passes down from generation to generation. These Nawabs are the same who apparently catalysed the invention of the Kakori kabab, so quite a foodie bunch!
I always enjoy eating at Dum Pukht, only it costs an arm, a leg and other body parts, so I usually have to wait for official occasions. The food was wonderful, and mild at the same time. We ordered the hara kebabs, with spinach and cashews, for starters, followed up with Dum kakori, Murgh Qorma, Arhar Daal and Baingan-Mirchi ka Salan, with rotis. The restaurant served complimentary butter rotis which were the epitome of sinfulness, so soft and yielding were they. The Vegetable Biryani was good too, though not particularly outstanding.
As a vegetarian, I only had the daal and baingan but that was enough. the daal was wonderfully spiced, with just the right aromatic mix of jeera and garlic. I wonder how they do it - we make this at home all the time, and I don't remember it as being specially flavourful on most occasions. The Baingan-mirchi was made of small purple eggplant and large mirchis, which luckily were mild. The flavours went extremely well together, and now I want to learn how to cook that dish.
But more than the food itself, I was impressed by the exquisite service. I dropped my fork, and before I could say anything a replacement had arrived. The waiters took care to point out the more spicy dishes to our french guests so they were forewarned. At every point in the evening, we only had to look up to find an attentive waiter at the elbow, yet they were never obtrusive.
A meal for four, with a glass of wine each ( Grover's La Reserve, chosen by our French visitors!) came to about Rs. 7000, not counting taxes. Expensive but a wonderful experience, and definitely worth a re-visit...