Friday, January 4, 2008

Basil and Thyme

Long years ago, when Delhi was a forgotten culinary outpost with butter chicken and paneer the sole 'haute cuisine' that the city could aspire to, along came General Maneckshaw's daughter-in-law Bhikoo to coax our jaded tastebuds into life again. To do this, she opened a little continental restaurant in a charming little marketplace set aside for servicemen's wives/ widows, known as Santhusthi, near the Ashoka hotel in Delhi - and a stone's throw away from the PM's residence on Safdarjung Road.

Continental, yet, in a city which thought continental meant over-cooking an ill-matched assortment of vegetables in a bland white sauce and then baking the dish to death. Basil and Thyme served quiche - think of that! - and salad which had julienned purple cabbage and sprouts, iced tea and filo parcels, leek tarts and omelettes with fines herbes, risottos and cheesecakes and plum-ginger juice. Naturally, then, the early visitors were only the diplomats who abound in this city and the well-heeled and travelled. At any lunch in this place, you could spot the glitterati and the chatterati, cheek by cheek, mwah-mwah-ing over the largely French menu which changed every 90 days.

Eventually, along came the not-so-well-heeled but somewhat travelled and adventurous folks like us. Santhusthi was a favourite hang-out for my BFF and I, a bare 15 minute distance from our respective offices and therefore a pretty good lunch destination if we didn't hurry back. Plus add the fun of browsing through the tiny little swiss-cottage-like shops with their large picture windows full of unique little objects.

Way back in the late '80s' before the complex came up the way it did, I remember my friend Rohit had his 21st birthday party here. The complex has lush grass which looks like they flew it in from Switzerland, so soft and thick is it. The party was held exactly where Basil and Thyme now stands, and you had to cross a tiny little raised bridge over a conduit to get to the party area, which looked like a fairy-tale place with all the trees decked in tiny little sparkling lights.

So Santhusthi must have come up as the shopping plaza in the early 90s. Good Earth had one of its first Delhi stores here, and I remember each time we lunched at B&T we'd pause at Good Earth and gaze longingly at their crockery. A store called Ananya, which still exists, sold clothes by Bangalore designers we'd never heard of, and Ensemble still has a beautiful store in here, as do Anokhi, Christina and Shyam Ahuja.

The restaurant itself has a minimalist ( if not minimal) decor - large picture windows looking onto lush greenery, white linen covered tables, simple chairs. Sometimes a potted palm in the corner, and in summer a noisy pedestal fan every few tables. The restaurant is still as packed as always, though on our last venture there in December when BFF was visiting from Bombay, we didn't spot any chatterati/ glitterati - not even a politician on the wane. But we still had to book a table in advance - and you have to be a regular to know which table to book, otherwise you'll be stuck in a corner without windows.

We entered the world of French food sportingly, if somewhat hesitantly, starting with the somewhat better known and then moving on to the more exotic items in the menu - exotic for us that is, including Asparagus in Hollandaise sauce. Now being old faithfuls ( though less frequent due to living in a far flung suburb), we are familiar with the style of food and therefore order at ease. The food is simply prepared and beautifully presented, though again in a minimalist manner. It is delicious, whether you have the soup (BFF had the carrot soup) or the salads ( we had a wonderful tomato salad with bocconcini - amongst the best bocconcini I've ever tasted, and another with rocket which is my favourite green leafy) or the quiches. A had a chicken main course which he declared superb. For dessert, we stuck to old favourite Gateau Zara which is a meltingly rich chocolate gateau. Lunch for three would have come to about Rs. 2000.

A meal at B&T is about more than the food. Somehow the unpretentious ambience and the excellence of the food combined with the verdure you see out of the windows make it an experience in which you are lifted out of the traffic-heavy neighbourhood of Delhi into a quieter, calmer, more civilized place where people don't need to bark into their cellphones every half second or honk their car horns incessantly. Maybe it's the discreet hush that follows genuine money?

8 comments:

Pelicano said...

That was quite beautiful. Not long ago there was a restaurant in my city installed into a large, once-grand carpet store located in a decaying business district. Outside was noisy traffic rolling past shops with crumbling facades and small taverns of questionable repute, their neon signs en que until the sun set. The owner of this eatery decided to work with the inherent distression, bountiful within and without, and managed to achieve a very relaxed atmosphere without being intrusively overcluttered: a vintage steel box-spring- from a retired bed I imagined- hung in a prominent spot near the entrance, old wooden side-tables- their layers of paint flaking gracefully onto the concrete floor- flanked the pathway to the almond-slip-covered seating-area and sported artfully-arranged, cream-coloured candles left to melt and overflow their pedestals of overturned terra-cotta pots. Great design with a low budget. The cars of the shi-shis could be seen parked in front nearly every weekday lunch-time, huddled together bumber-to-bumper for protecion against who-knows-what-lurking-around-the-corner. And why not? The food was phenomenally good. I heard that a particularly-messy divorce was the cause of its demise. Great pity; I still miss the soups.

bird's eye view said...

Thanks Pelicano. The restaurant you describe sounds beautifully atmospheric, what a shame it had to shut down. Where are you from?

Rahil said...

I found your blog searching for restaurants in Delhi. Your article on Basil and Thyme is very well written. I plan to eat there on my next visit to Delhi in March.

Looks like you know a bit about restaurants in Delhi. I have a question if you would please comment on that. I plan to take my family out on a Mughlai dinner night. My family lives in North Delhi so would prefer something in North Delhi. We'd be a group of about 10 people. What are the options I have? The price can be moderate to expensive.

Is there any website/blog/forum where I can post this question?

Thanks.

bird's eye view said...

Hi Rahil and thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoy your visit to Basil and Thyme.

I don't know of any websites/ forums though you can check with other Delhi food-bloggers.

In North Delhi, if you're near the Red Fort, you can't do better than to go to Karim's, near Jama Masjid. The ambience is minimal but the food is fabulous and authentically Mughlai - the cooks are reputedly descended from Shahjehan's official cooks. If you feel like traveling south and splurging a lot, you can try Maurya's dum Pukht. There's also Frontier at Samrat hotel( I think) which I have always loved.

bird's eye view said...

Rahil,

Found this link from a comment on my blog, if it helps your search: www.foodlet.in

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