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?