Easily Delhi’s best South-East Asian themed dining
Reposted From: The Times Of India
Restaurant review: The Spice Route
The 17-year-old Spice Route in New Delhi’s The Imperial hotel is not in the least a restaurant. It is a concept where food is just a bonus.
Stepping into the restaurant is like entering an ancient archaeological site where pillars from the 16th century heavy with woodwork crowd the entrance while stone sculptures and murals depicting mythological gods and goddesses fill the walls. Uncharacteristic of an entrance, far less a restaurant entrance, this one is extremely cluttered in its arrangement of the beautifully bedecked columns allowing you to enter only single file. And that’s precisely the idea behind placing the pillars so close, because in the journey of life you enter the world alone and exit alone.
Decor: An amalgamation of architecture and philosophy
Divided into nine sections, the first section ‘Knowledge’ which comprises the entrance of the restaurant depicts through elaborate murals the early lessons learnt in life. The second one is further classified into Artha, Kama and Moksha which again depicts materialism followed by lovemaking positions and a moksha mural on the ceiling. A disturbing pattern of wooden beams never let you get a full view of the moksha mural, which is symbolic of the worldly hurdles before reaching a state of absolute well-being. Spice Route has been designed by one of the cultural czars of the country, Rajeev Sethi in tandem with the legendary mural painters of Kerala who worked magic with just vegetable and flower dyes. The restaurant further opens into the ‘Health & Support’ section which attempts to create a serene ambience by using an antique ceiling from Kerala. Post which you reach probably the best thought out section of the restaurant, ‘Creativity’, where there is cosy seating and an incomplete mural on the wall. The artist left his strokes halfway to allow the diner to complete the painting in his mind, and not surprisingly, the restaurant kitchen too is housed beyond the wall of creativity.
Discovering the rich cultural heritage on an art tourYour art tour guide will further explain you the significance of placing an Annapurna goddess mural at the kitchen entrance and a Ganesha one at the kitchen exit. Further on, you land at the ‘Relationship’ section which offers seating only to couples. The broad wooden pillars interspersing the tables are just so you don’t try joining them when you are a bigger group. This is the only part of the restaurant that has a stone column symbolic of the stronger partner in the relationship who leads the journey. ‘Fate & Fortune’ is the sixth section which has murals of the nine planets that govern our fortunes in a massive wooden framework on the wall. Some of these planet diagrams on the walls are replaceable to emphasise on their ever-changing nature. Next in line is the ‘Wealth’ section whose walls and ceiling are polished with 24-karat gold and boasts of a glass wall with the Ramayana written in ancient Thai on sheets of gold. Depicting prosperity, this section is largely used to conduct business meetings. The ‘Ancestral’ section is your next stop. In a depiction of the end of journey of life, the walls here are made up of holistic replicas of stone sculptures from various Thai temples. The fact that you get a view of the entire restaurant from this section is representative of the concept that your ancestors are always with you like a guardian angel. At the heart of the restaurant is the last section ‘Food & Health’ which is a tribute to your taste buds and gives you the feel of having a meal in the open courtyard of a traditional Kerala homestead. The mural on the ceiling is a darkening sky while on either side the architectural illustrations of roofs face inward giving you a sense of being in an open space. Monumental in its concept and implementation, it’s not uncommon to find foreign guests clicking away even in such low lighting conditions during the art tour. Little wonder, only the interiors took seven years in the making.
Veena Arora: The chef who needs no introduction
The maverick Chef De Cuisine of The Spice Route Veena Arora, who is not a chef by training, is behind the brand’s fearless foray into a category ‘South-East Asian cuisine’ at a time when it was yet to find a market in Delhi. Out of conceptualising the menu and coming up with innovative promotions, Chef Veena found educating the guests about the cuisine most challenging. Born and brought up in Thailand in a small town on its south named Phathalung close to the Malaysian border, Chef Veena grew up with a flair for Thai cooking taking mostly after her mother. But post her wedding to an Indian and her subsequent change of base to India, she found a new way to share the joy of South-East Asian cooking by coming aboard Spice Route. Tracing the journey of the spices from the Malabar Coast in Kerala throughSri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam, the restaurant attempts to integrate the classics and the day-to-day dishes from these belts into one gourmet affair by leveraging on Chef Veena’s expert palate and her sound technical knowledge.
Rice: The Jewel of Asia
Heralded for the quality of food and service, you are sure to discover something new on every visit. In my recent one I had the privilege of sampling the native rice varieties from Vietnam, Thailand, Kerala and Malaysia rendered into crisp recipes. Titled ‘Jewel of Asia’ after the staple diet of Asians, the promotion aimed to introduce some exotic rice varieties to the guests by way of blending different herbs, spices and flavours that form the basis of South-East Asian cooking. Chef Veena selected my portions and sat down for a quick lunch taking me through her lineage of Thai cooking, her childhood memories of Thailand, her early days as a chef in India, Indian cooking, and turning her husband too into an accomplished Thai chef. The quick strides she took from across the room to my table on the other end said a few things about her agility in the kitchen and the person inside the apron. To say the least, the food tasted even better in her company.
Food Appetizer: At the onset she called for crispy spring rolls ‘Por Pia Chae’ with an assortment of sauces along with a portion of ‘Som Tum Thae’, a cold noodle salad with raw papaya and peanuts. The spring roll didn’t have even a trace of oil and was very light on the palate, besides it tasted heavenly with sweet soya sauce, a combination I tried on Chef’s recommendation. The zesty papaya noodle salad was again refreshing and soothed my palate.
Main course: We progressed to our main course which was so colourful and fragrant that my sense of smell and taste placed havoc with my mind. I sampled small portions of an array of rice dishes to go with a large bowl of hot and sour Thai-style soup. Traditionally the soup is always taken as an accompaniment with rice to dilute its dryness, an equation our raita has with the biryani. Com Haong Bao was the delicately flavoured Imperial Vietnamese rice I relished. But I loved the simple yet clever use of flavours in the Malaysian yellow rice dish Nasi Kuning cooked in coconut milk, stock, lemon grass, and kaffir lime leaves. If you haven’t ever tried sweetened shrimps, do not cringe, for this specialty Thai dish Khao Klukh Krapi, stir fried rice with Thai shrimp paste served with sweetened shrimps, exposes your taste buds to an explosion of zesty, sweet flavours you’ll adore.
The Kerala style chicken biryani called Kozhi Kodan Biryani was a runaway hit complete with a topping of sauteed onions and saffron to go with a sumptuous raita. You could even call for a helping of tofu with stir fried Bok Choy, ‘Tauhu Nim’. The way this silken bean curd is made here can suddenly find you taking more interest in vegetarian food.
Dessert: As expected at a Thai dining place, my dessert was Thub Thim Krob, but the most fascinating part about this sweetened coconut milk with water chestnuts is the way it is served. Some places pour them out to you in shot glasses, while others serve them in a whole portion of baby coconut. At Spice Route, however, it is served in pretty frosted cocktail glasses with crushed ice. But for me the highpoint of Thub Thim Krob has always been the rose scented water chestnuts that make the coconut milk taste richer, and this time was no different. A scoop of cinnamon flavoured ice-cream made of soya protein (not milk) too is a good way to cap this extraordinary gourmet journey, the way I did.
The article was first published in The Times Of India