Above: Bukhara's Chef Manjit Gill
When it became apparent that I was attending the media lunch at Bukhara's London pop up last week, I received a whirlwind of wistful sighs from foodies on Twitter. "The dal! The dal!" they hollered. I could picture their eyes rolling into the back of their heads, giddy with epicurean nostalgia for the 35-year-old New Delhi landmark tandoor restaurant.
I admit, it was a bit lost on me. The only time I've been in New Delhi we were backpacking, and I was running around the old city grazing local streetfood, rolling the dice with Delhi Belly (we evaded snake eyes, somehow).
So it was quite the treat to get a glimpse into this edible hallmark of Indian high society dining via its temporary London satellite.
On the 1st floor banquet room balcony of London's Sheraton Tower in swanky Knightsbridge, Bukhara's pop up's creative director Waris Ahluwalia set up a tented garden-bar, complete with a budding jasmine bush.
After the champagnes were sipped, we were ushered inside and told that the meal would be served in the traditional way -- family style and without utensils.
For those game enough to eat with our hands, we were given giant apron / bibs with a plaid pattern reminiscent of Indian-uncle sarongs. Thanks for modeling the bib Sabrina!
First up: a traditional starter of papadums with (from top, clockwise) thinly sliced raw onion, raita (yoghurt with diced onion, tomato and cucumber) and mint chutney. A small detail, but raita yoghurts are usually quite thin and drippy. I quite enjoyed Bukhara's thick yoghurt raita, which sticks more easily to the papadum.
And then the tandoor treats began. I know it all looks a bit beige below, but these were quite possibly the most succulent tandoori prawns and chicken kebabs I'd ever tasted. Chicken is usually fairly tasteless and overcooked to death in most restaurants, but here the goujons were juicy and very deeply flavoured (a multi-day marinade that involves yoghurt and lemon juice I'm guessing.)
It made such an impression that I leaned over to the veteran print food journalist seated next to me and said, "It doesn't look like much, but make sure you try the chicken." She thanked me later, and asked our waiter for seconds!
On the right, fall-apart lamb leg, and potato hash pockets. Nice enough, but eclipsed by the chicken and prawns, really.
The veggie dishes: Paneer (Indian cheese) and roasted stuffed green peppers. Again, paneer in less able hands tends to end up having the personality of styrofoam. These cubes were big, bold, bitey and springy.
Somehow in the process of trying to get a few good pictures I missed out on actually securing myself a stuffed pepper. Snooze I lose I guess!
And now, the unlikely marquee-name dish for a tandoor restaurant. Dal Bukhara - black lentils, tomatoes, ginger and garlic slowcooked for 18 hours.
That dollop of butter right at the end might have something to do with the dal's gorgeous velvety-ness...
What a dilemma! Does one eat it straight up like a soup? (Yes.) Or slather all over Bukhara's array of freshly made naans? (Yes.)
Luckily we were given the option to have seconds. AND a supermarket-style ready-meal pack to take home with us.
A Mumbai-native dining companion told me that whenever she goes home to India, she comes back with cartons upon cartons of these Bukhara dal packets. I am now considering making a call to friends in New Delhi...
A dessert duo: Gulab jamun below, and a rose-fragranced broken rice pudding above. I tend to struggle with the over-sweetness of Indian desserts. So I had a taste of each before settling down to a cup of hot mint tea.
There was some debate after lunch about whether one would pay the retail pop up rate of £59 for the vegetarian meal or £79 for the meat and seafood meal if left to our own devices. No doubt, even though there was no fancy plating, the attention to quality of ingredients and detail of technique for this meal was subtly but in clearly a different league from your usual curry night out. Ultimately I wouldn't, though that's mostly because we're currently living on a full-time startup budget.
But as the Bukhara pop-up's sold-out status suggests, there are plenty of people who will. Some of them are probably the same punters who are happy to shell out £250 to have The French Laundry's Thomas Keller or £195 for noma's Rene Redzepi fly into town (Noooooo I'm not shriveling up with envy...)
Many others are proof that edible nostalgia is a hot commodity in this city.
Bukhara's London pop up at runs until 1 June. Online bookings are sold out, but...
Tip 1: I've been told it's worth calling +44 20 8045 0715 and following @buhkaralondon to check for updates on released 2nd seatings.
Tip 2: Check also about slots for Chef Manjit's not-widely publicised cooking class.
Tip 3: For those of your with gardens and tandoori fantasies (if you read this blog there is a fair chance you do) check on eBay post 1 June -- Bukhara is apparently going to auction off the 3 tandoors they procured just for the popup.
Bukhara London Pop Up (until 1 June 2012)
Sheraton Park Tower
London SW1X 7RN
+44 20 8045 0715
Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Marg
New Delhi 110 021 India
+91 11 2611 2233