Decaying Decadence or Resplendent Indulgence? – Bukhara, ITC Maurya, New Delhi

[singlepic id=1726 w=80 h=92 float=left]If there’s a single restaurant in India that can be said to have achieved iconic status, it is Bukhara in the ITC Maurya. Comfortably occupying a section of the Maurya’s ground floor, Bukhara is as close as a restaurant can get to being a culinary icon. Much written about in the media and talked about elsewhere, you really can’t help but be aware of Bukhara’s existence.

[singlepic id=1318 w=320 h=240 float=right]Bukhara was opened in 1977, since when it has won numerous awards and featured in the top 50 restaurants worldwide. A regular stopover for celebrities and dignitaries, Bukhara was recently home to Shah Rukh Khan and Bill Clinton. Though it’s New York and Chicago ventures weren’t very successful, it still rules the roost in Delhi. Considering imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Bukhara Grill in New York must be Bukhara’s biggest fan. Predictably, the original Bukhara did protest, but that’s not the point of this article. Read more about it here.

Of late, one hears rumblings of discontent among all classes of diners. Tourists and well heeled Indians alike are beginning to voice their displeasure over various aspects of Bukhara. Both food and service are being subjected to brickbats. Yes, there are bouquets, but one expects those for a restaurant as high up the food chain as Bukhara. Brickbats however, are not expected to the extent to which they’re being hurled.

Once proudly occupying the #14 slot in the worlds top 50 restaurants list (2002), Bukhara has gradually slipped down to it’s present position – without a mention in the 2010 list. (2002 – #14, 2003 – #20, 2004 – list wasn’t accessible at the time of writing, 2005 – No Mention, 2006 – #46, 2007 – #37, 2008, 2009, 2010 – No Mention) Interestingly, Bukhara isn’t even in the top 100 list for 2010. What happened?

Thank you Ram (comments) for pointing out that that 2010 list has been released. – Sid

[singlepic id=1324 w=320 h=240 float=right]A well known personality associated with food, says, There are two sides to this. On the positive side, Bukhara is the one iconic restaurant we have, that has reached this pinnacle of achievement despite the uncomfortable seating, no cutlery and a limited menu that never changes and is distinctively tilted in favor of non-vegetarians. On the negative side is the attitude of the staff who could be far more polite and careful when serving, especially when the diner is not a celebrity or the president of a world superpower. Tragically, the food has been going down steadily too.

On the other hand, there are staunch supporters of Bukhara for whom it is the place to visit when entertaining business visitors and foreign guests. Rajeev Sood, Managing Director of Transtek Infoways in Delhi passionately defends Bukhara by saying, It isn’t about the food. You don’t go to Bukhara for the food. You go for the consistency in the quality of experience. Bukhara doesn’t really target the aspirational masses or those looking for value for money. Bukhara is about serving Indian food in a format that can be appreciated by visitors who can afford their prices. Pawan Soni, an Assistant Vice President at a leading MNC in Delhi, echos Rajeev’s sentiments and adds,  It’s the one place I feel safe taking important guests to. There’s no fear of bad food, service and my overall experience is guaranteed to be good.

Interestingly, both Rajeev and Pawan do not claim it to be a favored destination for personal outings with the family, nor does the food at Bukhara form a pillar of their statements. While they do comment on the consistency of the food, the food per se does not seem to be a basis for their appreciation.  I do understand and appreciate the point of view of fans like Rajeev and Pawan. The food however, is the most important aspect of a restaurant for me and will remain so.

I also spoke to Sanjiv Verma, an ex-ITC Chef who has been running the landmark restaurant, Khyber, in Chandigarh for the last 20 years. Chef Verma fondly remembers his time at ITC and says, While I cannot not deny people’s food experiences at Bukhara, I firmly believe in Bukhara being not just the mother, but indeed, the father of Indian cuisine in India and beyond. Nighat Rahman, a die-hard foodie, on the other hand says she only associates Bukhara with expensive food and not necessarily delicious food.

[singlepic id=1328 w=320 h=240 float=left]Neeta Moudgil, who runs a business in Delhi and regularly entertains foreign visitors, recently went to Bukhara and wrote in, Went to Bukhara today after much persuasion (being a vegetarian, I always thought I didn’t have much of a choice there). Sad to say it’s a highly overrated place (in terms of vegetarian fare, ambience and the staff who couldn’t stop loudly gossipping amongst each other after the routine drill of asking how the food is). I’ve had better Dal Makhni at many places and the same goes for the Paneer Tikka and the tandoori salad too. When I asked Rajeev (my husband, who is a non-vegetarian) why this is one of his favorite restaurants and those of our foreign clients too… consistency in taste was his answer, besides some good words about the non-vegetarian fare. Consistency in taste (good/bad/mundane sameness) I believe is too high a price to empty your wallet, as similar or even better food can be had in a much better ambiance, serviced by staff who aren’t as cocky and at probably less than one third the price. I wonder why is it so popular… ?

On receiving Neeta’s message, I posed a question to readers on our Facebook page, whose responses, not unexpectedly, were mostly balanced on both sides of the fence with a slight tilt towards the negative, from a pure food perspective. Tripadvisor.com seems to have the largest number of reviews for Bukhara (247) and rates it at 4 out of 5. I am given to understand that TripAdvisor reviews have a high occurrence of non-Indians writing them.

The folks at ITC were nice enough to invite us for a meal at their Crown Jewel, Bukhara. We usually visit with a guest, in this case, Neeta Moudgil, whose comment sparked off the entire debate. Also important was the fact that Neeta is a vegetarian. I am a confirmed carnivore, FYI. I’ll refrain from commenting on the service as we were invited. The ambiance was warm and I liked the color coded bibs that clearly marked one as a vegetarian or non-vegetarian. That Bukhara had a waiting list on a weekday evening is a testament to their popularity.

We sampled a large number of dishes, including the Murgh Malai Kebab, Mutton Seekh Kebab, Reshmi Kebab, a grilled vegetarian platter comprising cottage cheese, bell peppers, tomatoes & pineapple, the famous Dal Bukhara, Sikandari Raan, Peshawari Kebab, Murgh Tandoori, Burra Kebab and more vegetarian fare including Tandoori Aloo, Cauliflower and Bell Peppers. Breads included Stuffed Kulchas, Naans and Khasta Rotis.

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As you may be aware, many reviews on this site are those where we have been invited. I therefore have had to invent a little code when writing, to avoid conveying anything significant to the curious glances that my little black book inevitably receives. I’m sad to report that there’s only a single symbol in my notes that signifies a 4 on 5 for a dish… the Dal Bukhara, which was the highest rating. I was unable to find anything that could be given full marks. The rest of our meal received between 2 and 3.5 stars out of 5. Particularly disappointing were the Sikandari Raan (fibrous, chewy) and the Murgh Malai Kebab (hard, dry). The vegetarian fare was… interesting, but no more. The stuffed Kulchas seemed more like stuffed Parathas to me and my Naan was crisp to the core; I prefer it soft inside. I’ve also had better Dal Makhanis elsewhere. A point to note here is that my tasting notes are relative to my expectations. None of the food was bad. It just wasn’t as good as one expects at a restaurant of Bukhara’s calibre. My perceptions are therefore skewed to the extent of my exposure to similar food at many other places.

Neeta observes, Bukhara had the advantage of being the first entrant, in that kind of cuisine, that eventually led to its iconic stature! This was largely based on positives such as consistency in quality and taste, relaxed ambience, healthy, hygienic, tandoori food plus a dash of novelty. This however was back then when there was a dearth of similar places; a scenario that has vastly changed now. For the kind of money one shells out at Bukhara, one needs to have at least a 4 on 5 rating for all – food, ambience, service, attitude et al. Rethinking, reinventing and reworking should definitely be on their cards! As special invitees, many things bordered at 4 on 5… but seldom is each guest treated as a special invitee. I wish this was consistent too.

Personal preferences aside and ignoring the fact that my rear end was honored to be perched on the same place as Bill Clinton’s was in the past, I think Bukhara has some serious re-thinking coming up. Yes, they are an icon. Yes, they have played a major role in exposing a section of North Indian cuisine to the world. Yes, they have successfully productionised a cuisine and kept it consistent for years and in the process become an inspiration to Chefs from all over India. Laurels will however be compost someday. Today, Bukhara’s model, taste and process have been dispersed far and wide. The same taste and cuisine is commonly available now, taking away with it, the exclusive perception one has when dining at Bukhara, the price being perhaps the only contributing attribute. There’s little doubt that Bukhara is still a bastion of exclusivity to those who can afford it and a shining beacon of Indian flavors to foreign tourists. To the Indian palate/resident however, the flavors and format at Bukhara are no longer unique. Given the vast pool of talent Bukhara has available, I have little doubt re-invention is just a hop, skip and a jump away.

– Sid

Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.