Highway food has always been something I looked forward to on road trips even as a child.
There is something quite adventurous in finding a spot on a rustic Charpai (rope woven cot) and ordering basic (the menu’s in my childhood consisted of 8-10 items only) but lip smacking fare.
Highway dhabas catered mostly to truck drivers on the go and therefore the food needed to be robust, fresh and quick. Today there are a lot of ‘permanent’ Dhaba style restaurants across the country which serve up dhaba food. This is a testament to how popular this genre of food is.
The Spice Junxion at the Taj Deccan is hosting a 10 day food festival that is showcasing this food. They’ve chosen dishes served up in eateries along the National Highway 1 which according to Wikipedia, runs between Punjab, starting from the town of Attari, through Haryana and ends at Delhi. This is a part of the Grand Trunk Road which extended from Bengal to Kabul. Read more about it here.
I was invited for the preview of this festival and the food is available off a special A la Carte menu.
This is the first time I was dining at this restaurant of the Taj and the ambience was delightful with dhaba-esque souvenirs, brass and copper crockery and lots of flowers dotting the place.
Executive chef Rishi Manucha explained that a considerable amount of research had gone into capturing the authentic flavours of the dishes being presented. I think this was important because north Indian food and particularly Punjabi food has become common place at restaurants. I was curious to see what twist they would present.
For starters, the vegetarian fare included Chatpati Dahi Arbi – yogurt marinated colacasia, deep fried. There was also Bhuni Shakarkandi – Sweet potato, chargrilled and served with a mango chutney. I loved this, one because I like sweet potatoes, two the flavours were subtle.
The non vegetarian starters had the ever popular Tandoori Chicken – I loved that they used really tender chicken and the extra cumin in the marinade really gave it a nice heft.
Ambarasari Machi – batter fried fish which was succulent on the outside and had a very lightly crisp and spicy exterior was my favourite. This could be because I am partial to fish!
We were served three kinds of drinks. The Shikanji (lemon juice), Aam panna (raw mango juice flavoured with cumin and black salt) and my absolute favourite Sweet lassi with a generous dollop of cream. I wished I had a bucket full of this, but exercised restraint!
For the main course, we had Gosht aur Shalgam ki Tari, a nice home style mutton and turnip dish. This had a gravy which was not loaded with cream and other stuff, just nice clean flavours, melt in the mouth meat that was cooked to perfection. Paired well with the crunchy Khamiri Roti.
The Penda, which is a chicken korma cooked with potato and garam masala was also good. I was beginning to love that the dishes were mostly home style. What a dichotomy it is, to crave home style food in a commercial restaurant! And yet, more and more people are seeking this out.
There was a Pudiney ki tari wali macchli which had all the right flavours, but the fish pieces sort of didn’t hold their shape in the gravy. I usually like my fish curries in the south indian style with lots of tang, so I enjoyed the flavour of mint for a change. Although the fish was supposed to be barbecued, the flavours didn’t come through at all.
Aloo methi ka saag was a clear favourite even with my fellow diner, it was a wet gravy dish (again homestyle) instead of the usual dry aloo methi one is familiar with.The sharpness of the fenugreek leaves a nice contrast with the bland creamy potato.
Amchoorwaley Kareley – bittergourd stuffed with green pea and dried mango powder, I spotted a few raisins in it too. While the stuffing was very good, I felt the bittergourd itself was rather tough and uncooked. It either needed more cooking or using very tender gourds would be good. I’m impressed that the chef chose this dish because bitter gourd is automatically one of those most hated vegetables!
The Rajma masala was everything it should be. Cooked to soft creamy perfection, not too many spices and yet, deep flavours coming through. I’ve eaten a lot of rajma masala to be tired of it, but this was very comforting and spot on, even though a tad too familiar. There was another lentil preparation – Maash ki dal (red lentils) which looked good, but I didn’t taste it.
We were served a pillow soft Aloo Kulcha which was terrific. I had second servings of this.
There is a choice of Pudina (mint) rice and Jeera (cumin) rice to go with the main course.
There was a refreshingly different raita made with aubergine, baigan ka raita, which had me going for second helpings.
The desserts served were Malai Ghevar (I didn’t like this, never have been a fan of ghevar, so don’t take my word), Gajrella (carrot kheer) which was nice, because it wasn’t sickeningly sweet unlike how its cousin the gajar ka halwa is made. And the piece de resistance – Pan ka mitha – Rose flavoured icecream, sandwiched in a betel (pan) leaf with a nice dollop of rose petal preserve (gulkand) which is used to sweeten pan. The whole thing was frozen and totally hit all the right spots for me. I am a big big fan of gulkand, known to eat it out of the bottle like jam, so for me, pan flavoured anything is a must have. A lot of restaurants now do pan flavoured ice cream or kulfi. The pan ‘masala’ including fresh betel leaves are ground and added to an ice cream mix. But this was brilliant because it hits the palate at different times, just as you are savouring the icecream, you get a hit from the gulkand! As you can see, for me this was the show stopper of the whole meal.
The festival is on till 26th April and is available for both lunch and dinner.
Check it out if you would like a deviation from the highly commercial dhaba food, and want to sample some really well made north Indian fare.
The options are served A la Carte. Prices for the Starters are Rs. 345 – 450 (excluding taxes). Main course dishes are priced between Rs. 445 – Rs. 595 (excluding taxes)
Recommended Dishes: Bhuni Shakarkandi, Ambarasari Macchi, Tandoori Chicken, Gosht aur shalgam ki tari, Rajma masala, Aloo methi ka saag, baingan ka raita, sweet lassi and Pan ka Mitha
Hours: Lunch and Dinner
Location: The Spice Junxion, Taj Deccan, Banjara Hills
Valet Parking: Available