Claridges Surajkund: My stomach & other animals

If it is winters, brunches have to rain. But wait, you might be just mistaken. Now, like round-the-clock traffic in Delhi, brunches too have become all-season. Meenakshi Rao attends one to tell you how an away location, a sunny afternoon and a garden spread are must.

The doctor had been recommending a jog for a very long time so I decided it was time I gave my stomach one. The sunny Sunday afternoon of a dying winter, the long forested area drive on a sinewy and lonely road soon after the BRT mayhem of sights and sounds, and the anticipation of spending a lazy afternoon doing nothing but sipping the bubbly and savouring the delights spurred me on to a track not oft taken by me even if I am feeling indulgent.

As I sat twirling the long stemmed glass at a rather unconventional hour of 12 noon, my tummy comfortably jogged across continents and on layers and layers of lining. From China to Italy to Japan to America to India with short stopovers for a Mexican siesta, it was on an expansive food trip. But then, if it is the resplendent Oasis with the canopies circling the sun-and-shade water bodies and the rays streaming in through the tinted top-to-bottom glass windows, not to mention the warm Executive Sous Chef Gurjyote Singh Sethi of Surajkund Claridges egging you on, there is a lot you are ready to expand your intestines for.
Champagne at early noon when he should have actually been offering coffee as your first drink for a breakfast-and-lunch offer, I wonder, even as the ever polite F&B manager Manish takes me around the spread — from the anti-pasti bar, to the kiddies’ corner of food miniatures, to the petite sushi counter, to the Chinese and Continental nooks, to the great Indian main course, not to forget the sweety pie of the show, the dessert station — what with a hot chocolate fountain to tempt you into the ultimate sin — here was my version of the jog and the stomach was behaving like a dog on a walk after a missed day out.
But what the heck, it’s my Sunday out, away from my usual sambhar-rice and chutneys with a lot of ghee and as departures go, they need to be well-laid-out and lavish — like the spread at the Claridges, Surjkund, a property I sadly hear is being given away on a three-year lease by the Nandas to the Taj Group for business purposes.
But what is it with this obsession for brunches, especially among Delhi’s gentry, I ponder as I see the tables filling up at astronomical prices for just an eat-out? Wasn’t it some woozy in ageold England in 1809 who coined this term ‘brunch’ to explain a late breakfast and an early lunch after the Sunday mass?
After all, France doesn’t believe in the concept at all and America fell into the mould to deal with the Sunday morning laziness of its rebellious housewives as also to keep fancy restaurants in currency on the chief chef’s day off. Asia arrived on the scene deep into the far-east with its dimsum breakfast-lunches in China.
Delhi, of course, is another story altogether. Eating out is as high as its crime rate and as frequent (in fact more if you count the surging demand on Saturdays and Sundays) than going to office. But it’s on wintry Sundays that you feel like stepping out of the CP-Khan Market lunch queues and heading for a picnic of sorts at a place where there is thin traffic — both human and vehicular — and that’s where brunches step in — if you have the money that is. I remember how a brunch was originally the prerogative of five-star hotels in the beginning when the concept was catching up with me in the 1990s. Today, any eatery worth its spread concocts one for the masses but for me, unless it is on the greens, under the sun and at a place away from the noise that is Delhi, it rarely makes sense.
“We get a big crowd from Faridabad and its neighbouring South Delhi,” Gurjyote tells you, clarifying that brunch is not just a winter proposition with his establishment. “Our Sunday brunches are year-round and very popular even though the traditional brunch season is on an August-to-March slot,” he says as I fork out an amazingly soft and flavoured gilouti kebab almost apologetic that it falls into pieces all around the plate.
Gurjyote treats it more as a compliment to his dish’s softness than to my eternal clumsiness which he is unaware of, so he smiles on to say he is bringing in a special salad only for my taste buds.
The Tuna-boiled egg-baby tomatoes in greens concoct that lands up in front of me is delightfully colourful and different from a run-of-the-mill Caesar or Greek do and goes down well with the crispy potato chillies, the fish fried and the kebabs for starters, never mind the wrong sequencing.
As a vegetarian sometime back, I would judge a multi-cuisine/oriental restaurant by the efficacy of its potato chillies. So, as a matter of habit, I did so here too and I could only give Oasis the honours for serving the best potato chillies in honey sauce I’ve had in recent past, and ever since Berco’s gave me a heartbreak in their crispiness going limp long time back.
Vegetarians, for most restaurants, are a liability, what with chefs looking at them as unnecessary punctuations in their ruthless eat-meat race. Some call this worldwide neglected section (“Though vegans are growing as never before” Gurjyote admits) the loony fringe of society, or like my Assamese friend who calls them the ghaans-phoos variety when she needs to finger her Kanyakubj Brahmin in-laws.
At the Oasis, however, Sethi insists it’s a cheek-by-jowl balance with the meats and veggies comfortable in their own spaces. I look at him with mock chagrin as he points at the exotica, saying there’s a baby octopus in there somewhere and I put my foot down mentally with ‘No, I don’t do babies.’ I also look pointedly at the overwhelming presence of a three-foot-long goat leg dangling out of the anti-pasti rann along with the hoof, dotted by cold cuts, home-done sardines and goat cheese, which, by the way, he burnt delightfully for my salad. The kaala chana-pomegranate chat bowl, kissing the contours of aaloo-mint next-door is quite the dwarf in comparison, I think with a chuckle even as I bite into the succulent paneer tikka with the cottage cheese straight from Le Bon. No, there are no masala onion rings and cut nimbu in the name ofaam aadmi here but the mint-curd chutney does the damage control for now.
Brunches, I am told, are more about ambience, spurring the laziness from 11 am to 4 pm, throwing around a lot of cocktails (after showcasing the sparkle in the glass of course), and going so berserk with starters that the main course gets a complex of being put on a non-primetime, full-stomach slot.
I forgot to ask for the Shangriya but the Bloody Marys and the Mamosas were splashing around the tables as I switched from the bubbly to the coke even though this might be one of the worst social blunders to commit. But then, if it is not the Prosseco sparkling in my glass, I am no stickler and for me when it comes to pizza it has to be coke.
The live Italian counter with the fire burning deep into the sanitised urban oven is too much to walk past and a thin crust with cheese and chicken pepperoni is just what the chef ordered for. Amici is crispier with the crust I must point out, but the Oasis baby pizza had a flavour all its own. Also, the El Dante was the most correct when it came to herbed spaghetti olive oiled neatly enough to have the chilli flakes stick to it in just the right way to satisfy my Andhra yearning for the mirchi.
Frankly, I had no space left for the Indian main course spread after downing the meats in multi-nation sauces, be it the chicken in kao pao, or the lamb in garlic, or for that matter the continentals in unexplained marinations. But then, as I take a small bite of the aaloo-mutton just to be Indian, chef Gurjyote smilingly tells me to throw my post-Republic Day guilt of not beingdesi into the mango mousse as “all chicken curries, daals, subzis and pulaos are just the same you had anywhere else. “That’s because for Indian food lovers, chicken curry has to taste like the good old chicken curry so there’s no experimenting here,” he explains, adding with a laugh “however, for a Punjabi the day can’t go past if he has not bitten into a leg.”
Considering that Gurjyote is one sardar who is not at all Punjabi by nature (he doesn’t eatparathas and is proud to be a western food specialist from Lajpat Nagar), his insistence that I should one day taste his dum biryani (“If it is not as good as Dumpukht, it will be no less, and you can tell me the difference if any”, he says confidently), is bewildering. Should he not be persuading me to taste his experimentation in the continental section? Like this dish he recently concocted but has problems explaining it.
“It is a chemical equation of Calcium and H2O being tossed with raddish or carrots which instantly crystalise into mouth popper balloons,” he says with baby zeal.
Must be great, and strange — like the fact that there was not a single breakfast dish in the Oasis brunch and it started not at 11 (the ideal time for a late breakfast and an early but lingering lunch which signifies the term ‘brunch’) but at 12 noon, picking up only around 1 pm. But then, with such overt hospitality and a seductive bright sunshine washing down your liquid diet, where’s the place for a puny little uncomfortable query from a journalist doing her job on an off day?
Source: Published in Sunday Pioneer, New Delhi, 3rd February, 2013


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