This Navratra season, cookie-cutter buffet menus have made way for eclectic new flourishes that give us the nourishing hope that this season of fasting will not be reduced to yet another nine days of living on kuttu atta (buckwheat flour), sabudana (sago), swang (samak) ke chawal (barnyard millet) and sendha namak (rock salt).
With restaurants across the board, from Artusi to Zambar, choosing to woo the Navratra diner, you could one day have a formaggino e funghi (melting warm soft cheese and sauteed mushrooms) at Artusi, the stylish Italian restaurant at M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-II, and on another day, settle for a mathanga erissery (pumpkin erissery, which is a mild curry), an Onam favourite, served at Zambar, at Ambience Mall and Cyber Hub, Gurgaon. Made in Punjab, also at Cyber Hub, has laid out nine different menus, sexing up the traditional must-haves with the addition of specialties from other cuisines (mishti doi, for instance) and such novelties as aloo ki kheer.
The Japanese restaurant Guppy by ai at Lodhi Colony Market has gone overboard and is serving aubergine pulp and onion grilled in Korean gochujang (chilli) miso paste and then baking it in an aubergine shell with garlic panko (did no one inform them about onion and garlic being absolute no-no's during the Navratras?) Go for the soy dashi (broth)-braised Japanese shiitake, cucumber and tempura fritters, or the pan-grilled portabello steak served with tossed vegetables and miso sauce.
The fasting menus on offer, more in standalone restaurants than in five-star hotels (which have stuck to the path much travelled), show a heartening degree of inventive thinking on the part of creative chefs. Here is my selection of seven of the most innovative Navratra platters on offer around the city:
Farzi Cafe, Cyber Hub, Gurgaon: Buckwheat tacos or sabudana risotto? Take your pick. I would love to dig into a plateful of sabudana risotto and see if it is just the Maharashtrian staple, sabudana khichri, served under a new label!
The Pavilion, ITC Maurya: As Farzi Cafe takes the fusion route, The Pavilion has dipped into India's regional kitchens to create three 'Meal in One' platters: 'Kashmiri' with nadru yakhni and samak pulao (avoidable); 'Rajasthani' with Jodhpuri aloo, amrudh kali mirch and kootu poori (this one seems promising); or 'Southern Flavours' with arbi pulusu (arbi cooked in the spicy curry-like stew that is popular in Telengana and Andhra Pradesh) and kuttu dosai (buckwheat flour dosas).
Zambar, Cyber Hub, Gurgaon: Southern flavours takes the centre-stage here as well. Feast on Kundru Mezhukkupuratti (ivy gourd stir-fry), Mathanga Erissery and Potato Ularthiyathu (traditionally, ularthiyathu, which literally means a 'dry preparation', is made with beef, but this version with potato comes with all the positives of the original).
Sheraton New Delhi, District Centre, Saket: The hotel takes care of the diverse taste buds that need to be satiated on any given day. So, if you are observing the Navratra rituals, but want a break from the age-old menu, go for a quinoa salad, spinach and mushroom ragout, cottage cheese steak with pepper coulis, and chestnut (singhara) flour pancake with creamy polenta sauce. Alternatively, go Pan Asian with buckwheat batter-fried crispy lotus root, honey chilli potato and farm-fresh Asian greens, lightly sesame-tossed with rock salt.
Artusi Ristorante e Bar, M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-II: Apart from the aforementioned formaggino e funghi, the menu includes insalatina (a salad of rocket leaves, grapes, raisins, pears, goat cheese and toasted pine nuts), vellutata di asparagi bianchi (the restaurant's new signature white asparagus cream soup), risotto o pasta fatta in casa (risotto, or herb-and-ricotta ravioli, finished with tomato cream sauce and morels), and choice of eggless panna cotta or chocolate cake.
SodaBottleOpenerWala, Khan Market and Cyber Hub, Gurgaon: Parsis and Iranis abandoning animal protein for a cause? That may not be the case in the real world, but when you are in Delhi NCR, you have to be Navratra-friendly at this time of the year. Start your meal with cutlets made with khera (spicy raw bananas) or gawarphali (Guar beans), move on to the Gujarati specialty Khattu Meethu Kaddu (this one doesn't need translation!) with kuttu atta poori, and end your frugal meal with sabudana ki kheer.
Punjab Grill, Select Citywalk, Saket, and Ambience Mall, Gurgaon: You do not always have to be radically different to make an original statement. At Punjab Grill, the traditional fare comes with surprising twists -- chironji ki dal (made with the almond-flavoured seeds also known as charoli); kuttu ka dahi bhalla; and arbi satay (I found this to be real masterstroke) are the three dishes that stand out in the restaurant's Navaratra thali.
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Sourish Bhattacharyya, co-founder of the Delhi Gourmet Club, is a freelance writer, editorial consultant, food columnist, restaurant critic and blogger. He has contributed regularly to the Mumbai Mirror, Times Life, BBC Good Food, Travel & many more publications. Nothing is dearer to him than the joy of writing, which he blends with his passion for food.