I've always loved Indian food and I've spent enough months in India since 1969 to not need a getting-used-to-it period when I get here. Now, I know it sounds a little trite, but you know what they say about how the best food in any country is what people prepare in their homes? Well, it's even more true in India than anywhere else I've ever been. But that isn't only because the home cooking is so good-- which it is-- but because the restaurant culture is so, surprisingly, stunted and undeveloped.
A few nights ago I went to see an operatic presentation sponsored by the Italian embassy at Delhi's 16th century Purana Qila (Old Fort) with my friend Daleep, his mom and cousin. By the time we got back to their house, around 9pm, we were all starving but no one much fancied a restaurant. As we walked up the stairs, Daleep's cousin mentioned that he had a hankering for brains; I mentioned that I'm a vegetarian. By 10 we were eating a sumputous 7 course feast-- including brain curry and lots of vegetable preparations. [I passed on the brain curry of course, but as always in India there was plenty for non-brain eaters to feast on.] Of course, it helps to have lots of good help. I only wish, though, that Delhi restaurants were nearly as good.
The problem-- and a silver lining-- is well-illustrated by 2 very different Connaught Place eateries within a minute of two from each other, Veda and Vega. Ask any concierge at a top hotel where to go eat and they will invariably mention Bukhara (more on that later) and Veda. Most of the top restaurants, like Bukhara, are in hotels. Veda isn't. It's a trendy, transnational Indian fusion restaurant catering to the call center crowd and to tourists daring enough to eat outside the hotel scene-- but only so far outside. The food isn't bad; it just isn't exceptional, although the prices are. Basically the food is kind of Indian and kind of arty/trendy... but not really Indian, just arty/trendy.
Down Connaught Circle a block or so is Vega, a vegetarian restaurant no one will ever call in-crowd. Vega is just behind the lobby of a small, modest hotel, the Alka. It's the next best thing to home cooking I've found in Delhi. And they just keep bringing heaps of delicious food until you absolutely insist that they stop. I ordered a thali and it included any and every kind of bread as well as every Indian veggie dish you ever heard of although just the normal, traditional ones, all cooked without onions and garlic. And the bill came to about a tenth of what the fancy places-- like Veda up the street-- cost.
Park Balluchi advertises that it has been voted the #1 best restaurant in India year after year. They're mixing up "best" either with "popular" or "richest food." The setting, in Hauz Khas' Deer Park, is lovely, the service is fine and the plates are gargantuan. The mewa paneer tukra (grilled balls of soft "cheese" stuffed with nuts, raisins, mushrooms and cream) was opulent and over-the-top. I managed to eat almost half an order.
Bukhara, in the Sheraton, makes the Park Balluchi seem like a soup kitchen by comparison. If being around trendy people turns you off, skip this place but it really is "the best" restaurant in town, at least from the international, cosmopolitan perspective. They started with 17 items on the menu when they first opened and they've never changed anything. Daleep's cousin works in mangement at the hotel and he told me that the ratio between lentils and butter in their famous dal makhrani (black lentils simmered for 12 hours in tomatoes, ginger and garlic) is one to one! It's impossible to get in without a reservation.
The Imperial Hotel-- the best in town unless you don't like traditional places-- has a whole slew of top restaurants, from a sumptuous All-India epicurian festival, Daniell's Tavern, to the hipsterish Spice Route, a pan-Asian (mostly Thai-oriented) extravagenza in one of the most gorgeous rooms in the city. They've also got the best Italian restaurant in Delhi, San Gimignano. Three other hotel restaurants of note are Masala Art at the Taj Palace, Dum Pukht at the Sheraton, both over-the-top, and the more reasonable Chor Bizarre, a Kashmiri restaurant in the Broadway Hotel.
I tried a couple of South Indian places I liked a lot, Swagath, which serves the unique seafood-and-coconut based cuisine of Mangalore (in Defense Colony Market) and Sarvana Bhawan, part of a very reasonably-priced, respectable chain. My advice is to stick to the free-standing places that non-trendy, middle class Indians eat in and to avoid the over-the-top (mostly hotel-based) joints that will be as bad for your health as they are for your wallet.