Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dum Pukht

Dum Pukht is a multi location speciality restaurant that the ITC Group has in their premium hotels. Dum Pukht is a style of cooking that is supposed to have developed in Avadh. The story goes that large cauldrons were filled with rice, meat, vegetables and spices and sealed to make a simple, one- dish meal that was available to workers day and night. These cauldrons were placed on low fires so that the food slowly cooked inside in its own juices and steam. One day the Nawab caught a whiff of the aromas from such a cauldron and ordered that the food should be presented in his Court. Over the years the cuisine evolved to please the Royal palates and spread across Hyderabad, Bhopal and Kashmir all of which were Princely States.

The ITC Group, with its Chef Imtiaz Qureshi developed this Cuisine for restaurants and thus was born Dum Pukht, the restaurant. The food itself is very distinctive. The gravies are generally smooth and quite runny. They are slightly thickened with collagen that renders from the meat as well as with Gram flour. The food is extremely aromatic with liberal use of aromatic spices as well as `Kewra’ water [Screwpine or Panadus] and actual edible `Ittar’ or perfume. The food is not as rich as one would imagine, I think normal Punjabi and Mughlai food is far richer with the use of lots of ghee and cream. Not the case here.

The Dum Pukht at the ITC Grand Maratha in Mumbai has been one of our favourite restaurants for several years now. The food was top class and the service good. The restaurant was never full and getting a table was a breeze. Then, one day the ITC decided to renovate the restaurant which resulted in it being shut for almost 8 months. It opened in mid February 2012 when we were in London. We visited it just a few days after getting back. It was not a good experience.  Like Murphy’s Law dictates, everything that could go wrong, did. There was much unhappiness. HRH the Queen of Kutch shot off an angry email to the F&B Manager at ITC that resulted in apologies, which, unfortunately, was not what she was looking for. All she wanted was the issues that she had pointed out to be addressed. Anyway, a few weeks passed, absence makes the heart grow fonder, time heals all wounds and we were ready to go back to Dum Pukht.

Post renovation the restaurant looks absolutely fabulous. It’s well lit, bright with lots of use of white with accents of orange. It does have a lot of the Mughal/Muslim motifs but done in an understated way. Think of the movies `Pakheeza’ or `Mughal E Azam’ with the sets thoroughly modernised. That is the look. The crockery is Villeroy and Boch and the table cloths are pure linen as are the napkins. The cutlery is sliver plated and looks nice and new. I have not seen a restaurant as well co-ordinated as this in India. It really is a fine dining restaurant. The restaurant continues to have Mohamed Shareef as the Chef. He is really very good.

As far as the food is concerned, this post covers the two meals we had post renovation.

The signature dish at Dum Pukht is their ‘Kakori Kebab’. This is an exceptional dish which you must have as a starter. It is a kebab made with very finely minced lamb [or goat as we have in India] with Cardamom being a dominant flavour. The mince is grilled on a skewer. The Kebab is served with `Sheermal’ which is a slightly sweet flatbread. Melt in the mouth is a cliché that accurately sums up this dish. We have also had a version of this Kakori Kebab at Gaylord Restaurant in Mumbai which came nowhere near this Kebab.

Kakori Kebab

Another starter that we like is the `Habiba Chops’. This is lamb [or goat as we have in India] chops which are grilled. The chops are quite large by Indian standards and extremely tasty. I am afraid I cannot tell you what they are marinated in.

Habiba Chops

If you like you could have their `Mahi Dariya’. This is basically batter fried fish. Quite nice but be aware that the fish is cooked Indian style, that is, within an inch of its life. It seems impossible in most Indian restaurants to batter fry a fish and still have it moist on the inside. But, alas, many of us love our fish cooked like this. Sigh!

Mahi Dariya

As far as main courses go, our absolute favourites are the `Shahi Nehari’ and `Mahi Qualia’. The `Shahi Nehari’ is actually something to be had at breakfast, but let me assure you it is perfectly acceptable to have at dinner. This dish has several cuts of lamb – ribs, shoulder, shanks – cooked in an extremely aromatic gravy. The gravy is strained and is therefore smooth. It’s garnished with Ginger Juliennes, fresh Mint, Coriander and fried onions. You must order this. The `Mahi Qualia’ has unfortunately been taken off the menu, but it was specially made for us on our second visit [post angry email]. River fish is made into balls and cooked in a delicious gravy. The fish balls made are ethereal, light and juicy. The `Mahi Qualia’ is to be eaten with rice. If anybody at ITC Grand Maratha ever reads this, I request you to reintroduce this gem.

Mahi Qualia

Another great dish is the `Dum Pukht Koh E Avadh’. This is lamb shanks cooked in an aromatic gravy, smooth again, and cardamom and saffron are the dominant notes. I must caution you that this dish is quite similar to the `Shahi Nehari’, but excellent nonetheless. We have also tried the `Diwani Handi’. This is a lamb stew with Carrot and Potato. Very good, quite unlike anything we had eaten. Well worth trying.

Koh E Avadh

Diwani Handi

It must be said that all the food is served very hot, as in temperature. That makes a big difference.

While all this is singing praises, please do note that they have two clunkers, absolute disasters that are on the menu. Stay away. The first is `Mahi Sarson’. This is a Bengali influenced fish dish flavoured with mustard. The only time we ordered this, there was something desperately wrong in the dish as it was over salted in the extreme. It was presented twice to us in a single night and suffered from over salting both times. Mind you, we normally do like mustard in Indian food so that was not a problem. The second clunker is actually a usual restaurant trick; put a luxury item on the menu and the rich folks will order it. Jumbo Prawns, Tiger Prawns, King Prawns, call them what you like, are almost always the most expensive items on the menu. Lots of punters love to order these, as the adjectives `Jumbo’ and `King’ exude luxury, pander to ego and show `I can afford to order expensive stuff’. It is very difficult to cook these prawns without turning them to rubber. The dish in question here is `Jhinga Ka Salan’. It’s an unmitigated disaster. Why the ITC continues to have this on the menu beats me hollow as everybody I know has said that this dish is hopelessly overcooked.

Mahi Sarson

As far as service is concerned, I think they have a real problem. All the staff are extremely charming, friendly and well informed, but seem unable to execute a smooth service as one would expect in a restaurant of this calibre. When we were seated, there were two of us at a table set for four. It took them ages, in fact right until the first course arrived, to clear the crockery from the unoccupied seats. This is something any restaurant does as basic. Then, while we were eating, there was an Almighty crash. A waiter had dropped a tray with a lot of dirty plates and dishes. My heart sank, that was a lot of expensive Villeroy and Boch plates now in smithereens on the floor. Surprisingly, this remained on the floor for rather a long time. Almost 10 minutes! The guy who dropped it did not bother to pick up even the larger pieces of shattered china and the wait staff tip-toed around the mess, occasionally pushing it with the toe of their shoes! The service is certainly not smooth and uneven gaps punctuate courses. To try and get over an inordinately long pause, we were presented with, of all things, a child friendly pastel pink Fresh Lime Soda. Apparently, it was coloured with Pomegranate juice [Grenadine to you and me]. Also, surprisingly, we had to wait almost 10 minutes before our dirty plates were cleared between courses. Unacceptable, surely!

Uncleared extra table settings

Oh for God's sake!

See what I mean?
Having said all this, I do recommend Dum Pukht to everybody for their excellent and distinctive food. On your first visit to Dum Pukht you must order the `Kakori Kebab’ as a starter, followed by the `Shahi Nehari’ and if you still have space a Biryani. You will not regret your choice, though your wallet will be eased of some of its burden!

The restaurant is expensive, each non vegetarian dish costs about Rs. 1900 on average. A Jumbo Prawn will knock you back by Rs 2500! At such prices, with the backing of ITC who have no problem with training, jerky service and lazy waiters are not acceptable. I do hope the service picks up. The food is really brilliant and Chef Mohamed Shareef as I have said, is a star. Hopefully, the front of house will not diminish his brightness.

Chef Mohammed Shareef