I learnt a lovely word the other week – pluviophile. It refers to someone who loves the rain and finds peace and comfort on cold, grey rainy days. That just about sums me up perfectly – I seem to be at my happiest during winter, on misty & wet days that others (unfairly) call miserable. There’s a certain old fashioned romance about the way winter settles in for the season in New Delhi with its wispy mists and fresh air-chills that nip at you ever so gently. Unfortunately, a quick blink of the eye and this romance gives way to the reality of smog, traffic and noise. Nevertheless, it was precisely on one of these days that my mother-in-law took me to a recently opened restaurant situated in the crafts museum of Delhi. Named after a traditional copper/brass vessel used for storing water in South Asia, Lota is an al-fresco café comfortably decorated in a north Indian tribal idiom, run by a young self-trained chef Rahul Dua.
Unlike other Indian restaurants serving standard well known fare, Lota focuses on regional specialities that are known only within their specific home-ground and, I cannot wax lyrical enough about this, are cooked with incredible restraint and simplicity. There are no oily curries laden with masalas, no over-spiced, overcooked vegetables and certainly no tricks. Each dish is a testament to the chefs delicate hand.
The beetroot chops with spiced cream cheese were earthy, tender and moist and for someone who loves beetroot as much as I do, a celebration of the intense vegetable. Palak patta chaat (crisp spinach leaves with yoghurt, potato, coriander chutney & tamarind) was light with the chutneys having the perfect seasoning (which is a rare occurrence) and the crispy spinach leaves, inspirational. Dal ka chilla (lentil crepes stuffed with cottage cheese & spinach) could easily be consumed as a meal entirely on its own whilst the Bombay keema ‘bao’ came juicy and so perfectly spiced that one could savour the introduction that each spice made with one’s taste buds.
Onto the larger dishes, the Kerala Vegetable Stew was not as exciting as I had hoped, having had far superior versions, but the ragi appam (fermented millet pancake) was a revelation. As a bonus, the chef even sent out miniature versions of the Punjabi classic, makki di roti & sarson ka saag (corn bread & mustard greens) complete with jaggery & white butter. At this point there was complete silence at table before everyone erupted simultaneously with squeals of joy.
On the desserts front, there was bhapa doi cheesecake (steamed yoghurt) which we found to be a bit dense and dry, in spite of its flavour but the apple jalebi with coconut rabri (apple fritters with coconut milk pudding) sealed the deal and left 5 nearly comatose diners happily rubbing their bellies and basking in the winter sun.
Whilst there is no dearth of traditional Indian restaurants to go to in Delhi, there is nothing that marries traditional recipes with a modern sense & delicacy that doesn’t leave one bursting at the seams. Lota bring the Indian cooking found in the best domestic kitchens (where the best Indian food is to be found) whilst adding panache & style to flavour. A feat not easily achieved and for that, I salute the chef, for I shall be back. Repeatedly.