Shortly after our morning encounter, our breakfast pal Vikram checked out our website and gave us a call. He hoped to facilitate our India experience by adding a bit of refinement to it.
A few phone calls and a couple of hours later, we were scheduled to meet with Rajan Sharma, the head chef at the Taj Hotel Chandigarh’s Dera Restaurant.
We haven't made it to many five-star hotels on this trip, so perhaps we looked just a tad out of place as our friends Sharan and Rajiv deposited it us – windstruck and dust disheveled from the backs of their bikes – in front of the five-star Taj Hotel.
We ambled inside; I noticed Bollywood stars whom I recognized by sight, but not by name, drinking Kingfishers (beer) at the café.
Getting to Know Rajan
After he shared his background in Indian cuisine (cookbooks, shows and tours as head chef), Rajan gave us his abridged primer on Indian cuisine, including its geographical diversity and its variety of styles – from the street where inspiration lives to the refined tastes at the fine dining establishments where he makes his name.
He confided that real Indian cuisine is still best found on the streets, but restaurants like his are taking traditional dishes to a refined level for health-conscious Indians and foreigners who are seeking unique tastes and fusion twists on old favorites.
He invited us to join him for dinner. One problem: that evening, we had to catch a late overnight train to Varanasi from Ambala station. Though Ambala was really only an hour's drive from Chandigarh, we'd have to board a local bus several hours prior to arrive at the station on time.
No problem. Rajan so much wanted us to experience his food and his restaurant that he offered to drive us to meet our train. Stunned by this act of generosity, we agreed.
Refined Indian Cooking
The Taj Hotel chain’s Dera restaurant concept – featuring refined Indian cooking in an open-kitchen style – found its beginnings in Chandigarh.
A row of tandoor ovens are positioned behind glass. In these ovens, charcoal is heated for three hours until it arrives at the perfect grilling temperature for kebabs and naan bread. In the restaurant’s center, an open tawa grill (a concave disc-shaped griddle) features cooks creating made-to-order masalas. There's even a roaming chapati stand that ensures bread is made table-side, fresh and hot.
Rajan started us off with a bouche amuse of freshly cut vegetables and mini pappadams (crisp, paper-thin flatbread) sided with a tomato garlic sauce. We continued with minced lamb and vegetable patties from the tawa grill, sided with sweet, salty, and sour Indian pickles and chutneys. For the main course we moved to skewered tandoori kebabs for which the Punjab region is famous.
Admittedly, we are not big meat eaters, but the taste of perfectly roasted meat is one of the reasons we’ve never decided to commit to being vegetarian. Rajan’s chicken was spice-dazzled, colorful and perfectly juicy.
In order to better suit the richness of lamb, the spices used to marinate the lamb chops were appropriately stronger and its paste thicker than the one used to flavor chicken. Charred bits of lamb were especially tasty. Stuffed from previous meals, we still didn’t hesitate to lick the bones clean.
Road trip to Ambala
Our road trip to Ambala involved the usual dodging of construction diversions and overstuffed rickshaws, but it afforded us more time to find out about Rajan. He was energetic and accomplished. He worked in top restaurants in India and Dubai, appeared on TV cooking programs, and now ran the show at Chandigarh's top restaurant – all this before the age of thirty. Very impressive, particularly since he remained down-to-earth and sincerely friendly.
Just before arriving at the Ambala train station, Rajan offered one last culinary experience: his favorite tawa chicken road stand. He stopped there each time he traveled to Delhi to visit family. From the chaos of the highway, he quickly pulled over to say hello. Unfortunately, we were full to bursting with all we had eaten that day. We couldn’t fit another bite.
Though we couldn’t try the tawa chicken, we appreciated the fact that as Rajan continued to explore the limits of refined food, he adhered to his roots and knew where to find the best street food. He was truly a man of food and one after our own hearts.
We collapsed into our sleeping berths on the train from Ambala to Varanasi. From the vast amounts of food we had consumed to the rapid unwinding of a full day’s events, we were spent.
The more we travel, the less we find ourselves getting excited about historic buildings and temples and the more we relish meeting and engaging with people from all walks…particularly when food happens to be involved. This is what our journey is all about.