Delhi-based restaurateur AD Singh opened a Japanese restaurant called Ai in Delhi’s MGF Metropolitan Mall (in Saket) some years back. This mall happens to be not one of Delhi’s most happening, and since we visit it once in a blue moon, we hardly even knew of the existence of Ai until it closed down—and then we discovered that it had apparently been a pretty good place for Japanese food. Fortunately for those of us who didn’t get the opportunity to eat at Ai, the restaurant emerged in a new avatar, this time as Guppy by Ai, a few months back.
Guppy by Ai is in the Lodhi Colony Market (also home to two other of my favourite restaurants, Ploof Deli and Tres). Like Ai, this specializes in Japanese food. We’d heard good things about it—people who’d been fans of the old Ai said it was just as good—so, to celebrate my birthday, my husband and I decided to go there for lunch with three others. To make sure we got a table, my husband phoned and made a reservation the day before. A good move, as it turned out, since Guppy by Ai—despite being pretty darn expensive—is also very popular and was quite full at lunchtime. Getting a table for five without a reservation might’ve been well-near impossible.
Guppy by Ai has an ambience of utter charm: it’s all on the ground floor, with pretty red-painted window panes (and doorknobs shaped like roses on the windows), a white ceiling with rough wooden beams, little odds and ends (vases, a radio, framed miniature kimonos, etc) on shelves, and lovely arty paper lanterns on windowsills. Our table had, besides the little jug of soya sauce, a salt and pepper cruet, and place settings, a very cute miniature red-painted metal watering can filled with tiny multi-coloured chrysanthemums.
Important things first: the menus. Guppy by Ai has a decent enough bar menu (I noticed several brands of sake). None of us are great drinkers, especially not at lunchtime, so we skipped those—my nephew ordered a 7Up and my brother-in-law a fresh lime soda, but that was it.
The food menu is of the type I like: extensive enough to offer plenty of options, not huge enough to be unwieldy. While there are set menus (where you choose from various appetisers, soups, mains, rice/noodles, and dessert), there are also à la carte dishes—salads, sushi, sashimi, appetisers, mains, and all of two desserts (carrot cake and red velvet cake).
We decided to share three appetisers: a rock corn tempura, an exotic mushroom gyoza, and one plate of sushi—a spicy salmon roll. For the mains, three of us ordered the same thing, Guppy by Ai’s signature pork belly; my nephew ordered the grilled tomato and scamorza; and my brother-in-law ordered the tenderloin cube steak.
Our starters came, one after the other, after a wait of about ten minutes. First up was the rock corn tempura: baby corn, fried in a lovely frothy tempura batter, very light and delicious, and served with two dipping sauces. One was a thin broth-like sauce that my husband guessed was based on dashi and mirin. The other, the more popular one (so popular that we had to ask for a refill!) was a mayo-sriracha sauce, spicy and tart and the perfect complement to the tempura.
Next up was the exotic mushroom gyoza, very thin-skinned pot-stickers stuffed with a tasty (and substantial) filling of sautéed mushrooms. This one, served with a soya-sauce based sauce dotted with chopped spring onions, was a hit all the way: all of us loved it.
The spicy salmon roll, dotted with sesame seeds, and chockfull of salmon, had a somewhat smaller target audience—since neither my nephew nor my brother-in-law eat fish—but my sister, my husband, and I enjoyed it. I’d have liked the fish to be slightly more firm (the sushi was wobbling a bit as I lifted it from the dish to my plate), but flavour-wise, this was good.
The mains took a further ten minutes or so after our appetisers were over. The three orders of pork belly were served up first, followed by the grilled tomato with scamorza; then, after an interval of about five minutes (and one reminder), the tenderloin cube steak arrived.
All of us agreed that the quality of the food was top-notch. The pork belly, which I’d ordered, came on four small bamboo skewers, drizzled with a citrusy (ponzu? I’m not sure) sauce and garnished with sesame seeds. It was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, a perfect blend of fat and meat, rich but not overpoweringly so. My nephew’s grilled tomato and grilled scamorza came with a large serving of crisp-fried rice noodles (which he couldn’t see the need for, and left, though he enjoyed the tomato and cheese).
My brother-in-law’s tenderloin steak seemed to have been stir-fried with spring onions and a soya-sauce base, and got his whole-hearted approval.
What did surprise us were the components of each main course. None of these dishes—except the tomato and scamorza, which came with those fried noodles—came with anything other than what was mentioned on the menu. The pork belly was only pork, no vegetables on the side, or noodles, or anything. It was the same with the tenderloin; just the meat, and a few stray bits of spring onion. It makes for a slightly sparse main course, but it did mean that we were all empty enough for dessert.
At this point Guppy by Ai sprang a pleasant little surprise (which would have been a surprise, if my husband hadn’t already told me). When he’d phoned to reserve a table, the hostess had asked if it was for a special occasion—and on discovering that it was my birthday, had said that they’d give us a complimentary wedge of cake, with a little candle to blow out, and they’d sing for me. My husband, knowing me, begged them not to sing! But yes, after our mains had been cleared away, the waiter brought along a wedge of red velvet cake, with ‘Happy Birthday’ piped in chocolate sauce on the plate. A birthday candle was lit, which I blew out before divvying up the cake.
The red velvet cake was very good—moist, light, and with a luscious cream cheese icing. It was, however, just one wedge between the five of us, and I have such a sweet tooth, I couldn’t resist the temptation to order a dessert too. My nephew and I, therefore, each ordered the only other dessert on Guppy by Ai’s menu, the warm carrot cake with mascarpone icing.
These arrived, two cuboids of lovely moist cake with shredded carrot, topped with a generous amount of sweet, rich, tart mascarpone icing, and with a tiny carrot made out of what seemed like marzipan on top. The cake had a mild hint of spice, and its lightness was a good foil to the luxuriousness of the icing.
We paid Rs 9,023 for our meal, inclusive of all taxes and service charges. While the food is admittedly very good, we thought that was far too expensive for a meal that did not include any alcohol. Also, we’d shared appetisers, and only two of us had ordered dessert; had we all had a three-course meal each, the bill would’ve gone through the roof.
Incidentally, while the staff at Guppy by Ai are friendly and helpful (and I do very much appreciate the gesture of ‘celebrating’ the occasion!), they’re not exactly super-efficient. For example, of the mains we’d ordered, one turned up well after the others (and after a bowlful of rice—another table’s order—had been placed on our table). The skewers on which our pork belly came threaded were very greasy and sticky all over, which meant that we ended up with terribly icky fingers. Despite a request (followed by several reminders) that we be given moist towels, finger bowls, or something else suitable enough to clean our hands, damp towels arrived only after about fifteen minutes.
Still, it’s worth it for the food, I guess. I’d go back to Guppy by Ai just for that—if someone else was paying!
Guppy by Ai
28, Main Market