One of the must-try dishes we’d hoped to savour during our stay in Hyderabad was haleem, that velvety combination of cooked ground meat, cracked wheat and spices that is the very epitome of Hyderabadi luxury. Sadly, everywhere we went, we were told that haleem is typically made only during Ramzan. “Come back after a month, and you’ll be able to get it,” seemed to be the advice universally offered.
We were eventually reduced to checking if haleem was available at any of the restaurants at the Lemon Tree Premier, where we were staying—and struck lucky. Kebab Theater, the specialty Indian restaurant on M Level (opposite Republic of Noodles), serves haleem, among other (mostly North Indian and Mughlai) dishes.
Kebab Theater’s theme is Hindi cinema, and that too a Hindi cinema that’s mostly erstwhile. The piped music consists of instrumental versions of old Hindi film hit songs, the walls are covered with posters (some of them parodying names of famous films, by converting them into food-related titles: Hum Appam Ke Hain Kaun; The Good, The Bad and The Idli. Lame, but still).
Best of all are the straight-backed chairs, their brightly coloured upholstery printed with life-size photos of film stars like Vyjyantimala, Johnny Walker, Helen, Pran, Prem Chopra, Mehmood, Saira Banu, Sharmila Tagore and Mumtaz. These, collectively, formed my favourite part of Kebab Theater’s décor.
We weren’t too interested in the rest of the menu (which, anyway, seems to consist largely of fairly predictable kebabs, tikkas, and the like). Instead, we searched out the haleem and ordered that without a second thought. My husband also spotted something that sounded interesting—daal-e-balai (black urad daal cooked with dried plums and cream) which got my vote too, so we ordered that as well. Plus a green salad, and an unusual bread—taaftaan.
Our orders placed, we sat back and looked around, admiring the décor of the restaurant. Shortly after, our waiter brought us a complimentary starter: four crisp, golden-brown little pani puris, each punctured and with a few spiced chickpeas placed inside, and with a tiny milk jug of tangy jaljeera on the side. While I’d have appreciated a little more filling, I liked this a lot, and both of us agreed that the jaljeera was spot on: fresh (a lot of good quality mint leaves had gone into it, I figured), spicy, sour, but not fiery hot.
We polished this off within minutes. Then came yet another lot of complimentaries: a metal bread basket with four halves of roasted paapads. On the side were two small bowls with accompanying dips. One was the fairly common green chutney (made with fresh coriander, mint and green chillies). The other was an unusual one: a dip which seemed to consist, from what we could tell, of ripe mango purée whisked with yoghurt. A sweet, fruity dip that I would not have expected to partner a somewhat spicy paapad as well as it did.
Our main course was, as we had hoped, worth ordering. The daal-e-balai wasn’t, in any way that I could see, different from the usual daal makhani: buttery, creamy, lightly spiced, but with no trace of the promised plums. A good, hearty daal, but nothing unusual. The taaftaan, on the other hand, was new to me: a soft, fluffy, leavened bread that reminded me of a European or Kashmiri bread more than anything else (I was to later discover that it’s of Persian origin). This was great for mopping up the daal and the haleem.
Which brings me to the highlight of our meal, the haleem. Haleem, cooked from goat meat which has been pounded, along with cracked wheat and spices, is a velvety paste that is one of Hyderabad’s best-known delicacies. Kebab Theater’s version was a very worthy representative of its kind: smooth as silk, delicious without being hot, well-seasoned and spiced, and with a lovely garnish of fried onions and garlic. On the side came several wedges of lime, the juice offering the perfect counterfoil to the meaty richness of the haleem. Along with the green salad (carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, onions and green chillies) that we’d ordered, this was an excellent main course.
We then arrived at the crucial decision to be made: dessert or no dessert? Kebab Theater offers a range of desserts, including some fairly common North Indian ones and some Hyderabadi ones. My husband, by now feeling rather full, settled on a fairly light option: phirni. I ordered a khubaani ka meetha. Both of us were going by past experiences: my husband, who likes to play it safe, has invariably found phirni to be hard to mess up; and I, who like to be adventurous and have had not-too-good khubaani ka meetha in Delhi, wanted to see how this classic Hyderabadi dessert fared in its hometown.
Both desserts came in large portion sizes, in teardrop-shaped bowls that would probably have served two. The phirni, coarsely ground rice cooked in milk till it’s thick, wasn’t as dense (almost setting) as it usually is—in fact, its consistency was rather more like that of kheer. The first spoonful tasted all right, not too sweet; then the aftertaste hit, and it was of milk that had been slightly burnt. Someone, obviously, hadn’t been stirring the phirni as frequently as they should have.
In contrast, the khubaani ka meetha—dried apricots stewed with sugar, and garnished with cream, slivered almonds and pistachios—was very good indeed. The apricots were good quality, not fibrous or tough, and after stewing, had partially been puréed, partially left whole, which provided a good contrast in textures. The only thing I’d have changed here was the proportion of cream to apricot purée: the dish was dominated by the purée (which got a little too sweet after a few spoonsful), and the cream—unsweetened, unwhipped—was just a drizzle on top. More cream, less purée, and it might have been more balanced.
Our bill for the meal was Rs 1,992, the most expensive meal we ate at any of Lemon Tree Premier’s restaurants. It was, however, worth it, because the food—barring the phirni—was very good. The haleem and taaftaan in themselves are enough reason to dine here.
(Note: when paying the bill, my husband told our waiter to pass on a message to the chef regarding the burnt flavour in the phirni. The waiter went to pass on the feedback, and came back with a laughable explanation: that the flavour was because of kewra [pandanus]! No, not at all, we assured him. We know the difference between kewra and burnt milk. Wouldn’t a simple apology have sufficed? As it was, we weren’t asking for it to be taken off our bill, or changed, or anything of the sort).
Lemon Tree Premier
Plot No. 2, Survey No. 64