‘Food festival’ is a term that’s been happily applied to just about any food-related (or remotely food-related event) in Delhi. Restaurants are fond of doing food festivals, often focusing on a specific cuisine, or a specific event. Dilli Haat (and a few other public spaces) tend to be chosen as venues for government-organised food festivals which are invariably about regional cuisines or specific types of food (there’s the annual Mango Festival, for instance, and if I’m not mistaken, there was also a Street Foods of India—or was it Delhi?—festival in the not-too-distant past).
What’s been missing is a large-scale, pan-region, pan-cuisine, pan-everything food event.
This year, though, a start was made. The brainchild of two ladies who teamed up to bring to Delhi its first ‘real’ food festival, Palate Fest 2014 was held at Nehru Park (Chanakyapuri) from Friday, November 28, to Sunday, November 30, 2014. I had been hearing about it off and on in a food forum on Facebook, but was under the (as it turned out, mistaken) impression that one needed passes. My sister, happening to be in the vicinity of Nehru Park on Friday, caught a glimpse of what Palate Fest was all about, and phoned to alert me: no passes, and what looked like a mouthwatering array of restaurants. So, along with husband and baby and my parents, we went off to Nehru Park on Saturday.
Nehru Park is huge, and the Palate Fest seemed to have utilized a good bit of the area. Entry to the food fest was from Gate 1 and Gate 3 (both are on the sides facing the embassies). Thankfully, we had our driver with us, because even though we arrived fairly early—by Delhi standards—the tiny parking lot was full, and much of the road was lined with parked cars. Having registered at the entrance (that was all that was required; entry fees were needed only for certain events, like participation in cooking classes), we went in.
Palate Fest, in its essence, consisted of tents set up by some of Delhi’s best restaurants, serving a limited selection—at discounted prices—of some of their signature dishes. The range of restaurants was amazing, covering everything from Tikka Town and Khan Chacha to Dakshin, Tres, and La Bodega. Some embassies—the Spanish and the Turkish among them—had also set up food stalls (the Turkish embassy in collaboration with Ala Turka). In addition, there was live music (pleasant enough and not intrusive, at least while we were there), cooking demos, and classes (which we didn’t have the time or inclination for).
Our main purpose was to come and try out some of our favourite dishes without having to go all the way to the restaurants in question. Where we’d entered, the first eateries whose stalls we encountered were far from inspiring: Khan Chacha (which, from the one time I’ve eaten in its smelly Khan Market outlet, I have no desire to return to) and Cup O’Noodles (predictably enough, deserted) among them. A little further on, things got slightly better, and we entered a pretty little fenced-off area, with spherical paper lanterns hanging from the trees and a little wheelbarrow of fresh flowers standing in front of a row of stalls from some of our favourite restaurants: Le Bistro du Parc, Guppy by Ai, Soda Bottle Opener Wala, Olive. We managed to get a table for four at one end of the yard.
The way this worked was that there was one composite menu for all the four representative restaurants: each restaurant had its own section of a dozen or so dishes, and you could place your order—of whatever you wished, from any of the restaurants—with a waiter, who would then place the order on your behalf with each of the stalls, and the food would be brought over to you.
After some perusing of the menu (and my parents having abdicated by saying, “You order for us”), we decided we’d order a dish each from three of the stalls, and would share them. What we ended up ordering was a bit of a mishmash: keema pattice from Soda Bottle Opener Wala, non-vegetarian tartine from Le Bistro du Parc, and the signature pork belly from Guppy by Ai. Although there were a couple of wines and beers on the drinks menu, apart from aerated soft drinks, we settled for a bottle of mineral water.
My husband paid up. And, oddly enough, when he asked the waiter for a bill, was told, “I’m sorry, that won’t be possible.” When he insisted, the waiter gave him a copy of the Kitchen Order Ticket, with the prices of each item scribbled on it. Strange, and I wondered why: possibly because these were actually four restaurants functioning as one? Whatever; I’m not sure it’s strictly legal…
Our keema pattice from Soda Bottle Opener Wala arrived first: two patties, all golden puff pastry on the outside, lightly spiced minced mutton on the inside. With them came a little bowl of tomato ketchup (not really needed, actually, since the keema had enough flavour of its own). While the filling was good, the pastry was a little disappointing: not flaky enough, not crisp enough, and with a faint greasiness to it that I didn’t particularly relish. This was an okay dish; best eaten, perhaps, at teatime, with mawa cake, samosas, and good hot masala chai. We might have been better off ordering the berry pulao.
Next up was the signature pork belly from Guppy by Ai. This was as good as we remembered from the one time we’ve eaten at the restaurant: skewered pieces of very succulent pork, cooked and glazed in a gorgeously sweet-sour sauce. The ratio of fat to meat was just right, the little sprinkle of finely sliced spring onions on top providing a nice little contrast in colour and texture, though not much in the way of any sort of vegetable complement to the protein.
Last but not the least was the non-vegetarian tartine from the Le Bistro du Parc stall. This was pretty as a picture: a thin slice of toasted French bread, covered with velvety chicken liver pâté, and garnished with paper thin slices of crimson-skinned white radish, yellow radish (?) micro herbs (especially some superb dill, very fresh and contrasting beautifully with the bread and pâté) and a few colourful petals of edible flowers. A pleasure for the eyes and the palate, even though it reminded me of why I haven’t been back to Le Bistro du Par after my first visit there: the food is excellent, but it’s overpriced.
Even though we’d fished out a hefty Rs 1,000 for our three dishes and a bottle of mineral water (all, I assume, inclusive of taxes), we were far from full. So we got up and trudged on, past yellow-flowering shrubs and over the lawns, to the next lot of white tents. Here were more stalls, and more crowds, too. While my husband and my father went off to look at the food on offer, my mother and I managed to nab a couple of wooden benches fixed to a wooden table (not a very safe style of furniture, especially for the elderly: my mother has problems with her balance, so stepping over the bench in order to sit at the table proved difficult).
Anyway, on to the food. One of the most popular stalls in this part of the festival grounds appeared to be Habibi (which, I must confess, I’d never heard of). Lebanese food, and—from the crowds queuing up outside—obviously pretty good too. My husband and my father brought us three dishes from Habibi to share: a chicken shawerma, a mutton shawerma, and a fatayer bil lahem.
The fatayer bil lahem was the only one of these three dishes that I had no previous experience of; it was something like a Middle Eastern pizza: a thin pita bread, topped with a lightly spiced minced meat, and baked. Unpretentious, good comfort food.
The shawermas were, in essence, the same thing, though of course with two different meats. Strips of grilled meat, wrapped in a lightly toasted pita bread, rolled, and served with a side of French fries, freshly sliced tomatoes, and a dip. The dip, which I couldn’t identify, was a nice one, which seemed to consist of yoghurt, chopped parsley, and possibly tahini. The chicken shawerma, sadly, lacked flavour: it had none of the juicy, lightly spiced brilliance I expect of a good chicken shawerma. The mutton one, thankfully, was much better, and closer to what a proper shawerma should be like.
By this time, Nehru Park—or rather, the area in which the tents had been set up—had become very crowded. We had had the ill-luck to find ourselves seated next to a dustbin. While there were cleaning staff around, nobody seemed to have come around to empty this particular bin in a while, so it had begun to overflow with paper plates and glasses, napkins and leftovers—the latter also attracting stray dogs. Most unpleasant.
We decided we were full enough to have only dessert, and this—since we were seated right opposite Habibi—seemed to be best got from Habibi. My husband, on his initial recce to the stall, had seen what desserts they had, so he went and got us one kunafa and one mohalabiya to share. The mohalabiya, served in a clear plastic bowl, was a chilled milk pudding thickened with rice flour and flavoured with rose water; it came garnished with a canned red cherry (rather incongruous, I thought) and—more in keeping with the Lebanese origins of the dish—slivered nuts. Pleasant, though nothing to really write home about. I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t too sweet.
The kunafa was more interesting. Even though I’ve heard of this sweet before (and have been meaning to pick up some from Kunafa ever since it opened!), I’ve never actually got around to tasting any. This was a first, and it turned out to be pretty good: a substantial-looking cake, a pale yellow in colour, with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios on top. The texture was more dense and crumbly than that of a ‘Western’ cake, the flavour subtle and not too sweet. Very nice, and I was wishing I could have had a cup of good Turkish coffee to go with it.
(We spent a total of Rs 585 at Habibi).
So that was it—or almost. We headed back towards the parking, and on the way, passed the food stall of the Gurgaon bakery, Sucré. We are suckers for baked goods, but didn’t have space in our tummies for any more. (Also, the burgeoning crowds were by this time beginning to scare us). Besides their delicious-looking cakes and cheesecakes, Sucré had some nice biscuits too, so we succumbed and had some packed: two large coconut lemon and chilli oat cookies, and a batch of cranberry and almond biscotti. It cost us Rs 220, which wasn’t bad…
…especially when we tasted the biscuits later that day. The coconut lemon and chilli oat cookies had the slightly chewy texture of oatmeal, but didn’t go overboard on it—and had a most interesting flavour. After my first nibble, I said, “I can taste the coconut, all right—but there’s no chilli”—and just then, the chilli hit. Not overpowering, just enough to leave a mildly tingling heat as an aftertaste. I do wished, though, that there had been a more pronounced flavour of lemon: it was far too mild to be even noticeable.
The cranberry and almond biscotti, on the other hand, got my complete and unabashed vote. I love biscotti (I hasten to add: when it’s well-made, not the clunky, solid, bar-like biscuits passed off in umpteen coffee places across Delhi as biscotti). And Sucré’s biscotti was lovely: thin, crisp, buttery and almondy. And, best of all, the tart, slightly chewy bursts of fruitiness thanks to the cranberries. Super.
So that was our experience of Palate Fest 2014, both at the site and what we brought home.
Impressions? A great idea, which allows restaurants to showcase themselves and their best dishes, which will—hopefully—entice people to come to the restaurant itself. Plus, it’s good for diners: this was a good way of checking out restaurants one may have heard about but not got around to visiting. And, for foodies like us, this was the chance to savour some of our favourite dishes from various restaurants without actually having to go all the way to the restaurant itself. (For families with babies and little children, there was the added bonus of getting good restaurant food in a very child-friendly environment).
On the downside, there was a host of problems: overflowing trashcans, stray dogs, dirty loos, long queues at stalls, and a horrendous tangle at the parking lot. Many of these, of course, could be attributed to the huge crowds that turned up for Palate Fest—coupled, possibly, with a lack of being able to deal with so many people (others who visited later in the day, especially on the last day, complained that food stalls had run out of food). Also, the pricing of some of the food stalls was way over the top. For an event like this, it might be an idea to settle for a lower margin and let more people know of your existence (and appreciate your food) than to cater only for the very select few who can afford your food. Guppy by Ai’s pork belly, for instance, priced at Rs 400 for what was actually a rather minuscule quantity, would probably have put a lot of people off. We splurged on it, but it’s not as if it’s tempted us enough to go back to Guppy for a full meal.
Perhaps we’ll see some changes for the better in coming years. Even if we don’t, I’m happy, at least, that we finally have a proper food festival in Delhi!