The Lodhi Gardens in Delhi are an amazing place. Once known as Lady Willingdon Park, these gardens in South Delhi are a hit with just about everyone from nature lovers (there are lots of species of trees here, and with a proportionate number of bird species to be seen) to heritage lovers (since the gardens are home to several well-preserved medieval monuments, including some fabulous tombs, a gorgeous mosque, a bridge, and more). Joggers and walkers come here in the mornings; weekends and holidays, especially in the early winter and spring, find the gardens jam-packed with picnicking families. Lovers snuggle and cuddle in the shrubbery.
… and there’s a restaurant. Part of the Lodhi Gardens spread, complete with towering trees, but separated from the gardens by a wall is Lodi—The Garden Restaurant. It’s a lovely space, the tables spread out across both indoors and outdoors. Outdoors, you sit under the trees (a caveat: there’s the occasional leaf drifting down from a tree), though some of the tables have beach umbrellas to shield them from the sun. There’s grey-white gravel underfoot, and an array of watering cans hung on a frame near the entrance, to form an unusual water-based art installation. There are secluded, curtained cubicle-like tables, as well as more open ones.
I’d been several times to The Garden Restaurant shortly after it opened, which was several years back. My memories of it were hazy, but I did remember liking it quite a bit. This time, on the 19th of February, which happened to be my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, my sister decided we could celebrate the day by taking our parents out to lunch to this place. Mid-February is a good time for an outdoor lunch in February: the weather’s not yet reached the scorching heat of summer, and the biting cold of the Delhi winter is gone.
And this day happened to be particularly lovely, the weather perfect. We arrived at about 1 in the afternoon, at a time when (perhaps because it was a weekday?), there were few tables occupied. We opted to sit at one of the outside tables—the weather was too good to go in—and got a table right next to one of the indoor spaces. Potted plants, some interestingly shaped sofas (made from what looked like polished driftwood), and billowing curtains made the area look intriguingly exotic.
But, onto the food. The Garden Restaurant’s menu is very eclectic: it doesn’t concentrate on one cuisine, but tries to do several. Yes, not something that excites me, because it always sounds to me like a recipe for disaster. The main culinary trends here seem to include Italian and French bistro-style food, but I saw everything on the menu from a mezze platter to kebabs, from paella to chicken infused with ‘Rajasthani kuti mirch & kasoori methi, perfumed with house mustard oil with garlic dip’.
After some thought, we decided to share two appetizers and have a main course each. For the appetizers, we chose chicken liver paté (a favourite with all of us—such a favourite that if we see it anywhere on a menu, we invariably end up ordering it) and ‘sesame coated deep fried scampi prawns with sweet chilli dip’. My parents both chose a Thai-sounding prawn curry—in a coconut milk gravy, flavoured with kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass—with steamed rice as their main course; my sister ordered a rainbow trout; and I chose a tenderloin steak with red wine jus and potatoes.
Though wine and other alcoholic beverages are available, we skipped these and instead opted for a mocktail: the pineapple sober, which is basically pineapple juice, ice, and ginger.
Our drinks arrived soon after, and with them came a complimentary basket of garlic bread. The pineapple sober could’ve done with more ice, as far as I was concerned, but it tasted good: the fruitiness of the pineapple was well balanced with the sharpness of the ginger.
We were still just about getting started when our appetizers arrived, too. The scampi were nothing more than large, butterflied prawns (yes, as Jeffrey Steingarten mentions in The Man Who Ate Everything, “scampi are not large shrimp, as Italian menus in the United States pretend”—he could well have added that ‘as pretentious restaurants in Delhi pretend’, as well). They were well-coated in sesame seeds, which made them lovely and crunchy on the outside; but they’d been overcooked, so the inside was not quite as tender as it should’ve been. The sweet chilli dipping sauce, I’m pretty certain, came out of a bottle. One thing I did appreciate here was the heap of fresh rocket leaves that accompanied the so-called scampi: rocket is a favourite of mine.
The chicken liver paté came with thin melba toasts, lovely and crisp. Also on the platter was a serving of ‘seasonal fruit compote’, which in this case was a dark pink heap of cubed pineapple which had been cooked along with cinnamon: unusual, and very nice, especially paired with the paté and the toast.
What didn’t appeal to me that much was the paté itself. It wasn’t bad—but it wasn’t out of this world, either. For one, it was a little too solid: I prefer my paté a tad ‘looser’ and easier to spread. Secondly, there was an odd sort of aftertaste to it that I couldn’t pin down, but didn’t especially care for.
But, on to our main courses. My parents were happy with their Thai-style prawn curry and rice; my sister expressed satisfaction at her pan-fried rainbow trout, which came with parsley potatoes, a generous portion of asparagus tips, and caper sauce.
I was not so happy with the tenderloin I’d ordered. If you know Delhi’s laws, you’ll have guessed that this isn’t beef, but buff (water buffalo meat, the closest thing to beef one’s legally allowed to serve in Delhi). I’d asked for my steak to be medium, and the cooking of it was pretty much correct, if you only went by the colour of the meat and the juices. The texture, in contrast, was unfortunate: just far too chewy.
The heap of potatoes, boiled and broken up into chunky bits, flavoured with (sautéed with? I couldn’t tell) fried onions was good, the green beans on the side were fine, as was the little mound of caramelized onions on top of the steak. What didn’t quite make the mark for me was the flavour of the steak. This was supposed to have been marinated in garlic and green peppercorns, both fairly robust flavours (I would think), but the steak hadn’t a hint of either. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the red wine jus that accompanied this, the steak would have been pretty insipid.
Anyway, on to the dessert. On the average day, with a main course and a shared appetizer under my belt (not to mention the mocktail), I’d have probably skipped dessert. But one’s parents’ golden wedding anniversary doesn’t come around every other day, so I made an exception. (The fact that an almond bread pudding featured on the menu may also have had something to do with that decision).
The Garden Restaurant doesn’t have a huge or terribly exciting dessert menu, so there was little to choose from. My mum wanted a chocolate mousse, but that wasn’t available, so she—like my father and my sister—settled for a fig ice cream instead. And I, having spotted that almond bread pudding (served with a caramel sauce and a scoop of fig ice cream), decided that was what I wanted.
The fig ice cream won a unanimous vote of confidence: it was lovely, creamy and smooth, with that luscious fruitiness of figs and the barely-there crunch of those tiny fig seeds. A great way to end the meal.
On the other hand, my almond bread pudding was by no means a bread pudding. It was a cake—in texture, rather like a pound cake—lavishly topped with slivered almonds before being baked. It sat in a pool of rich caramel sauce, and was topped off with a generous scoop of fig ice cream. The ice cream, as I mentioned, was excellent; the sauce was good, too. And the cake, if it had been billed as a cake, might have passed muster if it had been a little less dense, a little more moist and soft. As it was, because I’d been expecting a bread pudding—which, by its very nature, is supposed to have that gooey, moist, bread-soaked-in-milk texture—I was very disappointed.
Our bill was Rs 8,149, inclusive of all taxes and charges. Steep. Very steep, considering the quality of the food. If I were paying about Rs 2,000 per person for food, I’d expect something really fantastic. This was nowhere close to fantastic; in fact, much of it was fairly ordinary. If you only want the ambience and don’t really care for the food, go eat at the Garden Restaurant, by all means. Otherwise, steer clear. If you want good food and are in the vicinity of Lodhi Gardens, you’d do far better to go across to Jor Bagh and eat at Tres.
Lodi—The Garden Restaurant
Near Gate 1, Lodhi Gardens
Opposite Mausam Bhawan