Old is gold. Given the golden hues of Bukhara, you may be forgiven for thinking this old adage has been literally translated. Little has changed since the restaurant opened about 35 years ago. It is India’s best known restaurant globally, and possibly the most profitable too. Praise for has been awash in clichés that have sung paeans to its raans and naans and of course Dal Bukhara.
In India’s notoriously fickle restaurant industry, spectacular success have been limited at best. It top flight five star hotels, any successes beyond coffee shops have been even more rare. The talk is usually more about survival, managing costs, resources and expectations, and well, surviving. Specialty restaurants in India’s top hotels have been exceptions to this rule. Many a lovingly created outlet has failed to enthuse patrons and fallen by the wayside.
Keeping all this in mind only magnifies the immense success of Bukhara, effectively ITC Group’s flag bearer almost ever since it launched. As it completes 35 years in August, the restaurant at ITC Maurya in Delhi, also part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, has grand celebrations planned for those who made it a success – its regular flow of patrons with special memorabilia.
Its legends have built up over time. Presidents, royals, celebrities, sports stars, corporate leaders – Bukhara has delighted them all over the years, and its word of mouth publicity has been no less effective than any promotion. Snapshots of famous people adorn the entrance to the hallowed portals.
Menu by heart
Most regulars do not even have to order. With a limited menu, or what in today’s parlance could be called ‘select’ menu, the cuisine is composed of fairly rich food from a rather indeterminate region. Served in what is probably the least comfortable seating in a top end restaurant anywhere in India, Bukhara has turned almost all conventional wisdom for achieving success in the restaurant business on its head. Low key Executive Chef, Bukhara, JP Singh and his team are familiar with most of them and their preferences. Sikandari Raan, Murgh Malai Kebab, Tandoori Jhinga, Barrah Kebab, Reshmi Kebab, Tandoori Phool, Paneer Tikka and of course Dal Bukhara – that’s effectively half the menu, and the restaurant cant dish out enough of it through the year.
Bukhara’s success is measured in quality and consistency. While fine dining and Bukhara are not usually mentioned in the same sentence – possibly given not just the extreme heartiness of the menu, but also the absence of cutlery. This has often meant an initial orientation for those not familiar, especially non Indians. Of course the source region has no fine dining antecedents either, and Singh mentions there was a process to converting the cuisine to a top flight hotel culture, from the time to tenderize meat to concocting vegetarian dishes.
The hearty cuisine, so beloved of north Indians, is largely traditional food of the region. Anyone familiar with Bukhara will know of its long standing open kitchen, where Chef JP Singh, who took over in 1991, helms a group of 16 chefs. Bukhara sees little staff turnover. The colourful Mandanlal Jaiswal began the menu, and on his untimely death, Singh has held the banner aloft admirably. “When I joined, it was a challenge,” he admits. Very much hands on, he and the team of 17 chefs are constantly in the kitchen, in two shifts.
Prepping it right
Prepping the simple looking menu is another matter altogether. Right from exacting sourcing standards to standardisation in menu, the food here has had a consistency most restaurants would give their clients to have! Standards for each item are prescribed. The leg of lamb for the raan has to be between 1.2 to 1.5 kg, the Jumbo Prawns have to weigh 80 to 120 grams to find approval here. Even the dal, of which about 140 portions prepared daily has only 2 kg butter in about 45 to 50 kg dal, Singh says!
The dal has its special place of honour in this predominantly meat based cuisine. Carefully sourced unpolished dal has a preparation time of about 24 hours when it continuously simmers on a master pot over low flame, its creamy texture is unmatched. Such is the precision that the dal has be lustrous but not break out, its texture perfectly creamy and taste perfect. The dal is famously always on the fire! Legends have built around it such an extent that admirers have often credited a month long roasting for the dal in their paeans!
What’s a roadside dhaba doing at a five star hotel, you might wonder. Well, that’s the look. Stone clad walls, log top tables flanked by benches and stools (quick tip – insist on the bench), wooden pillars and uprights, strung bead screens, and copper utensils suspended from the ceiling complete Bukhara’s look! Largely unchanged, right down to the same textile pattern, even in the same colours are used in upholstery for benches and stools. The restaurant has 130 covers, up with an extension a few years ago, but the waiting area still sees a crowd, and revenues can top Rs 15 lakh a day in peak season!
Not that there hasn’t been criticism. Change has been glacial, and sometimes even things that are not officially on the menu are available – just ask for paneer or chicken khurchan. For those unaccustomed, even Indians, the food can be dry especially as there are no gravies to accompany the breads. Prices have been high to the point of being ridiculed often – a meal for two minus alcohol is in the range of Rs 5,000.
Efforts to extend the brand too did not work out. A few Bukharas did open internationally, but closed due to various reasons. Indeed, ITC management long ago decided that there would only be one Bukhara and all clones would be called Peshawari, of which there are quite a number now. None have attained the fame of the mother brand. Which looks set to continue its journey for years to come. Singh, who has hosted Bukhara menus in many top hotels around the world, says it is important to keep abreast what is happening in the cuisine. He along with Corporate Chef, ITC, Manjit Gill, plan to visit the region later this year to get a feel of what is happening in the region. Even if there is little change, patrons are unlikely to complain any time soon.