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Khana, Punjabi style

Le Meridien captures the spirit and flavour of Punjab at the `Kaaka da dhaba' fest

— Pic. by N. Sridharan

Enjoy the dhaba experience at Navaratna, Le Royal Meridien — Pic. by N. Sridharan

SARSON KA saag and makki ki roti. Food for truckers who interrupt long stretches of sweaty driving at dusty dhabas by the side of the road. These are restaurants that don't aspire to be restaurants. They're simply lassi and paratha pauses in a journey, with nothing more than a couple of chairs, tables and creaky charpoys to seat their customers and a chipped wash-basin to send them on their way, saturated with ghee-drenched rotis and meaty kebabs.

Take a dhaba to a five star hotel and you have the kind of oxymoron that would make the original truckers laugh themselves into hiccups. After all, what kind of person delicately dips his fingers into a finger bowl afloat with slices of lime, when everyone knows you can just wipe away gravy with your sleeve.

However, Le Royal Meridien decided to give it a shot anyway. So, in honour of `Kaaka da dhaba,' they have converted their Indian restaurant `Navaratna' into a Punjabi dhaba — of sorts.

Perfect ambience

There are bright streamers on the restaurant pillars and Indian motifs on their walls, in a rather inexplicable attempt to infuse Navaratna with the spirit of Punjab. The waiters, dressed in shiny pink sequinned waistcoats and kurtas, look like a cross between runaways from a 1960s disco and bhangra kings. And a band, nestled in the corner, croons love songs from old Hindi movies, as diners stylishly fork in phirni.

`Kaaka da dhaba' begins with lassi in a fashionable avatar. Laced with saffron and laden with cashew nuts and almonds, it is a rather toned-down version of traditional lassi; loved all over the country for its icy, ever so slightly tart sweetness.

The house speciality, murgh tikka kandahari, made with boneless chicken cubes soaked in a marinade of cream, cheddar cheese, garlic and coriander and glazed in a tandoor, is succulent with crisp, curling edges. Peppered generously with chaat masala, it easily outshines the tandoori prawns, which are tasty enough on the outside, but blandly tough inside.

Dieter's delight

The evergreen (in every sense of the term) sarson ka saag is made the Amritsari way and is cooked in earthenware pots with mustard leaves, radish leaves and spinach, amongst other things. This mini forest, served with "home churned butter," is the kind of food you can feel virtuous about eating, considering the number of vitamins all those leaves are bursting with. The chef, unfortunately, has tried to make the makki ki roti a dieter's delight too, with rather unhappy results since the basically dry roti, by its very definition, needs to be drizzled in ghee.

The festival also features tangy pindi channa and a rather unusual version of the well-loved khadi — thick, spicy and afloat with onion dumplings simmered in aromatic gram flower and buttermilk gravy.

Conclude your dhaba meal by throwing caution to the wind and diving into the calorie-rich phirni. That, after all, is the way of the truck driver. (Though this particular dhaba seems to be tailored only for the kind of truck driver who passes out of a Swiss finishing school.)

Call 22314343 for reservations. The festival, open for dinner, concludes on September 19.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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