Time is surreal,
Such that in its fluid rhythm,
Moments can vanish,
As daydreams blend into each other,
Like an inseparable pair of waves.
I could not help but notice that poetry had transcended into a visual medium as I entered Delhi‘s legendary Imperial Hotel near the Cannought Place shops. Built in 1936, it transported us to a Victorian era with such precision that I almost expected to see duchesses peering at dapper tail coat men from behind cotton hand fans. Inside, the hotel has Italian marble floors, teak and rosewood furniture, and high ceilings. We waltzed past the indoor fountain made of Greek Aphrodites in black Italian marble and white porcelain against a minimalistic Parisian Chanel store, through the artwork clad marble hallways, beneath a the gloriously high ceilings with windows that inhaled sunlight and evoked a pleasant, silent calm that was in direct juxtaposition with the flamboyant Delhi I knew. And thus, we stepped into an oasis called The Spice Route.
It seemed like we had left the colorful pizzazz of Delhi far behind, stepping into what seemed like a Sri Lankan lagoon, a temple in Thailand, or a Goan paradise. The dimly lit ambiance brought the vivid, still paintings of Gods and Goddesses as they danced from branch to branch, or whisked us into an underwater world of sunken ships being explored by wide eyed fish. The balance of folk and culture with mythology and fantasy was akin to being on this sunken ship, exploring treasures with keen compass eyes. Emerald green low hanging roofs with Oriental edged woodwork made for an luscious indoor setting soaked in cultural tradition. When the wave of overwhelm washed passed us, we noticed a French window that peeped out at the bright Delhi sun, a pool of water and an outdoor veranda with Japanese roofing and a Medussa like structure, all of which brushed off our daydreams like summer snowflakes as we were guided to our table.
The sunlight shed a strange blue light, almost ghostly, owing to the fact that the interiors were so saturated in reds and mahoganys and golden hues. Admittedly, being one of the few guests there as the soft music transcended into the ambiance, it felt like a colder atmosphere. But then again, solitary explorations have always resulted in the best of results. Right Columbus?
On the way, I noticed that asymmetry was the only pattern in this entropic universe, an intentional design trick by Rajeev Sethi, who aspired to whisk his eaters through Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Kerala in just a few mesmerizing steps: nine to be precise, since the space was divided into nine phases of life,unearthed by metaphors. None of the wood finished copper and clay light fixtures were the same, and from room to room in a casually divided restaurant, the woodwork of rosewood and teak was constantly changing, clamoring up walls or repositioning itself as ceiling artwork. It was very reflective of an oasis that brought together cultures, traditions, and stories, reflecting new moods with every step. It’s no wonder that Conde Nast Traveler gave The Spice Route a gold stamp of approval.
The butler clad waiters whispered the menus to us, voices flowing into the riverlike ambiance, enlightening us that the accomplishment of this restaurant took seven long years, designed on principles of Feng Shui, with hand painted vegetable and flower dyes by mural painters from Kerala. The dream began to give way to reality as we had to place an order for an actual oral meal versus an endless display of visual inhalation. For the enchanting space was actually a treasure cove of nine sections.
As we wandered through, traveling within our travels, we noticed that the only stationary element was the structured table designs, with impeccable settings that felt like they had been measured. While eerily empty, considering that Delhites perhaps preferred a more boisterous setting while this one was reserved for the celebrity folks, it nonetheless created an other-worldly ambiance. Metallic gold plates with a fanned napkin, outlined by golden utensils and two wine glasses, all in silent conversation around a stacked pebble orchid creation as a centerpiece. The pink flowers were fresh, probably the only thing alive in the mirage of greens and oranges and pinks. But nonetheless, a striking visual treat that showed how tradition, etiquette and poise still existed in a world that was racing forward at light year speeds.
Chef Veena Arora‘s plethora of vegetarian bites offered classical flavors juxtaposed with modern finishes, akin to interior design, but for your palette. We began with wheat noodles that were camouflaged against tart Granny apple sliver bites and cabbage noodles, offering a literal dance in your mouth as you waded through the textures. Pickled with kimchi and lightly cooked cherry tomatoes added the contrast of spice and freshness, tied together when served on lettuce plates.
The array of chutneys made the rather greasy crackers more palatable: honey lemon, spicy chili, mango marmalade, vinegar onion and classic sweet and sour made for a new culinary voyage with each bite.
The rice and vegetables dish was more homemade and lacked its whimsy, but was nonetheless flavorful. For, of the multiple thousand types of rice, you can never go wrong with any rice you get in India. This was a Kerala harvested rice, thicker than a Basmati but less sticky, and blended well with the broccolis and corns and carrots and cauliflowers of the broth. Curry and rice is a South Indian staple, and here things were soaked in a sensual Goan curry with an abundance of coconut, so much so that even the nose began to play its role in this multi sensory experience.
Summing up with dessert, anything soaked in mango was an obvious choice given that we were in India. The mango cheesecake was soft and velvety, topped with coconut ice cream with crunchy coconut shavings. The accompanying cilantro, pepper and candied tomato sauce was on par with the trend of vegetables for dessert, and had a sweet and sour taste that married with the mellow sweetness of the rest. It was another theatrical performance for the palette when consumed in one, luscious, albeit tiny bite!
And thus ended a rather physically quiet yet metaphorically loud, classically eerie yet longingly beautiful afternoon.
Time was indeed surreal, for the journey from the sensuous interiors to the Victorian corridors and back to the bustle of Delhi was a cultural tsunami of its own.