Ladles clink against cast iron woks, knives slice through crisp greens, marinated meats sizzle on griddles. Such daily behind-the-scenes choreography in commercial kitchens is routine for chefs who strive to plate perfection. But, on their day off, when they hang up those aprons and toques, where do they go to eat—and what do they chow down? Seven chefs let us in on their favourite food joints across India, from glitzy five-stars and quirky standalones to hole in the walls that need no reservations—just an appetite to stomach it all.
When not sprucing up Indian delicacies with global influences, Manish Mehrotra is busy digging into oriental flavours. The China Kitchen at Hyatt Regency Delhi is the chef’s “favourite place to catch up with friends over an authentic Chinese meal.” Their steamed dumplings of red chilli filled with coriander shrimp mousse served with ginger soy is Mehrotra’s go-to order, as is their chilli-spiced soft, sweet prawns. For a traditional Kashmiri meal, he turns to Chor Bizarre, a restaurant near Delhi Gate. The interior is kitschy and seating options include a four-poster bed, a sewing machine and even a model of Fiat 1927. Here, Mehrotra recommends a plate of palak patta chaat, a sweet yoghurt and tamarind-based crispy spinach fritter preparation. For mouthwatering portions of mutton tikka and kebabs, he swears by Sab ki Khatir, a nearby hole-in-the-wall takeaway, and for snacks, the entire chaat menu at the street-side Vaishno Chat Bhandar in Kamla Nagar.
Manu Chandra, who featured in Fortune’s 40-under-40 list of entrepreneurs, has introduced Mumbaikars to household names such as Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar and Toast & Tonic. He’s naturally busy, but when he does find himself in Bengaluru, it’s customary to visit Toms, an old unassuming Mangalorean restaurant on Brigade Road. After decades of holding sway in the same place, the restaurant recently moved to a new location in Kormangala 8th Block. But the food is still the same: simple, consistent and packed with flavours. “Don’t miss their Mangalorean sorpotel, chilli prawns, beef fry and the sannas (rice cakes),” Chandra advises. “They also have pocket-friendly thali options, and are efficient in delivery.” Its central location makes it rather easy to get to. But that’s just an add-on—this one is worth going that extra mile for.
Picks: Delhi & Mumbai
The UK-based chef has been busy plating up northeast Indian specialities for diners at Kanishka, his latest venture in London. But ask him about his favourite food joints back home and he’ll reminisce of gluttonous trails in Delhi and Mumbai. Karim’s, around Delhi’s Jama Masjid, tops his list. The no-frills restaurant established in the early 20th century is a culinary destination in itself, serving Mughlai delicacies such as charcoal-roasted mutton kebabs, fiery mutton nihari, creamy butter chicken, and some lip-smacking biryani. He also frequents Kake Da Hotel in Connaught Place that dishes out a homely dal makhani, tandoori chicken and rogan josh. Mumbai’s Bademiya, situated in two prime locations—as a food stall in Colaba and a restaurant in Fort—is another of Kochar’s favourites. When in Mumbai, he usually finds it hard to resist Bademiya’s succulent seekh kebabs, oily mutton korma and their sinful, slow-cooked dum biryani. To round off the meal, he votes for matka rabdi.
Pastry chef Pooja Dhingra has whipped up some mean macarons, giving dessert cravers a taste of Paris in Mumbai. On a lazy day, she frequents Birdsong Café in Bandra, a hipster joint with bricked walls and arched windows, which serves organic fare: think red rice masala dosa, tofu scramble and Vietnamese vegan sandwich. “I generally like going there for breakfast and enjoy the vibe of the place. My favourite things to order there are the akuri and hot chocolate,” she says.
Picks: Kolkata & Mumbai
Before taking up a gig at the Trident in Mumbai, Saurav Banerjee helmed the kitchen of a Kolkata five-star. His picks are split between the two metros. For a plate of rava dosa, he recommends heading to Banana Leaf in Kolkata, while Beijing in Tangra, he says, is to be trusted with their serving of ‘drums of heaven,’ an appetiser of fried chicken wings tossed in Szechwan sauce, with a side of delish green chutney. Badshah in New Market is a safe bet for chicken and egg rolls. When it comes to Bengali desserts, Saurav places his money on Gopinath in Sakher Bazar for kheer kadam (milk, saffron and khoya mix laddus) and kancha golla (cottage cheese balls kneaded with sugar), as well as Vien at Theatre Road for some of the best rasgulla in town. In Mumbai, the chef lists Ram Ashraya in Matunga for its idlis and rasam vada, and Jia, next to the Gateway of India, for their Chinese-style soft shell crabs.
Pappu Singh’s days usually entail keeping pace with the madness inside The Oberoi Grand’s kitchen in Kolkata. But once every week on his cheat day, the otherwise conscious eater frequents Sharma Dhaba in Ballygunge and Jai Hind Dhaba in Bhowanipore. This ritual is followed by a drive to Durgapur with his family; en route to which they relish local preparations in the dhabas that line the highway. “Dishes as simple as chicken kosha (chicken curry), phulkopir singara (cauliflower samosa) and lyangcha (a deep fried chana-based sweet) are some of my favourites along the Burdwan road,” Singh writes over email. Kathi rolls at Zeeshan in Park Circus, mutton biryani at Arsalan, chicken bharta at Amber, sumptuous Bengali staples at 6 Ballygunge Place and desserts at Patisserie by Franziska are, Singh reckons, some other Kolkata must-visits.
Chef Regi Mathew is big on authentic flavours drawn from remote corners of Kerala—a pursuit he incorporated in his gastronomic venture of Kappa Chakka Khandari— first in Chennai, then in Bengaluru. For its very simplicity, Nair Mess, an unassuming Malayali joint, is one of Mathew’s all-time favourites. Despite its two storeys, the restaurant located on a narrow street opposite M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is easily missable by first-timers. The place has a distinct aroma of coconut oil, which engulfs your senses before you can even scan the room; when you do, you realise it is full of cricket fans on a match day and regulars, including rickshaw drivers, feasting on authentic South Indian spreads served on fresh banana leaves. The chef strongly recommends trying out their fish fry and omeletes.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.