There are several things I miss when I dine at Indian restaurants abroad. And, they have nothing to do with the food served.
I have made my peace with the fact that I may be eating at the best and most highly rated Zagat and Michelin restaurants, but the food will never taste as good as it does back home. This, I understand may be influenced by many factors, most of which are beyond the control of restaurant owners.
Hence, my next logical yardstick for judging the restaurant is how much at home it makes me feel. Sadly, the hospitality and experience at most Indian restaurants abroad -- especially in the U.S. -- have been way off mark.
It is natural for cuisines to be altered according to popular tastes of the country or region they are situated in, but some rituals of dining define the very personality of the culinary experience. My three essentials for Indian cuisine are as below -- they are neither cost intensive nor inconvenient, and yet they complete the experience of Indian dining for me.
1) A quarter plate of onion rings, sliced lemon and whole green chillies.
2) Water served in a steel or copper tumbler.
3) A finger bowl with one or two pieces of sliced lemon, at the end of the meal.
Like they say, things come at you when you least expect them. And in a country of just 20,000 Indians, as compared to nearly 3 million in the United States, I didn't expect the Indian cuisine scene to be any better.
However, I was pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago. And, Punjabi Restaurant in Beijing's Chaoyang Gongyuan, popularly known as Lucky Street,deserves a special mention. Not so much for its mediocre fare, as for its attempt to provide an authentic Indian dining experience.
Yes, it served us water in shiny copper tumblers and provided us fancily decorated hari mirch and kaanda. But most of all, it provided me with that elusive bowl of luke warm water with two freshly sliced pieces of fragrant lemon.
Me bellowing impolitely over the heads of at least eight other diners was well worth the effort. "Bhaiya!!! Finger bowl dijiye na..." I had yelled!
Now I felt like doing the jig. "Oye hoy! Balle balle (with both hands up and index fingers pointed)...!!!"
Punjabi made me feel at home in China!