India on your doorstep

The only time I ate meat during a two-month trip across India was in the blue city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

Blue because of the cerulean paint the Brahmins apply to their homes—as a mark of caste, for coolness and apparently as an insect deterrent.

You overlook these houses from the restaurant terrace at the massive 347-room, 1940s art deco palace of the Maharaja Gaj Singh II.

With silver service and by Indian standards excessively expensive, the lamb rogan josh was by far the best meal I enjoyed in India. And this, I emphasise, was the night before I crossed the Thar Dessert on camel—not upon my return. My particular camel was not only a gawky, garrulous male adolescent, but also in must and in addition had the evil smell of a stomach complaint.

No such illness affected me in India. The trick is to have no water, except bottled. This includes rinsing cutlery, ice in drinks and brushing your teeth. It’s important to have absolutely no Western meals and no chicken or meat of any kind—only cooked vegetarian Indian food.

Except, of course, at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Funnily enough, eating there reminded me of Cape Town. For there is only one other place where I’ve had North Indian food almost identical and as good and where no precautions are needed to avoid a gastric ambush. I’m referring to Bukhara, only a few blocks from where I live.

I have frequented this establishment regularly since it opened 13 years ago. There have been disappointing times, but it has never been outrageously bad. Fortunately, it is also one of Munchkin’s favourite restaurants and, considering the number of meals the two of us have eaten there in the past few years, we agree to award four stars for consistency.

The softly lit interior has the red, brown and sienna hues of Rajasthan. Dining tables are solid teak. In keeping with the Indo-colonial style, you’re issued a linen bib, really allowing you to tuck in. Sometimes on a Sunday night, when they do laundry, I’ve been given paper serviettes.

The winelist is extensive, but beer goes best with Indian food.

I am too favoured by the staff to comment objectively on the service, but my impression is that most clients find it comme ci, comme ça, in line with the rest of Cape Town.

All meals start with complimentary poppadums and two relish dips. Main courses used to be served in Indian copper pots, but these were recently replaced by white porcelain dishes. I miss the rustic feel. The menu has also streamlined, but most people enjoy a greater variety of tastes, as each main course now comes with two free accompaniments. These you can mix and match with anything, but I unhesitatingly recommend the dal makhani (black lentils cooked overnight in a real tandoor oven), the palak (puréed spinach so intensely green you feel as though you can taste the chlorophyll) and if you have anything with hot spices, a cucumber raita (yoghurt with chives and garlic) is essential. In addition to these I recommend ordering plain basmati rice (R19) and a garlic nan (R19), a white-flour leavened bread, piping hot with burned black spots from the clay tandoor. Also ask for chutney (even if it is the humble Mrs Balls, it’ll do.)

The restaurant has dropped a few dishes I enjoyed from the menu, such as the nutty lamb pasanda, the fragrant bemisaal and my peculiarity, the Goan vindaloo. But the chef makes a superb vindaloo sauce (for R40) on request. A warning: it is volcanic, with whole dried chilli pods floating on top. If you are not accustomed to it, you will be begging to be admitted to the burn unit at Tygerberg Hospital.

Bukhara does not serve pork or beef. The most popular dish is the succulent butter chicken (R109), a mild tikka in cashew-nut gravy. Lamb bhunna gosht (R124) is a stew in thick, viscous gravy and meekly spiced for those not too disposed to curry. For something fractionally hotter, I highly recommend the lamb rogan josh (R124) cooked in a yoghurt sauce with fresh tomatoes. The lamb is usually meltingly soft, though on a handful of occasions I was served cubes of “sheep”.

My latest discovery is the delicious fish curry (R114), a fresh kingklip tikka marinated with chickpea flour and ajwain, a spice version of the herb thyme.

Unusually, this is one Indian restaurant not well geared towards vegetarians. There are several choices, with dishes featuring paneer (a homemade Indian milk-curd cheese), dal (lentils) and aloo (potatoes), but these are not their forte.

If you have room for dessert, the speciality is the kulfi (R34), an Indian ice cream with saffron and pistachio. It’s a balm after the vindaloo.

Now when I dine at Bukhara and the kulfi slowly dissolves in my mouth, I inevitably recall that terrace at the palace in Rajasthan overlooking the blue city—and I feel as content as a sultan.

Bukhara, 33 Church Street, Cape Town, is open from Monday to Saturday for lunch (12pm to 3pm) and from Monday to Sunday for dinner (6pm to 11pm). Starters: R44 to R74; Mains: R99 to R164. Tel: 021 424 0000

This review is based on the original Bukhara, not the branches in Sandton, Grand West Casino or Stellenbosch

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