Wandering about the PVR Saket complex after more than a month (London interlude, general busyness), I sensed something different in the air, like there had been a sudden shift in the coordinates governing the place. Then I turned a corner and saw these words blinking at me from a garish green neon board:
“Madhuban. Fine Dining.”
Now I’ve seen a lot happen to the PVR complex during the 18 years I’ve lived in this area. I’ve seen it transform bit by bit, layer by layer, from a modest, bare-boned little colony centre into a bustling hub of Delhi yuppie/puppie-dom. But looking at that new board I realised once and for all how irretrievably things had changed.
A little background here. I’ve lived in Saket since 1987. Anyone who’s only ever seen the complex as it’s been in the last few years will have trouble picturing what it was like back then. It wasn’t the PVR complex in the first place - the hall was called Anupam and we never went there, it had a seedy feel about it and we were the video-junkie generation anyway. A good decade before the Nirulas and McDonalds started moving in, there were maybe just six small shops scattered around the whole complex – and that’s counting the huts with the creaky photocopy machines outside. Where there is now a Barista, a Buzz, a Café Coffee Day, a Pizza Hut and a Subway, there was then only a bleak, anonymous line of office doors that seemed forever to be locked. The description of a red-letter event in the complex’s history was one muggy day when the He-Man barbershop (where you’ll still find me at 9.30 AM on every eighth Sunday) got an air-conditioner installed and people cheered and gave each other high-fives outside the shop – now that was Progress.
And right from the beginning there was Madhuban, this little eatery with “Indian. Mughlai. Chinese” proudly written outside. Back then, it was the closest we had to a fine-dining restaurant in the complex, hell, anywhere in Saket. Never mind that it was so dimly lit as to induce immediate somnolence in anyone who entered it. Never mind that six tables were squeezed tightly together in a space meant for three. Never mind that the surly owner sat at a tiny makeshift reception two feet away from the nearest table and glowered at his customers. Or that the “Chinese” was classic Punju-Chin (or Chinjabi as we call it): greasy noodles and fried rice; over-salted sweet corn chicken soup besieged by heavy doses of Ajinomoto and prepared so carelessly that I once found half an egg submerged in my soup bowl; and that most infamous of culinary inventions, the “chicken Manchurian”. It was still the only restaurant we had within a three-km radius and we loved it – and even when we realised that going there to eat wasn’t a very cool thing to do, it became our favourite home-delivery joint.
But what I’ll always remember Madhuban for is its tandoori chicken and daal makhni: for good or bad, my idea of what those dishes should be like has been defined for life by the way Madhuban prepared them. The chicken pieces weren’t as large or juicy as you’d get in more expensive restaurants, but they were more substantial than the scrawny things you’d find at most dhabas: just the right size as far as I was concerned. The preparation was basic – no excessive masala-smearing or self-conscious attempt to create a nouvelle-north Indian cuisine; the tandoor was allowed to do most of the work, and it did just enough to ensure that the natural flavour of the meat came through. And the daal was just creamy enough. The combination was superb value for money.
In the mid-1990s, strange things began to happen in our colony. Rumours grew of a light from the east, of a man named Bijli who had tied up with an Australian company to set up India’s first “multiplex” here. Rich relatives in other countries sent secret missives disclosing that multiplexes were cinema halls with three or four screens instead of one. We gaped in disbelief. Anupam shut down, then several months later we saw scaffolds and workers and large tarpaulins obscuring the building. In mid-1997 PVR Anupam opened and I went to see the first film shown there, Jerry Maguire, nothing of which registered because I was too busy alternately leaning back in the plush sofa-chairs and sinking my feet into the carpeted softness of the floor. Things would never be the same again in our modest little Saket which had, only 30 or so years earlier, been a forestland where men would go rabbit-hunting.
But somehow, through all the changes of the last few years, Madhuban soldiered on. It continued to exist in its squalid, poorly lit state, it refused to accept credit cards (I’m assuming it will now, in its new avatar) or to make any sort of effort to step up its publicity. It became an anachronism in this now-hep commercial centre and it was obvious that change – or closure – was inevitable. The only thing I’m surprised about is how long it has taken.
A spacious new dining area has now been created on the first floor, above where the restaurant used to be. The surly owner will probably be relegated to a back-room, replaced by someone more adept at flashing friendly smiles. Electricity will be introduced so diners will be able to see their food as they eat it. But I don’t expect many changes other than these cosmetic ones. There will be no elaborate launch. The food critics will stay away. If the Empress of Food Writing (and the Empress too of Bad Punning) in Delhi condescends to include it in her annual food guide, she’ll probably end a dismissive review with the line “There is nothing Madhur about this Van”. And all this is just as well. I don’t want a new lot of customers competing for that tandoori chicken, and perhaps urging the owners to jazz up the food.
I am a little miffed about the new name though. As far as I’m concerned, Madhuban has been fine dining for the best part of two decades. Why spell it out now?