Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Madhuban Fine Dining, and PVR memories

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?


  1. Hi!
    That is how things change.I had first visited Saket in1993, and my father commented that people there were brave enough to live in the outskirts like Saket.Though, we had come from Ghaziabad and considered ourselves lucky to be living in the midst of the city.
    In 1998, when I got into college, I had celebrated by going to Saket(it had become PVR then)and had sat there for an hour, sipping Thumbs Up.I did not want to betray my illustrious family by buying a 7 rupees ticket , and my illustrious family did not give me enough to buy a 120 rupees ticket.
    Saket has changed much aftre that.Qwiky's came and went and so did the crappy chineese restaurant in its place.It exploded after 2002.However, things change and it seems that its snob value is going down again as there so many better places to choose from.
    However SAKET, where I have spent the most of my misspent youth, would always hold a special place in my heart.
    Jai Saket.
    Jai Arjun.

  2. --"From a modest, bare-boned little colony centre into a bustling hub of Delhi yuppie/puppie-dom."
    I happened to arrive in Delhi in 1997, when the transition had just started. PVR was my first encounter with the multiplex phenomenon. And it changed the movie watching experience for all time to come.

  3. I remember that I detested the PVR Anupam on the one and only occasion I saw a movie there (Entrapment). We were running a bit late, and imagine my horror that after paying the equivalent of balcony-price for our tickets, we were forced to sit in the front row! And the screen was smaller than a regular theatre.

    Now it's a different story, because none of the LA theatres have preferential seating. But many of the multiplexes have at least one large theatre with a humungous screen.

    Speaking of the Empress of Bad Punning, here's a title from her review of a Korean restaurant:

    "Kabhi Kimchi, Kabhi Yum"!

  4. it was fun taking those DTC buses (or U Special if lucky) from North Campus, standing in the queue for the Rs.7 ticket and most of the time, not getting any ticket. Delhi rocks - yeah, i must be one of the few junta who loves Delhi to splits ;p More so when I am no longer there.

  5. Like Bem, I find myself reliving memories of standing in the Rs 7 ticket queue, watching a film, rushing back to the queue to get tickets for a later show, glowering at men who tried to 'act smart', fending questions like 'kya movie dekhne aye hain?' with equally subtle answers ('nahi, football khelne aye hain *much collective giggling*), trying to decide if a medium popcorn could be afforded and scrimping to have pizzas, buying second-hand and pirated books (it was an unenlightended age) from the booksellers outside and finally walking away with the realisation that the entire budget for the month had been effectivly screwed.

    Nothing like a nostalgia post, no?

  6. Oh yes, Saket has certainly come a long way. There was a time when no one would dare venture there after dark and now it's got crazy traffic even at 2 am.

    Good post!

  7. Hi Jai, bought me VCD(not DVD since I didn't know if I wanted to collect it) of one upon a time in the west after reading your review.. It was very very sholay or rather the other way, thx for writing such enlightening reviews.. But you didn't mention Claudia Cardinale, she came as a pretty strong women. but of course the review was about the Sholay connection and neither jaya nor hema fit the bill. But I kinda liked her..

  8. Man you know what? I never really thought about this... but yeah, I do remember Anupam and the small shops around and stuff.
    But I don't think I ever ventured towards the side where the barista is now...
    Didn't think there were shops there as well.

  9. Hi Jai
    You captured the feeling rather well. I feel the same way about Gurgaon and no, i haven't spend the better part of my life there. Though, the best 2 years of my life- 1998-2000 were spent at MDI Gurgaon- while pursuing an MBA and this was just before the malls hit Gurgaon- it was when Gurgaon was far far way from Delhi and we had to come to the developed Saket market to watch a movie. And in the two years we had learnt about all the dhabas and some 'fine dining' restaurants and discovered the real Gurgaon. And now it is such a destination for everyone.
    I guess I am possessive. About Gurgaon. *gosh to think I have been accussed of having a heart of stone* hehe

  10. Thanks for the comments, everyone - my disdain for group-hugging regardless, it does feel nice when there are responses to nostalgia posts. Sorry haven't been able to reply individually, there's just so much to do every time I get online (that too on a dial-up connection).

    Abhishek: I'd almost forgotten all about Qwiky's!

    Swati: I have her food guide with me. EVERY review has a Bad Pun in it. In fact, by her standards, the Kabhi Kimchi one is at least somewhat inventive.

    And *horrorstruck* I just remembered those Rs 7 lines, with the little hole-in-the-wall "ticket counter". It doesn't exist anymore to the best of my knowledge. ANd now there's a cinema hall elsewhere in the city where tickets are priced at Rs 1000 or something such (with sofa seating and a full meal thrown in, of course).

  11. Actually, the Rs 7 tickets were started only after the Delhi HC ruled that a fixed percentage of the tickets sold must be Rs.7. I had the unfortunate timing though of going to PVR before the cheap ticket era. My favourite one ever was when I went witha friend to see English August (there was an 11.50 show I think) and we were the only guys in the Rs7 queue :-))

    By the way, it would be awesome if you can post some pictures here. I thnk its my first time on your blog, but always good to see a Delhi-ite rave about the city :-)

  12. It is really strange to see a post about Anupam and Madhiban and Saket.Usually I cannot recognize any place mentioned in a Delhi Blog, but Saket was my stomping ground for the first 16 years of my life. Gyan Bharati was my school, and Madhuban was not always around. But when it did turn up, it was okay.
    Thank you for writing about this place.

  13. thats a really nice post on some contextual history on saket and the joke on amit's blog sure got me smiling first thing today morning...:)

  14. Good heavens! I think Jerry Maguire was *my* first movie at the newly minted PVR Anupam too! This post brought back so many memories! (Came here from the other, more recent Nirulas post.) I lived in Saket from 1988 to 1999. I still remember the macaroons and sticky toffee at Rozana, and that Archies Gallery, and the mithai shop (and there was an icecream parlour that kept opening and closing down every now and then..) and the veggie store(the one with the cold storage room). Thanks for bringing back all those childhood memories :)
    PS : Did you go to J-Block Mkt too? They had this video rental shop which had loads of Hitchcock, and Cary Grant films, (in bad print)- a boon before we started getting TNT on cable back then.

  15. Empress of Blandings: yes, you commented on my old Saket post (this one), about how you lived near one of those little colony mounds too. Can't believe there was someone else in that neighborhood who was interested in Cary Grant films! Yes, I went to the J-block video shop a few times - not too often though.

    1. Oh, by the way, Sweet Palace is back! It's where the Musicland is, right next to Madhuban.

  16. Your Saket stories are wonderful and bring back wondeful memories. 4 friend from LSR hitching in cars to get here and then Rs7 tickets - pricelessm indeed.

    PS I often read your blog. now that I am serving my notice period Im reading it more often than ever and am loving your posts on Delhi. Am very please that you are not from calcutta!