Treasures of coastal India come alive with richness of their flavours at Varq


New Delhi, May 9: When Chef Arun Sundararaj says he’s “hardly in the media”, it isn’t entirely true, but he does not have to court journos and ‘influencers’ to be in the news.

It’s his food that does the talking. When Varq opened in 2008 at The Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, it carried the unmistakable stamp of Hemant Oberoi, the then corporate chef of the hotel chain, and was famous for its classical pan-Indian menu presented in an avant garde style.

Varq’s achari mutton, for instance, came in the traditional earthen pickle jar, martaban, and became famous as Martaban Ka Meat. Another of Varq’s hot favourites was the tangy and sweet and crunchy Palak Patta Chaat. Coming from the South, and having presided over the kitchens of one of the chain’s prized hotels, Falaknuma Palace, Sundararaj has given India’s vast seafood wealth the pride of place it deserves.

From coastal Maharashtra all the way to Gangasagar in West Bengal, via Lakshadweep and Andamans, the seafood repertoire, from mussels and oysters to soft shell crabs, that shows up in people’s homes and roadside shacks can fill up an encyclopedia. This is exactly what we miss in Delhi, being far from the sea, but it seems to have pumped up an insatiable appetite for seafood in the city. Sensing a market waiting to be fed, every summer, Varq showcases its seafood menu. Last year, the multi-award-winning Chef Naren Thimmaiah from the top coastal cuisine restaurant, Karavalli at the Vivanta Bengaluru, was in the city to spoil us with a selection from the menu of the foodie magnet that opened its ornate doors in 1990.

On Tuesday, May 8, it was Sundararaj who presented his seafood and mango tango, starting with a masala crab salad with mango coulis dots, which looked like a painting on the plate, followed by a squid roast infused with the flavours of Kerala and accompanied by a mango salad, and prawns cooked in the Goan balchao paste, served in threes in corn tacos, the softness of the crustaceans offset by the crunchiness of the taco shells. A menu addition, which was apparently decided at 11 a.m., just a couple of hours before our lunch, was a plump marinated scallop served with a breezy foam suspended on top along with a mini bruschetta and crab salad. We love such afterthoughts!

If the entrees were soul-satisfying, the mains, which followed a shot of tomato rasam and a dahi bhalla sorbet, expressed Varq’s steadfast philosophy of not sacrificing the authenticity of flavours at the altar of nouvelle cuisine pr√©sentation. The Malvani prawns tasted just as they would at a shack in Sindhudurg, and the Alleppey fish curry from Sundararaj’s home state, Kerala, came with the richness of the raw mango and coconut curry; the Malabar Fish, though, was tweaked, with pan-seared sea bass being served on a base of cashew nuts, but the coconut and tamarind flavours were left intact. This feast for the senses, accompanied by a conversation marked by spirited disagreements over newly opened restaurants, ended with a robust fish biryani, followed by a thandai and filter coffee tiramisu. The taste of the South lingered as one left the hotel with delicious memories and a fulfilled stomach.¬†