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, both 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.
Silver service and by Indian standards excessively expensive, the lamb rogan josh was faraway the best meal I enjoyed in India. And this was, I emphasize, the night before I set off, not after I crossed, the Thar Dessert on camel. My particular camel was not only a gawky garrulous male adolescent, but was 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; absolutely no Western meals, and no chicken or meat of any kind, only cooked Indian vegetarian 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, and that is at Bukhara, ironically only a few blocks from where I live.
I have regularly frequented this establishment since it opened thirteen 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 couple of 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, allowing you to really tuck in. Sometimes on a Sunday night, when they do laundry, I’ve been given paper serviettes.
Unusual for an Indian restaurant, the winelist is extensive.
I am too favoured by the staff at this restaurant 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. These were recently replaced by white porcelain dishes. I miss the rustic feel. The menu has also streamlined, however 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 (pureed spinach so intensely green you feel as if 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 basmatic rice (R19) and a garlic nan (R19), a white flour leavened bread, piping hot with burnt black spots from the clay tandoor. Also, ask for chutney. I believe it is Mrs Balls and it is quite superb.
Among the main courses, they have dropped from the menu a few dishes I enjoyed, the nutty lamb pasanda, the fragrant bemisaal and my peculiarity, the Goan vindaloo. However, the chef makes a superb vindaloo sauce (for R40) on request. A word of warning – the vindaloo 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 a 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 to 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 actually have room for dessert, the speciality is their kulfi (R34), an Indian ice cream with saffron and pistachio. It’s a balm after the vindaloo.
And 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. – Brent Meersman
Bukhara, 33 Church Street, Cape Town. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch (12 – 3pm) and Monday – Sunday for dinner (6pm – 11pm). Starters: R44 – R74; Mains: R99 – R164; Tel: 021 424 0000. www.bukhara.com
This review is based on the original Bukhara, not their branches in Sandton, Grand West Casino or Stellenbosch.
Published in the Mail & Guardian 16 September 2008.