It’s always been a pet peeve to hear the culinary diversity of the country’s north bunched up under the blanket term, ‘north Indian’. In such a scenario, Loya, the new restaurant at the Taj Palace, New Delhi, comes as a breath of fresh air. It offers a delicious journey through the north, taking you through the vast Gangetic plains to the rugged lower Himalayas, onwards to the mountains and valleys of Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir.
This is not the only aspect that makes Loya distinctive. Instead of being cuisine-led or ingredient-led, the restaurant is technique driven. It focuses on some of the age-old methods such as ‘dhungar’, or smoking, ‘baghar’, which is hot oil tempering, ‘sigdi’, or the traditional style of cooking over coal, cow dung cakes and wood bark, and the slow-cooking method of ‘dum’.
Huge glass windows offer a glimpse of the activities in the kitchen. A team of chefs are busy stirring ingredients in massive earthen pots or smoking meats. The restaurant takes the place of the hotel’s earlier Indian offering, Masala Art. I am told that Loya has been three to four years in the making, with the team having scoured villages and towns across the north to research techniques. There are now plans to introduce Loya in Taj hotels in Bengaluru, Mumbai, and more in the coming months.
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The decor is warm and earthy, with tapestries hanging from the roof to give the semblance of a bazaar. Tables are set against paintings, which portray travellers on horseback at serais, making pit stops during long journeys. The service team informs me that the name ‘Loya’ comes from a Pashtun term, ‘loya jirga’, a grand council of tribal leaders, who convene over a feast. And the ambience at the restaurant seems to justify the name—you feel part of a large community, which has gathered together over good food and conversation.
The cocktail programme is based on the five tenets — Harmony, Experimentation, Authenticity, Reverence, and The Spirit, and is themed as the HEART. The food menu is quite extensive, and you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to the appetisers alone. There are a number of options for both vegetarians and meat eaters. One of the highlights is the Loya kachori chaat, which comes with dried green pea vatana, anardana and saunth chutney. Then there is the ghost chilli murg tikka, which comes with a refreshing carrot-coconut puree and carrot salad, and the soft minced meat chapli kebab served on flaked paratha. Those who like seafood must check out the timbri jhinga, which comes with a shrub seed marinade and bhang jeera chutney.
Some of the ingredients such as the chilli and the pahadi pepper, or even the wadis used later in breads and main course dishes, have rather strong flavour profiles by themselves. However, it is to the chefs’ credit that none of these ingredients overpower the other produce that goes into the dishes. There is a lovely balance, with the herbs and spices adding just the right colour to the tapestry of flavours.
In the main course, make sure to order the kathal baingan bharta and a mild Attari murg. The latter goes really well with the Amritsari wadi kulcha, with its light flavour complementing the robust textures of the crushed wadis in the bread. In fact, the kulcha is extremely addictive, and can be eaten by itself or with two variants of dal: paanch-ratni and jakhiya, which is a spice found in parts of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Another unique creation is the Kangra Khodiya Gosht, which gets its black colour from hand-crushed and charred walnut ink. It is best paired with a gola paratha, which is a compact package of layered bread and ghee. Round off the meal with some doodh jalebi served with three flavours or milk—pista, chuara and kesar.
A meal for two costs ₹6,400