It’s been written about ad nauseum. Throw a stone, and you’re liable to hit a foodie in whom it inspires a religious zeal the Imam at the Jama Masjid next door would envy. If you hear my friend Nishant talk about it, you’d think he’d been to the Rapture – and got an autograph.
Like a tutu-clad elephant in the room, Karim’s has hitherto been respectfully ignored by this blog. But what better time to make amends than just after having held a record-breaking EOiD gathering there?
As a matter of fact, EOiD’s very first “field trip”, all the way back in October 2006, had been to Karim’s for breakfast. I have fond memories of that trip, not least because that was the day I met several of the people I’ve spent such good times with over the last two years.
But that trip was also memorable for the food we ate: Karim’s mutton nihari and paaya (trotters) are probably some of the best in town. I prefer the buff nihari at Haji Noora’s any day, but for those who’d rather not partake of any meat remotely bovine, Karim’s is the obvious recommendation for an early morning warmer-upper. And nihari, as indeed virtually any gravy dish, is best accompanied by fluffy khameeri rotis (the yeast-powered version of the tandoori roti) and sheermal, both of which Karim’s excels at. The sheermal in particular is remarkable for an understated sweetness that puts it in a different class altogether from the version served at more pedestrian places.
On previous occasions, I have tried several other dishes at Karim’s and enjoyed them thoroughly. A comprehensive list is hard to put down, but the tandoori burra, the Shahjahani murgh, the Badshahi Badam Pasanda, the Nargisi kofta, and the seekh kababs certainly come to mind.
So when Aniket, one of the founder members of EOiD announced he’s moving out of Delhi, I thought it would only be fitting if we saw him off with another excursion to Karim’s. Only this time, we wanted to go for the big one.
Carelessly flung in the middle of Karim’s menu, the Tandoori Bakra arrests your eye with its price. Rs. 4500 reads the entry, or roughly ten times the price of any other dish on the list. We’d only heard whispered legends of the Bakra: a full goat, roasted to perfection in an underground oven, and stuffed with biryani, chicken, eggs, almonds and pistachios, the Tandoori Bakra is a feast that feeds up to 15 people. Invitations sent to our mailing list elicited an unprecedented response, as people spread the word amongst their friends and signed up in droves. With 34 confirmed attendees, we went over to Karim’s a couple days early and booked not one but two full bakras.
Foodies are generally an amiable, laid-back lot, and our excursions typically begin with an obligatory wait for stragglers ambling in 15 to 30 minutes late. It is no small testament to Karim’s reputation that last Sunday saw a full quota of 34 hungry souls milling outside their gates, at the exact appointed hour of 8pm. It took another 20 minutes to get us seated, and another 10 for the waiters to make their entrance bearing large platters of meat.
What followed was a spectacle straight out of a Fred Flintstone fantasy — men tearing and pulling and carving the flesh onto enthusiastically proffered plates, while the more reticent stood at a distance on the pretext of taking photographs.
That sadly, ends the complimentary part of this review. None — not one — of us found a good word to say about the vaunted Bakra. Where we’d expected meat that would melt in our mouths, we found a tough, chewy and stringy old goat. Where we’d expected delicately marinated spices, we noticed red pepper carelessly sprinkled. Where we’d expected juicy morsels to sink our teeth into, we found dry portions that no green chutney nor delicious gravy could relieve. Where we expected the Bakra of our lives, we wanted to Raan for our lives.
But it is not just the Tandoori Bakra that would leave Haji Karimuddin worried about his legacy. There are several aspects in which the establishment is doing scant justice to its name.
First, demand prediction and service under pressure. Weekends are busy days at Karim’s, and stories of exceedingly poor service are rife. We were promised a full hall booked exclusively for our group, but we arrived to find not a single reserved table. It took almost half an hour before the promised hall was fully emptied of its diners, a period during which our group were forced to hang about outside, only adding to the chaos and commotion in the establishment. And after the order was taken, the waiters returned to say that they had run out of one dish (the Karim’s Vegetable), and that there was all of one sheermal left. This at the prime dinner time of 8:30pm.
Second, the meagre vegetarian menu. It would be quite acceptable to me if Karim’s chose not to serve any vegetarian food whatsoever. But if for whatever reason it feels compelled to cater to herbivores, it has no business dishing out the kind of vapid slop that it calls Makhani Daal. And the less said about the anaemic Paneer Tikkas, the better.
Third, quality control. Karim’s has opened up about a dozen branches all over the city. They acknowledge only one on their website — Dastarkhwan-e-Karim at Nizamuddin, but a phonecall confirms that the little establishments in areas like Chittaranjan Park, Zakir Nagar, Patparganj, etc are also all owned by them. However, there seems to be no effort at maintaining any quality standards across these locations. The Nizamuddin branch is probably the best alternative, but there the spices are milder and the taste distinctly watered down, perhaps in an attempt to cater to the expat population in the neighbourhood. The Zakir Nagar branch, just behind New Friends Colony, is such a disaster that on a night when I arrived there at 10:30pm without having eaten even lunch, I was forced to leave most of the food I had ordered.
It’d be a crying shame if Karim’s ends up leaving us only nostalgia as a reason to revisit it in the future!
Location: Gali Kababian, near Jama Masjid Gate No. 1. Ph. +91-11-23269880, 23264981. Map Location.
Price: Our dinner ended up working out to about Rs. 400 per head. In smaller groups you should expect to spend a bit more.
Photos of the breakfast trip to Karim’s in October 2006 by Harneet Bhatia. Photos of the Tandoori Bakra trip on 16 November 2008 by Sachin Kalbag. A short piece by Sachin on the same outing was published in the Mail Today on Sunday, November 23, 2008.