February 15, 2020
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Eating Out

Nikhil Khanna dines Manjit Bawa

Eating Out
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Eating Out
Elegant, spare and all wrapped in the sort of shawl only a collector would own, the peripatetic artist Manjit Bawa digs into his ‘mezze’-Lebanese hors d’oeuvres. Bawa, his family friend, the immensely-civilised Ina Puri, and I are at Maroush, the tony, popular new Lebanese restaurant at Delhi’s bustling Maurya Sheraton. There’s something louche, something flash about the place—a mix of the hand-soaping owner of the Maroush franchise who fawns over us, the beady-eyed, portly businessmen scattered on tables and the whump! of the belly dancer. The mezze is outstanding and terribly healthy; Hummus (chickpea paste), the adorably-named Baba Ganoush (puree of grilled eggplant), a tingling Tabouleh (parsley with cracked wheat) and Jawaneh (char-grilled chicken). Bawa, of course, is famous for being a great cook.

He paints, puts the lentils on a slow fire, paints a little more, stirs the pot, throws in spices, paints—the meal that follows is infused with the freshest ingredients and cooked in just-squeezed mustard oil. Like Bim Bissel’s Christmas lunch or Vinit Jain’s Holi bash, Bawa’s Lori dinner is fast gaining cult status in Delhi. He is fussy enough to throw a temper tantrum when lumps of cottage cheese are sprinkled over sarson saag (spinach Punjabi style) and remaining a purist, cooks it without the leaves. The flavours are interesting if you get the drift of what I’m saying. ]

The Sayadieh-baked cubes of bekti with tahini, parsley sauce and fried onions is superb. I am allergic to shellfish, upchucking at the slightest touch of prawn, but am assured by Bawa and Puri that the Maqulet Baharein El Fahem (geddit?) is marvellous. Fresh-grilled King Prawns, marinated with garlic, chilli, Lebanese spice and parsley; close to heaven on a Monday night. Meanwhile, will the art scene in Delhi ever get better? Will it become edgy, dangerous and more questioning? Will art installations be banned for being outrageous, will anarchy stride into the art world? Yes, says Bawa, it could if we had genuine collectors. India, we lament, has very insignificant endowment for the arts—no Guggenheim for us, no moma for us, no Wallace Collection for us.

He speaks fondly of distinguished collectors like Aveek and Rakhi Sarkar, Anupam Poddar, Ravi Sam and Abhishek Poddar, saying that their sensibility pushed to the max could lead to some great museums coming up. Oh well, maybe Tina Ambani will do it. Or perhaps some anarchist artists will come forward one day. Meanwhile, from the corner of our eyes, we can see the belly dancer—a blonde Amazon with anti-ballistic thighs—pythoning her way to our table, all a-jiggle to the loud but haunting strains from the Lebanese band. She stops at our table and asks if any one of us would like to dance. My leg, ever so suddenly, has begun to hurt so I have to sadly decline. Bawa looks polite and distant.

Finally, the dessert tray is produced with its rainbow of fabulous Lebanese sweeties—Baklawa, Mafrouky with crushed pistachios, and rose syrup, Namourra with cashew nut and Lebanese tahini. We dig in, agreeing as we walk out, to shamelessly accept doggie bags crammed with sweets. The belly dancer is going just wild.

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