On our second weekend in India we flew from Bangalore to Delhi on a cramped – flight. We got in late that Friday night and stayed in a fairly bleak hotel in Delhi. Our hotel was clean and basic, but overlooked an alley complete with wild dogs and a little campfire. We ordered room service, and got some basic aloo jeera (potatoes and cumin) and a chickpea curry with rice, but the food was nothing to write home about. (And presumably not something to post on a blog about, haha.) We’d arranged to have a driver, so the next morning at around 5am he came to the hotel and we began the long drive from Delhi to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. Unlike balmy Bangalore, Delhi was downright chilly, especially in the morning, so we ended up layering on clothing to avoid freezing in the cab. Our driver turned out not to speak much English, which was mostly a problem when he said “yes” and meant “I have no idea what the heck you’re asking but want to be agreeable.” He also had a fondness for bouncy popular Bollywood music. It was fun and atmospheric the first two hours, but after bouncing around in the backseat and listening to the accompanying cacophony of bleeting auto rickshaw horns and every other kind of vehicle horn you can imagine, it started to seem like a “Boris” soundtrack. (I’m not a fan of the movie, but the music reminded DH of his “theme song.”) I was starting to feel like my lungs were coated with exhaust and my brain was stuck with pins and needles of sound and my eyes felt tired by the time we got to Agra, which may be why when we had the opportunity DH and I jumped at the chance to grab a meal at the glamorous Amar Villa hotel.
What is this posh hotel, also known as the Oberoi Amarvilas like? You can get an idea from the Amar Villas web page. But Lonely Planet, our guide for the day, described the place as a “world class hotel [with an] elegant interior design . . . suffused with Mughal style as are the exterior fountain courtyard and the swimming pool set in a water garden.” (Lonely Planet India pg. 362) The book suggested that if we didn’t have the money to stay there (since we don’t own any small contries, we don’t, haha), we should visit this “modern palace” and have a beer at the posh bar. Our car dropped us off on the steps before the fountain, and feeling like dusty, grimy orphans we stumbled through the grounds in awe. The grounds were completely peaceful and beautiful in this gorgeous resort so far removed from the crowded, chaotic streets of Agra. Fountains gurgled tranquilly, guards in immaculate uniforms stood everywhere, and marble was everywhere. We found our way to the lobby where we got our first (Rather hazy) look at the Taj Mahal through their windows- admired the bar, and then somehow found ourselves in their restaurant downstairs, sitting and ordering cappucino before we knew it. DH feasted on the artisan breads at the table and encouraged me to order real food- so I ended up ordering a lovely paneer dish, despite my guilt at the inflated “world class” price. (See large photo on the left.) It came with rice and two small servings of other “curry” dishes, and as soon as I tasted the paneer I was glad I’d tried it. I’m fond of paneer, as you know- this homemade Indian cheese adds body and flavor to many vegetarian dishes, and is wonderful in a nice Paneer Pulao (rice pilaf with paneer), but most of the paneer I’d had so far was rubbery and bland, with little personality of its own. This dish was completely different. The paneer was soft and tender, melting on the tongue, and the flavor of the fresh milk sang through every bite. It had clearly been made freshly at the restaurant by someone using the best, freshest ingredients- it was the best paneer I’d ever had, even including the paneer I made fresh at my own house. The tomato gravy was similarly spectacular. I didn’t eat much of the dal, out of concerns for asafoetida and the fact that I’m not that crazy about yellow dal anyway, but DH ate it and proclaimed it “very good.” The cauliflower side dish was also very nice, but nothing could compete with the perfection of the paneer. Although the cappucino was not that great, being somewhat watery and bland, the meal was spectacular, and best of all, it caused me no stomach distress whatsoever and was the perfect antidote to travel exhaustion. After our meal we felt ready to tackle Agra once again, which mostly meant that we were ready to find and check into our hotel. (It turned out that the Taj Mahal was closed that afternoon for foreign American dignitaries..)
Although we’d gotten an inexpensive hotel in Delhi, we thought it might be worth it to splurge a little in Agra itself. All the budget or even midrange hotels we read about sounded either terrifyingly bad or… well, even worse. So, we ended up making a reservation at the Agra Hilton, which, while it might not be able to compare with the Oberoi, was still plenty nice and offered a welcome respite from ye old Agra tourist-trap madness.
We thought about eating out, but Agra is overwhelming and tiring to the uninitiated, and after seeing the Taj Mahal we didn’t crave any more adventures, having satisfied our main goal for the trip. So, somewhat shame-facedly we made our way down to the brightly lit, modern, and cheerful Hilton bar for drinks. We had one of our favorite (non-alcoholic) drinks- a lime soda, sweet, not sour. It’s a simple recipe, and one all too easy to create at home. (See recipe below.) It’s funny, I’ve always enjoyed fresh lime juice, but it was in India, garnishing salads or as the base of a fizzy beverage, that I truly began to love the tang of lime over all other citrus. We drank our beverage in the modern lounge, looking around at other travelers- this early in the evening mostly American college students. Then, as we grew hungry, we moved to the dining room for a delicious surprise. It turned out that the Hilton largely prides itself on its extensive buffet dinner. I hear you groaning now, ugh, buffet… but this was a buffet like none I’d ever seen before. One of a pair of ultra-chic modern tables was covered in the best collection of crisp salads, most of which would be perfect as a dish of their own, not just as one ingredient. Its twin was covered with lovely European desserts- inaccessible to me but with a few promising fruit plates. The far wall of the restaurant had a sleek, modern bar with a special wood stove and bar surface stretching out with individual tureens of yummy looking food… There was either European or Indian fare, if you were so inclined, with extensive vegetarian offerings. I was a bit intimidated by the buffet- although the salad bar looked fairly safe, I wasn’t sure about the hot food. So, I approached the chef, not to be confused with waitors, who stood in his tall chef’s hat near the food, clearly in charge and clearly ready to answer any guest’s questions. When I told him I couldn’t eat gluten, he immediately started talking about CC and offered to make my own dish- it impressed me, but I had been braving the dangers of CC for weeks and I could see visions of law suits and anaphylactic shock dancing in his head. I explained that it wasn’t an anaphylactic reaction and asked what dishes were free of gluten, and we went down the buffet line together. I put together a plate, first of the cold salad items, and then later of the hot items. Meanwhile DH was in seventh heaven, enjoying a break from strictly Indian food with the joys of this more international cuisine. I was pretty happy myself. While I love Indian cuisine, after a week or so of long simmered curries I was ready for crisp, delicately seasoned green beans with creamy buffalo mozzarella and the crunch of thickly cut golden orange carrots. Of the hotel’s hot dishes, my favorite was the hot, plainly spiced potatoes, not their Indian cuisine, although their paneer dish was excellent with silky smooth, flavorful cheese almost as good as the Oberoi. While the Hilton didn’t seem to have anything amazing for a gluten-free dessert at first glance, when I got a plate of fresh and candied fruits from the dessert table, I was in for a lovely surprise.
We had been enjoying the fresh fruit throughout our stay in India. The sweet and firm pineapple and half-sized bananas were favorites for breakfasts. The fresh fruit of the Hilton was good, but it was the candied fruit that amazed me. I don’t know how they did it, but the candied fruit had the sweetness of perfectly dried fruit but yet were still moist and sweet like honey, but even better. The entertainment for the evening was the robust Russian Rodney Dangerfield look-alike who made himself and his friends a huge Caesar Salad at their table- with lots of gesturing and chopping. Ah, good times. Despite that entertainment, our dinner experience was very satisfying and we left the restaurant feeling perfectly content, and ready for a good night’s rest in our bright and cheerful hotel room. (The huge bathroom with bathtub and fancy bath products was particularly nice after our standing floor shower in Bangalore.) The next morning we toddled into the restaurant, excited and happy to have another great meal. We didn’t want another huge buffet meal, though- even one as nice as theirs. It was too much, when all we wanted was an omelet and maybe potatoes on the side. (DH coveted some toast, rather than the potatoes.) Unfortunately service was slow and everyone clearly wanted us to just order the darned buffet and leave them in peace. Whoops! We finally got our profoundly mediocre eggs/omelet, with a small serving of potatoes (DH lovingly gave me his) and a miserable tomato that should have been put out of its misery years ago. Oh, and that toast never did make it to the table, even though bread and a toaster were stacked and ready in the buffet line. Oops. Well, no place is perfect. I’m not sure what a better breakfast option would be, but that meal was a big disappointment after the yumminess the night before. It was gluten-free though, so all’s well that end’s well… even mediocre hotel meals!
If you find yourself making your way to Agra sometime in the future, needing both a gluten-free and possibly vegetarian diet, never fear. Indian food AND international hotels should have things to offer you, and with the latter, if you talk to the chef personally they very well may make you something special, so it’s worth the extra effort. Even a vegan diet shouldn’t be too hard in a large, international hotel- but large chain hotels do have their drawbacks. If you won’t be in India for long, and want to feel like you’re IN INDIA, not at a tourist resort that hides beyond tall gates flanked by security guards and is populated mostly by lucky tourists from afar- these big hotels may not be for you. We were exhausted from our travels and ready for a little surreal luxury away from the never-ending noise, so the Hilton was a welcome break. However, another way to do it might be to take a rapid train straight from Delhi to Agra (faster than driving, with less noise and wear and tear), and stay somewhere situated more defiantly IN the city and not behind walls. The Taj Mahal was unforgettably beautiful and magnificent- and I’m glad we went, and I’m glad we planned the things we did- but when I went back to Bangalore I felt a little like Dorothy clicking my heels together, saying “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Maybe it was the time of day, but the pollution seemed lighter (not a huge gray haze like there was in Agra), the honking of auto rickshaws sounded sweeter, and I got a whole lot less offers for a “chess set, extra cheap, just for you” back in Bangalore. And, in a first- our auto rickshaw back to our Bangalore hotel from the airport actually agreed to let us pay JUST the meter price- a first, that oddly enough made me feel all warm and fuzzy and doubly like I’d come home. Then I went and ordered some Aloo jeera and Paneer Pulao and Steamed rice and chomped it happily in our hotel room, and it didn’t even matter that the paneer probably came out of plastic wrap and the potatoes were a bit too oily- because I was home, even if it would just be for another week or so.
Sweet Lime Soda
1 1⁄2 tbsp. or more freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tbsp. or more simple syrup (equal amounts of sugar and water, boiled together and let cool)
3⁄4 cup soda water
Put your lime juice and soda water in a tall, clear glass. Add simple syrup, mix, and taste. Add more simple syrup to taste. Garnish with a lime. Enjoy!
If you like you can add ice, but we were generally skeptical of the water used for ice in India so enjoyed ours at room temperature or cooled, if the soda water had been refrigerated.