Is it a train? Is it a restaurant? Well, it’s certainly meals on wheels.
The Orient Express is a resto-bar that pays homage to the famous train journey of a bygone era.
“Welcome aboard,” says Sauurabh, a cheery staff member at the restaurant, which has been a staple of the Taj Palace, New Delhi, for almost four decades.
Inside, the compartment’s mahogany walls are inlaid with Lalique of Cote d’Azur glass statuettes, dinner tables are adorned with fine porcelain and crystal goblets on top of white linen tablecloths; vintage brass luggage racks loom above.
The compartment’s windows open towards a “platform”, complete with a bar setting, while classical piano tunes complete the cosy atmosphere.
It’s like being transported straight into the pages of Agatha Christie’s gripping Murder on the Orient Express — thankfully without a killer on the loose.
Inspired by the long-distance train adventure, which ran from Paris to Istanbul until 1977, the Orient Express at Taj Palace recreates one entire carriage of its namesake.
Chefs Arvind Saraswat and Arun Chopra opened the restaurant on Christmas Eve, 1983, bringing an air of history and the finest fare to India’s capital.
In keeping with its legacy and panache, the contemporary European cuisine restaurant also recreates the magic of old with its eye-catching dishes.
They are inspired by the haute cuisine of the countries the train passed through and, like the first-class carriage, offer guests an elevated experience, one that pairs a luxurious ambience with fine dining.
“Camembert cheese souffle, flambeed lobster and warm chocolate pudding have been a constant on the menu for the last three decades,” says chef DN Sharma, who’s been associated with the Orient Express since February 1987.
Over the years, and armed with four staff in the kitchen and four in the restaurant, the 10-table Orient Express has entertained and enticed many celebrity guests, from Bollywood bigwigs and cricket stars to state premiers and dignitaries, including the Bachchan family, Virat Kohli and former US President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary.
Such is the attention to detail that staff are trained to remember the culinary likes and dislikes of regular patrons, and have fine-tuned recipes accordingly.
The Camembert cheese souffle, for example, is a classic French dish.
However, the original recipe of the paprika sauce calls for an overload of cream and butter, a combination too heavy for Indian summers, says Sharma.
So, his team have tweaked the dish with fatless cream and a moderate quantity of butter. The result is a fluffy, melt-in-mouth dish, a favourite of many, including Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, says Sharma.
“Bachchan saab, being a vegetarian, loves our cheese souffle and asparagus soup,” says the chef, who fondly recalls how the legendary Bollywood actor frequented the restaurant for many years.
“Now, Mrs Bachchan often drops in for a quiet dinner,” says sous chef Kshitij Rana.
Although the Orient Express is well-catered for carnivorous, it doesn’t shy away from offering a variety of scrumptious vegetarian delicacies.
This may explain why Indian cricketers Kohli and Suresh Raina, both vegetarians, often visit the restaurant.
From the rich butternut squash soup and the sumptuous artichoke-stuffed crepe rolled in quinoa to the drool-worthy warm chocolate pudding, every dish I taste is perfectly put together and leaves a lasting impression.
Sharma claims his team in the kitchen were the first in India to come up with a chocolate pudding with a liquid centre in 1993.
Since then, the staff who learnt how to make the dessert from Sharma and his predecessor chef Neeta Nagaraj took the recipe with them when they left and “that’s how the dessert became popular across India”, alleges Sharma.
A fitting legacy, if so.
Updated: June 12, 2022, 5:57 AM