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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

What you can expect at Khyber, Mumbai's famous Mughlai restaurant, now at Dukes Dubai

The eatery, which has no other branches, has been serving up rich North Indian cuisine for nearly six decades now. We take a peek and interview owner Sudheer Bahl

Like the original restaurant in Mumbai, the interiors at Khyber Dubai are defined by ornate arches, brick walls and paintings of men and women in full MUghal regalia. All photos courtesy Khyber
Like the original restaurant in Mumbai, the interiors at Khyber Dubai are defined by ornate arches, brick walls and paintings of men and women in full MUghal regalia. All photos courtesy Khyber

“There are going to be no new dishes on this menu.” An unusual statement from a restaurateur, but perhaps not altogether surprising when you consider that it is made by Sudheer Bahl, the owner of Khyber, a family-run restaurant that has managed to stay relevant for nearly six decades in the ever-evolving and utterly ruthless culinary landscape of Mumbai city.

Bahl was in Dubai late last week to launch the first-ever spin-off of his fine-dining Indian restaurant. The new eatery is located at the Dukes Dubai hotel, which opened on the Palm Jumeirah in April. Anyone who’s ever been to the original Khyber will immediately identify the signature interiors: ornate arches, ceilings adorned with sleeper wood, oversized earthenware urns, and brick walls framing vintage-looking paintings of men and women in full Mughal regalia. To this, architect Ayaz Basrai has added his own playful touches, such as a wishing-well-style water feature and elephant-motif wallpaper on the ceiling of one of the two private dining rooms. The founder of The Busride Design Studio, Basrai has been responsible for some of India’s coolest restaurants.

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Despite the space’s linear layout and 850-square-metre expanse, each table at Khyber Dubai feels like it is contained within its own private nook, thanks to the latticework grills and ornate pillars peppered throughout. “My brief to Ayaz was simply that I wanted people to recognise this space as Khyber, even if I didn’t put the name outside,” says Bahl. “The decor is such a big part of our history and, I think, our popularity.”

Private dining room with elephant motif wallpaper on the ceiling
Private dining room with elephant motif wallpaper on the ceiling

Khyber Dubai seats 160 guests, including 40 on the terrace, which will be open in the cooler months. Bahl says the panoramic views of the yacht-lined waters of the Palm were a big attraction for him.

But the eatery’s main draw, of course, is the Mughlai treats it serves up. The term refers to the food from the mountainous North-Western Frontier Province, or the Khyber Pass from where the Mughal rulers entered India. “The cuisine is known for its rich and hearty food because it was needed to provide the royals with warmth. Of course, we’ve adapted to local tastes. For example, Mumbai has many people from the Gujurati community, who tend to be vegetarian, so we have makai ki tikki [corn patties], paneer korma [cottage cheese in cream] and navratan korma [vegetable curry in a tomato-cream sauce]. We have also included a few dishes from the Punjab, such as carrot halwa, butter chicken and Amritsari machchi, India’s version of fried battered fish,” says Bahl.

It’s not quite as straightforward as that, of course. A single dish of Amritsari fish comprises a batter made fresh from gram flour, yogurt, egg and ajwain, which is delicately applied, before it thickens, to a boneless fillet marinated with garlic, ginger, chillies and lime juice.

Recipe: Tandoori chicken

Each of the 50 dishes on the Khyber Dubai menu, and the 300 in the Khyber Mumbai one, are equally, if not more, elaborate. “That’s one of the reasons why we have only a condensed version of our menu here, at least for now,” says Bahl. “The more complicated the flavours, the more necessary it becomes to get the blend right. However, all our most popular dishes from over the years are part of this menu.”

Tandoori raan (marinated leg of lamb).
Tandoori raan (marinated leg of lamb).

To put the term "popular" in its proper context: so sought-after is the raan (leg of lamb marinated and cooked overnight) that guests need to pre-order it; so delicious is the paneer korma that Paul McCartney asked for its recipe after a visit to the Mumbai restaurant – although as Bahl jokes, that email might have gone missing en route. The musician is but one of the restaurant’s more famous patrons. From Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to Demi Moore, Richard Gere and most recently, Brad Pitt, who visited last month with a list of pre-recommended dishes in his pocket, Khyber is a consistent feature on must-visit lists. Bahl talks fondly of taking Bryan Adams, who’s a vegetarian, on a tour of the kitchen, and spending a spellbound evening with Goldie Hawn and Sally Fields, who returned for a meal two nights in a row.

One such happy guest was Abdulla Bin Sulayem, the chief executive of Dubai-based Seven Tides International, a real estate and hospitality group. The Emirati was so taken with his dining experience that he flew back to Mumbai to approach Bahl about taking over the top floor of the new hotel he was constructing, and open Khyber’s first international branch at Dukes Dubai in Palm Jumeirah. “The business part of that conversation took all of five minutes. It was the perfect match,” says Bahl. “We had been approached several times before, but I wanted a worthy location, an elaborate space, total quality control and the right partner, who understood our core values.” So important was it for Bahl and Sulayem to replicate the DNA of the Khyber brand in Dubai that even the music – contemporary Indian instrumental – took a month to select.

This deliberation is a big part of how the Khyber team operates, and Bahl credits it for the brand’s long-lasting success. “We are very reluctant to change the menu, even in Mumbai. We perhaps add two new dishes a year after lots of trial and error, and yet, if they don’t immediately work, we take them down, no matter the investment,” says Bahl. One dish that stuck is the nalli nihari – lamb stew with succulent pieces of bone marrow – which was created by the Khyber chefs eight months ago. The lightly spiced broth was so well-received that it has made its way to the Dubai menu, as have the raan, reshmi chicken, prawn masala, fish tikka, navratan korma, tandoor-cooked cauliflower and broccoli, as well as nine kinds of breads, including the famed cocktail baby kulcha.

Phirni, a dessert made from rice, milk and dried fruits.
Phirni, a dessert made from rice, milk and dried fruits.

Desserts, too, are a big part of Mughal feasts, and come laced with sweetened milk and garnished with dried fruits. On the Khyber Dubai menu, for now, Bahl and team have retained three of the restaurant’s signature sweet treats: rasmalai (sweet cottage cheese dumplings in milk, with pistachio and almonds), phirni (rice and milk pudding with cardamom, raisins, saffron and cashews) and gajar ka halwa (grated carrots slow-cooked in ghee and milk with almonds, raisins and mawa).

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“Food is second nature to my family and me – we talk food at the dinner table, and after. These are the dishes that have been tried and tested in our 60-year history by all our guests, and their children and grandchildren,” says Bahl. “Tastes may vary, but tasty food is a constant. Why fix something that isn’t broken?”