Loya: Food of India’s North, Reimagined

The Taj Group’s latest restaurant opening is ambitious, promising northern cuisines in a new take.

By: Suman Tarafdar

Posted on: November 15, 2022
LF Says: ★★★★.5

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Interiors 

“About a decade ago, I packed up a bunch of chefs in a Tata Sumo and told them to disappear for a month. Go wherever you want to, but I don’t want you visiting cities. They went to small towns, villages, tribal areas to research cuisine… to know what it is that we are missing in cities. That led us to decide about six years ago that there is a gap in how we view cuisine of the north. And what is it that we can bring to the table in terms of discoveries and traditions and methodologies long forgotten. A second team of chefs was then sent to rural areas - to small villages, meeting shepherds, sitting with the Bakarwals – understanding how they do what they do, etc. That then has culminated in the cuisine of the restaurant.”
With a journey like that, how can the translation into reality be anything less than sublime?

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Interiors
The words above are by Taljinder Singh, Senior Vice President and Brand Custodian at Taj Hotels and a Taj veteran who was, as General Manager of Taj Palace, Delhi, the one who dispatched the aforementioned chefs. And this journey has culminated in one of the group’s most ambitious restaurant openings, Loya, which has opened its first outlet at the hotel in Delhi, and within the year is slated to have outposts at the group’s hotels in Mumbai and Bengaluru, and possibly even abroad.
Loya’s tagline – ‘journey through the heart of the north’, implies a deeper dive into the cuisines of the north of India. Read to mean several steps away from the heavy, cream based, fat laden curries that have come to dominate in the name of north Indian – read Punjabi – food. The name elicits times when communal feasts shared by all were the order of the day. Think of the Pathan loya jirga (a great council), still extant today in Afghanistan.

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Dhungaar

Dhungaar is the technique of giving a smoky charcoal taste to your dishes.

Rustic chic

Taj Palace regulars will have noted – with some surprise – the barricading of the group’s most hyped restaurants – Masala Art, long positioned as Taj’s answer to north Indian cuisine. Well, no longer. In its place comes 76 covers (plus 10 bar seats) Loya with its rather open seating plan, perhaps evocative of tents that once dominated the area.
The entrance with its rose gold doors, exudes grandeur, and leads to one of the biggest departures from its earlier avatar, a bar. At the left is the open kitchen, and interested guests can look on at the various traditional cooking processes, behind glass screens of course. Prominently visible chefs pore over processes such as dhungar, baghar, sigdi and dum. Large earthen and metal pots, smoking mightily as they slow cook various delicacies, can only evoke awe, so outside are they of the modern urban Indian milieu.

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Sil Batta
The silbatta, a traditional tool used for grinding spices and seeds, is being used at Loya to keep the intense flavour intact.

Large brass lamps softly light up the space while walls evoke past grandeur with paintings of bazaars, complete with turbaned merchants in flowing robes hawking their wares in style most reminiscent of medieval bazaars. Add courtiers and caparisoned horses, more brass lamps – identical to the ones overhead(!), medieval architectural elements – all within the paintings, and the ambience for the history laced meal is complete. 

Like the lamps, elements of tents also translate to table overhangs. Do note the lattice work, niches for lamps, a mix of traditional sculptures, even tribal art. The tables, in various shapes and sizes, have a rustic touch, if only in design. “I can see reflections of parts of Kapurthala, century old parts of Patiala and Hoshiarpur,” Mr. Singh elaborates on the interiors. “It has been presented with some contemporary lines, as we didn’t want to make a thematic ancient restaurant. The lines are cleaner, the fabric is by Missoni. The idea is to make it warmer and more welcoming.” 

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi cocktails

The chairs again would not be out of place in a contemporary luxurious tent. The cutlery is in an impressive array of brass, clay, ceramic and silver, often appearing in succession as your meal progresses.

What’s on the menu

The bar continues the theme of five elements and five rivers, with flowing water resembling a mountain stream, lending a soothing audible ambience. The menu, Loya Paanch, inspired by the number five, focuses on indigenous beverages and the north’s botanical abundance with a contemporary twist on local spirits. “The cocktail combination is unique to India, and can’t be replicated,” says Mr. Singh. “The tonics and bitters are made inhouse.” 

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Teen Mirch Paneer

Teen Mirch Paneer at Loya.

Woven around a concept called the HEART, it is divided into five sections where each letter stands for — Harmony, Experience, Authentic, Revered, and The Spirit. Choices include cocktails such as Loya Manhattan, Indus G&T, Masala Whisky and Mulethi, topped with an eye-catching honeycomb tuile.

The menu justified the build-up. Divided into courses, the menu is thankfully succinct. Highlights of ‘Pella Swaad’ (first taste) or appetisers include the Loya Kachori Chaat — approximating Moradabadi Dal, Chapli Paratha, minced mutton kebab with flaked paratha, and Timbri Jhinga, prawns coated in a shrub seed marinade with pahadi bhang jeera from Uttarakhand, though there are a host of others.  

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Timbri prawns

Timbri Jhinga at Loya.

Saajha Swaad’ - Mains - offers rarely experienced delights such as Sepu Wadi (Himachali split urad dal dumplings) in a tomato yoghurt sauce and Gucchi Kala Moti Pulao (Kashmiri morel pulao) with Ori Raita to Attari Murgh (Attari style chicken curry), Malerkotla Keema Chole (minced mutton and Kabuli chana) or Dum Nalli (slow cooked baby lamb shanks in yoghurt and fragrant spiced stock gravy). There are matching choices of breads and rice dishes.
What stands out is that each dish has layers of local knowledge that is sure to delight the discerning gourmand. From the Himalayan foothills, to Kashmir, from undivided Punjab and the upper reaches of the northern plains, these are recipes that bring alive home style dishes, albeit with premium plating and ambience. “We have discovered ingredients such as the jakhiya seeds and bhang jeera which were unknown to our chefs,” reveals Mr. Singh, who also points to the use of the right kind of utensils for cooking, from the silbatta to cast iron or clay pots as having made a difference.

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Gud ke maan
Gud-ke-Maan at Loya.

For those who make it to ‘Mittha’, or simply desserts, the choices are all unusual, from the Badana Pearls (boondi in two colours, rabri and saffron foam, sprinkled with pistachios and almond) and Gud-ke-Maan (badam kheer from the chef’s family) to Loya Khel (chikoo mousse and biscuit cake served with coconut grass) and Banarasi Bread Pudding (paan chops with jaggery, caramel and pumpkin seeds). Note the beautiful Banarasi print that adorns the dish!

There are a number of innovations that are less overt. The restaurant uses no packaged spices, for example, reveals Mr. Singh. Ingredients are sourced from local regions, and availability of certain dishes could depend on seasonality. Other concepts include Loya Qisaa, eclectic storytelling; and Loya Bazaar, curated brunches reminiscent of marketplaces of yore. The group is said to be considering carrying some of the latter concepts to its other hotels. For the authentic experience though, come to the flagship, and as Mr. Singh advises, have enough time for the full experience.

Loya Taj Palace New Delhi Kulfi pops
Kulfi Pops at Loya.

LF Says: ★★★★.5

Coordinates: Loya, Taj Palace, 2 Sardar Patel Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, New Delhi, India

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