In a million tourism brochures and travel articles, both Delhi and Kashmir claim to have inspired the Persian couplet: “Agar firdaus bar-ruu-i zamiin ast / Hamiin ast o hamiin ast o hamiin ast”— If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here. The bumpy road leading to the Garden of Five Senses is hardly a contender for heaven, but Hameen Ast’o, a cute fairy-lit café serving Kashmiri, “Continental” and Chinese food, tries valiantly to stake a claim.
From its poetical name to the papier-mâché shikaras and woven kangers on the tables, Hameen Ast’o oozes earnestness. With its cane furniture, divan seating areas, dangling lightbulbs and bamboo walls, the cafe looks like a backyard kitted out for a baithak, possibly by the neighbouring handicrafts stores. In fact, there is a stage, where Sufi and indie musicians are said to come and do their stuff on and off. On the night of our visit, Sufi pop music sets the mood through a couple of strategically placed speakers, as around us, couples flirt and and groups of friends languidly pass around hookah pipes.
We seem to be the only ones here for the Kashmiri food tonight, and it’s a little hard to find, tucked away in the menu behind several pages of sandwiches, soups, pastas and spring rolls. Eventually, we order a few dishes from among those that are available (several, we’re told, are sold out). Tabakh maaz seems to have been either air fried or left in a frier too long — it’s all crisp and no fat, almost impossible to bite into.
Due to a mid-order misunderstanding, we end up getting three different plates of meat: a five-alarm marchwangan korma, a well-spiced dhaniwal korma, and a forgettable rogan josh. The food does taste home-cooked but a little indifferent, perhaps thawed from a large batch made at once. The meat could be meatier, and the gravy flavours are a bit too intensely concentrated—this is true, too of a mouth-puckering chokh vangun (khatte baingan), though not of a generous serving of yakhni nadroo. We finish off two plates of rice with the food, and calm our palates with rather nice cups of kawha that come with a jar of Good Day biscuits.
Valley be back?
Despite the disappointing meal (we gaze longingly at another table’s appetising looking spring rolls), we linger awhile at Hameen Ast’o. It’s a nice escape from the usual, particularly for Saket locals: an enchanting little courtyard adda, ideal for hubble bubble, long conversations, and possibly making friends. It might not be Kashmir, but if judged by its low prices and lack of pretension, Hameen Ast’o as close to the promised land as you might get in Delhi.
Getting there: Lane 1, Westend Marg, Saket. Daily noon-10pm. Call 99994-05503. Meal for two about Rs 1,000.
Accessibility: There are a few steps at the approach to the restaurant.
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