Life | Magical Mystery Detour

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Magical Mystery Detour
Text by Sona Bahadur
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

A mad venue hunt. An enchanted garden. A smiling Epicurus and his charming wife. Sona Bahadur dines with Marut and Anusuiya Sikka at Magique, their romantic restaurant in The Garden of the Five Senses in Delhi, and delights in an evening of creative food, great company and martinis to die for

In one of his books, Terence Conran, a huge global name in food, observes that to be successful, a restaurant has to be either prime on location or worth the detour. Marut and Anusuiya Sikka wanted Magique to be worth the detour.

Finding the place, tucked away in the recesses of the rocky Mehrauli terrain, is like embarking on a treasure hunt. As I make my way through the darkness of the deserted roads, past a bunch of lurid Delhi cops who draw a quizzical blank when I say Garden of the Five Senses, I could be driving to Nowhere Land. Happily, I live to tell the tale of Magique staff escorting me through pretty little fountains up the pebbled path to the restaurant’s candlelit courtyard skirting the patio and dining room.

All thoughts of gloom are banished from my mind as I find myself in the intimate, romantic hideaway. Being in Magique is like being in an enchanted garden. A Golden Martini materialises on my table as I take in the verdant beauty of the place. Softly lit hanging lamps, low-bench tables set amid lush foliage, mist fans hidden among the shrubs. The perfect place for an intimate rendezvous.

My reverie is broken by the arrival of Marut and his pretty wife Anusuiya. A picture of portly charm and wit, Marut, with his formidable knowledge of food, could be Epicurus himself. Anusuiya, chic in black, is a dusky beauty with a high-power smile that lights up her striking kohl-rimmed eyes. I take an instant liking to my warm hosts.

Conversation flows easily flitting from introductions to the conception of Magique. Marut, who started his career with food consultancy and wowed the Western world with his definitive book Indian Flavours, runs a banquet company that caters to the upper crust—the biggest Bollywood weddings, top industrialists living abroad, heads of states, the golden jubilee of the parliament. “Indian food is stunning. It’s divine, the only thing in my life I can boast of having done,” he says passionately. Anusuiya was a fashion designer for 15 years up until the birth of their daughter Amaana. Then Magique happened. “Suddenly there was a shift from embroideries to designing chandeliers and wrought iron furniture. But it’s been a fun journey.”

Architect Ambrish Arora designed Magique, an erstwhile government structure, while Anusuiya added all the finishing touches. She describes the space as calm and “gothically intense”. “It’s a little raw and that’s the beauty of it.” The outdoor feel recalls Olive, only this feels a lot less stiff. “The whole deal here is very informal. You can tuck yourself in a corner if you want to. We have a beautiful private area upstairs, too,” Marut says. The stellar ambience attracts its share of celebs—high-profile politicians, Bollywood stars, international designers and known faces. I’m told Sabeer Bhatia proposed to his fiancé on the very table where we sit this evening.

The Crab and Lychee Wontons, a signature, are the first to arrive together with Battered Prawns, Shrimp and Dashi Puffs and Dirty Martinis. “You have to pop the whole thing in your mouth,” Marut instructs, as I reach for a steaming hot wonton rewarding my palate with an exquisite infusion of flavours—crab, lychee, basil, coriander and Marut’s secret sweet-and-sour vinaigrette dressing. “Unusual eh,” Marut looks pleased. “The Dirty Martini probably tastes khatta and kadwa after your Golden Martini but it’s the hottest selling item here. Drink up fast. You just have to try our Blooditinis and Saketinis!” Clearly, the martini gods have blessed this place.

Having heard so much about Marut’s famed catering, I’m hungry to know more. The gentle-mannered veteran smiles as talks about his first big event, Pervez Musharraf’s Agra-summit visit, for which he had organised Indian food from different parts of the country. “The talks didn’t work out but both parties signed a document saying fantastic food—the one thing they agreed on,” he chuckles. Then there was the aphrodisiac-themed dinner organised by cultural impresario Rajeev Sethi for a group at Mani Shankar Aiyer’s house. Marut decided each couple would eat together out of a big thal. “A whole procession came in with nagadas and mashaals followed by people carrying beautiful thals. Food was wrapped in gold leaves and sprinkled with pearl dust. The works.” For Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani’s 75th birthday it was pure vegetarian food from the holy cities, the char dhams.

I feel like a charmed insider as Marut unravels delicious secrets about the closely guarded Abhishek-Aishwarya wedding over Scotch-laced Smoky Martinis. “Mr Bachchan is very finicky and a perfectionist. For the mehndi and sangeet ceremonies we called in specialists from across India—chatwallas from Benaras, Agra and Delhi, kebabwallas from Lucknow and Punjab, bread makers from Amritsar, Agra and Mathura, biryani from Hyderabad. It was a very beautiful, low-key wedding. I know for a fact that even Shweta’s closest friends were not invited. Only people directly connected with the Bachchans were there.”

My entrée arrives, a silken lamb curry with potatoes and shallots. Given Marut’s association with Indian cusine, the menu at Magique surprises with its fusion Asian accents. Salmon with Miso and Garlic Potato Mash, Sushi with Mango and Chicken, Watermelon and Feta Salad, Khao Suey. “All my life has been about Indian food. But we couldn’t imagine somebody sitting here and eating naan and daal. I could have put out really beautiful nouvelle Indian cuisine, but wasn’t prepared. So we got this strange menu to match the venue. It’s creative food. Anusuiya and I did all the trials together; whatever we like has gone on the menu,” Marut says.

As we talk, I’m struck by the perfect bonding between this much-in-love couple. Marut, 41, and Anusuiya, 36, met through common friends at a fashion show. Anusuiya laughs, “Ten years together... and trust me working together is tough!” Their daughter Amaana is almost four and very much a Magique insider, she tells me. “She pretty much spent her infancy and toddler years with us at the garden and loved it. We just couldn’t leave her at home and take pride in the fact of being working parents. So she was part of our working life and now plays restaurant-restaurant with her cousins!”

Anusuiya refers to Magique as a spoilt child, one that requires constant personal attention and nurturing. Stories abound about the hocus-pocus of the place. It rained cats and dogs on a night of a 200-people party on a perfectly great weather day, recounts Anusuiya. “To our horror, we had a line-up of girls struggling in their Jimmy Choos. And really, beyond an umbrella what could one do with terrain like this? We’ve dealt with black outs and wild animals and been descended on by cops the one day we were open till late. Here men have proposed to their girlfriends—one booked the entire space for the purpose—and couples have rediscovered love after a fight. It’s where youngsters come to have a happy drinking time and come yet again the next day in complete sobriety for a quiet dinner with parents. We have kids during lunch using our melted candles like swords!”

As we down our next round of martinis, conversation meanders to media and journalism. Marut, who dabbled in television with show on NDTV, quit because he didn’t like the invasion of privacy. “Suddenly I didn’t have my own time; everybody was in my face.” Both he and Anusuiya are devout magazine readers—Marut likes travel and food mags while Anuisuiya devours fashion titles—and see a bright future for print. What about the future of Indian food? “Europe has stunning culture and if you see the course of their evolution, our food is going in that direction. Indian food will remain Indian in essence but the showcasing will be like Europe,” predicts the visionary who plans to launch his next restaurant very soon.

It’s well past my Cinderella hour. As I say my goodbyes, the last decadent sip of Espresso Martini does its magic. For one perfect, Baileys-infused moment, time seems to pause. Everything seems mellow, happy, right.
Quel magique!

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