Sprawled like a massive white elephant in the heart of Delhi's diplomatic zone, the Ashok resembles no other five-star in the capital. Walk in through the banquet entrance of this massive government-run hotel, if you really want a touch of strange.
On different occasions, we come across a baroque arrangement of flowers on a gilt table further draped with a dirty jharan, a contingent of lost, drunk Russians looking for non-existent belly dancers, and a flock of sullen junior staff, one of whom is sleeping on a banquet table.
Most Delhi newcomers barely know the Ashok and its sister hotel, the Samrat, except by their restaurants: Kumgang, Frontier and China Garden at the Ashok, Shiro's next door at the Samrat. Three decades ago, the Ashok was one of the few “good" hotels in Delhi, along with the Oberoi and Claridges; Usha Uthup's voice soared over the tables at the Supper Club, it had an excellent, pioneering French restaurant.
The rot set in soon after, and in the early 1980s, musician Zubin Mehta and his entourage exited the Ashok after encountering a briefly famous cockroach. The recent makeover at the Ashok has helped—the smell of mould and day-old corpses has, indeed, been replaced by air freshener. But it's the combination of the bottled sarkari gloom of the ’80s with what looks like leftover sets from Anarkali and a 007 film that makes the Ashok unique.
It’s a surreal setting for Frontier and Kumgang. Frontier was once one of the better Delhi restaurants, perhaps not in the same league as Dum Pukht or Bukhara, but still well known for its excellently researched recipes. Decades on, the patthar kababs—carefully flattened choice cuts grilled traditionally on hot stones—are still superb, the bannu kababs tender and succulent. The menu hasn’t changed for years, and Frontier sticks to a few basic specialities—like many North Indian restaurants, this has little to offer vegetarians. But if you can handle the uncomfortable black chairs, clearly rejects from some ministerial office circa the 1990s and the zigzag light sculpture on the wall that was sourced from the den of a Bond villain, the service is always exceptional, and the food unusual compared to most traditional North Indian restaurants.
Nelson Wang’s China Garden holds its own, and offers all the trademark classics that made the enterprising former limbo dancer such a success as a restaurateur. But the real star of the Ashok is Kumgang, the award-winning Korean restaurant run by Mi Ran Lee.
The décor at Kumgang jars; the traditional tables upstairs and the mellow, quiet natural tones of wood clash horribly with a light sculpture from the disco era and mismatched artwork. The menu arrives with pages stapled together to reflect changes in the kind of dishes offered; desserts are no longer served, replaced with a “fruit platter” that contains indifferently sliced apples, pears and orange segments with the pith still on.
But I have never had a bad meal at Kumgang; the chefs are skilled, and every main course is carefully presented, with some of the great classics of Korean cuisine, from chapchae to cooling buckwheat noodles, bulgogi to tableside-grills, represented. The seafood stews, the sticky rice and the pork and beef are always excellent, and the service is warm and friendly.
With just a little effort, the Ashok could go back to being a world-class hotel; and its restaurants could be a serious draw. But for all the flaws, there is an odd charm to eating out at the Ashok. Nowhere else in Delhi will you be offered the same bizarre collision between Soviet-era chic, sarkari high style and lurid Delhi surrealist baroque at its best. Go before they clean up the place.
Nilanjana Roy is a Delhi-based writer