Meet the Man Who Launched Chor Bizarre 25 Years Ago — And Then Made History with Indian Accent
BACK IN 1990, Rohit Khattar was 27 years old, and running the popular Hotel Broadway at the point where Old and New Delhi intersect on Asaf Ali Road. Wanting to do more than just be the custodian of a family legacy, he was overcome by the idea of launching a restaurant that would be very different from what the city had been accustomed to.
He couldn’t have asked for a better address than the hotel that had been opened in 1956 by his late grandfather, Tirath Ram Amla, a four-term Rajya Sabha MP and prominent Kashmiri businessman. It wasn’t meant to be a hotel, for Amla had paid a little fortune — Rs 47,000 in 1953 — for the land to build a winter home in what was then being visualised as the Golden Mile of post-Partition Delhi — a mile linking New Delhi with Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk, passing by the old elite neighbourhood of Darya Ganj.
What Amla did not notice in the sale documents was that it was mandatory for all buildings coming up in the area to be four-storeyed — too big for a family home! He decided then to turn the building into a hotel (and to name it after the one he was running in Srinagar) and he hired the young architect Achyut Purushottam Kanvinde, who had just returned from Harvard and eventually became famous for being the creator of some of the city’s better-known addresses, to design the Art Deco building. Broadway was the first hotel in the city to offer bed and breakfast (we take the latter for granted today!) for the then princely sum of Rs 15 a day.
A hotel with Broadway’s DNA had to have a restaurant that had an equally interesting story. Khattar, who had studied hotel management at Michigan State University, East Lansing (USA), had an original idea. An avid collector of discarded old household items, which he had filled up his home with (his mother jokingly called him a kabadiwallah), Khattar wanted his restaurant to grow around this treasure trove. He turned to the city’s resident cultural impresario, Rajeev Sethi, who happens to be a family friend, for advice.
Sethi, who’s famous in the hospitality world for conceptualising the Spice Route at The Imperial, advised Khattar to launch a restaurant named ‘Chor Bazar’ (Thieves’ Market), which is how he described the young man’s collection of knick-knacks, and also in deference to the Capital’s oldest such marketplace, which comes alive every Sunday not far from Hotel Broadway.
The idea appealed to Khattar, who, incidentally, has lost 25 kilos since I last met him. He tweaked the name to Chor Bizarre — his collection was indeed ‘bizarre’ — and decided to open a restaurant dedicated to Indian cuisine, with quirks such as a Singer sewing machine base or the frame of an ornamental four-poster bed doubling as tables, and with a strong Kashmiri wazwan component to introduce Delhi’s butter chicken-overloaded palate to an undiscovered world of flavours.
It was a brave thing to do, for the original Moti Mahal, with Kundan Lal Gujral still at the helm, was a five-minute walk from the hotel. The decor and the idea clicked, the trami (the multi-course Kashmiri meal served in a majestic copper-lidded bowl) became an all-time hit, especially the succulent seekh kebabs, the sinful tabak maaz (lamb ribs simmered in milk till tender and flash fried till crisp) and the spongy gushtaba (meat balls in yoghurt gravy).
Since Chor Bizarre (and its London outpost at Albemarle Street in fashionable Mayfair), Khattar, in his avatar as Mr Old World Hospitality, has turned India Habitat Centre into a destination for foodies (my favourite there is The All American Diner, which is again memorabilia-packed) and six years ago, he launched the plain-looking Indian Accent, which is today the best-known, most-awarded Indian restaurant in the world. And as if all this weren’t a handful, he’s also making Bollywood films, which is another story altogether.
Khattar is not known to rest on his laurels, and before we could ask “What next?”, he has opened the second Chor Bizarre at Bikaner House to the south of India Gate, cheek-by-jowl with the hugely popular Pandara Road Market, home to the famous Gulati, Havemore and Pindi restaurants. The new Chor Bizarre’s prices are lower than that of its neighbours — a sound promotional gambit — and the food is as good as ever.
Bikaner House — yet another classical Art Deco building (like Hotel Broadway) completed in 1931 for the charismatic Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh by the lesser-known architect of New Delhi, Charles George Blomfeld — was once the scene of all-night balls hosted by the maharaja for the American GIs stationed in New Delhi during World War II. Overshadowed by its neighbour, Jaipur House, home to the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bikaner House was languishing as the local office of Rajasthan Tourism and, worse, as the terminal for the buses operated by the state-run corporation. That, thankfully, is the past.
The building was restored to its old majesty with the active intervention of Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and Khattar has the mandate not only to run Chor Bizarre and a cafe, but also to turn its vast ballroom into a socialising space for Delhi’s elite looking for a break from farmhouses. The Maharaja would have approved of the turnaround.
— This article first appeared in a shortened form in my bi-monthly column, Fortune Cookie, in Mail Today on December 29, 2016. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers.