Stepping out of the elevator and into Oye Amritsar is like stepping into another world. The first thing you see is a paanwala, perched on the staircase before you. Before you fully register his unlikely presence, your head swivels towards an unceasing, mid-volume clamor. Unbidden, your feet follow suit.
Three of your senses – smell, sight, and hearing – are immediately and simultaneously assailed. The aromas of tawa-hot rotis and shuddh desi ghee conjure up warm-and-fuzzy childhood memories. Fifty-odd conversations struggle to be heard above the sound of old Hindi film songs and the busy clatter of ladle against karhai. And the colors! Red snuggles up against pink; green and purple co-exist happily; and yellows, oranges, and blues vie incessantly for your attention. This is kitsch at its eye-popping best.
The idea is to recreate a true-blue Punjabi dhaba – and the management has succeeded admirably, down to the smallest detail. My dining partner and I exclaim in delight over each new discovery. We take in the garish, hand-painted filmi-ishtyle wall-paintings, the impossibly large, green-and-yellow megaphone-style “Bose” speakers, and the streetlight-style lighting. We chortle over salt and pepper shakers crafted from plastic peg-bottles. We guffaw gleefully at a sign proclaiming “London Bar and Restaurant – proprietor Tipsy Singh”.
Along comes the menu. It’s yellow…and pink… and brown… and red… And it says things like “little bit is veggie” and “remaining is not veggie.” It’s divided into four sections: Lucky Lady Tandoor House, Surjeet Bhatti, Malviya Road da Kulchewaalla, and Balwinder Singh Sr. Mithaiwala – who, the menu informs us, is “world-famous in Amritsar.” All items in the first two sections are available in “full” as well as “half” portions – a thoughtful touch to ensure that you do justice to the entrees.
Although the bar menu promises that it is “also serving large and patiala for your enjoy,” we regretfully turn down the opportunity. Instead, we bravely opt for “kanji,” a Punjabi concoction of spiced, fermented carrot and beetroot juice that my married-to-a-Tam-Brahm friend declares tastes “like chilled rasam.”
The manager then brings us a plateful of “Tar-booze” – watermelon chunks steeped in gin and sprinkled with black salt. It’s fabulous. Not so the Pepper Vodka Pani Puri, though – an inspired idea whose main appeal lies in the concept. Reality, as always, disappoints; it turns out to be like doing vodka shots with mashed potato in your mouth.
Before we can say “chak de phatte,” our first starter appears: Jeenga Mast Kalandar. These prawns are outstanding for their flavour, and are done to perfection. Barely before we finish licking the tangy masala off our fingers, our next starter arrives: Pathankot di Mashoor Tange, grilled chicken legs stuffed with lamb mince. These are tasty, but fall short as a follow-up to the prawns. The chicken is somewhat underdone, and the textures of the two meats don’t quite bring out the best in each other. Next, we sample Mooli Channa Chatpata and Dahi Bhalla Komchewala from the Surjeet Bhatti. The chickpea chaat, with its surprising tang of radish, does a great job of cleansing the palate. The dahi bhalla – normally, a personal favourite – is a let down; it is coarse, grainy, and dry. On close examination, I can actually see something that looks suspiciously like bread. (On a subsequent visit, I gave this dish a second chance – unfortunately, with identical results).
We’re now ready for our main course. As we begin, we’re told that the chefs and recipes at Oye Amritsar have been imported from the streets of Punjab cities like Chandigarh, Ludhiana, and Amritsar. In quick succession, we sample Ajwaini Arbi Masaledar, a spicy yam preparation, with naan redolent in ghee; Dal Amritsari, a bland-but-rich, tasty black dal; a simple Kukkad (chicken, to the uninitiated) curry with masala kulcha; and a must-try Bhatinda Cantonment mutton curry that’s to die for. We round off the meal with a plate of hot, crisp jalebis with rabdi. Suffice it to say that we south Indians don’t know a thing about either until we’ve tried them here.
A word about the service – it’s the friendliest, most genuine we’ve seen in recent times. A big “Oye” to Oye Amritsar on a meal well served.
4th Floor, 20, Church Street. 4112-2866.
Average meal for two: Rs 600
Timings: 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Credit cards: All