The Lucknow I left behind in 2001 was a sleepy town. The youth, like me, would call it ‘best if both the worlds’ perhaps to cover up for its small townness and lack of any fun things. The only nightlife I’d heard of were parties that Akhilesh Yadav threw – he was a young man in his 20s away from politics – and the only time I went dancing was in a pub at 3:00 PM. Yes! That’s what the city was all about. Eating out was restricted to the few ancient establishments and fine dining entailed eating tasteless 3-star banquet food at Clarks .Was it one reason for the young to flee to greener pastures? Maybe.
The Lucknow I returned to about 5 years ago was different. I saw new places. I saw some life. People had moved out of Ritz and Classic, youngsters wanted stuff beyond Rovers and Mini Mahal.
In the past year or so, every time I have come to Lucknow, I have seen it change a little more. While my puritan heart breaks to see the Dillification of my dear town, it also is hopeful that the change will bring better things to it. One such place as I discovered, was the beautiful, beautiful, Lebua.
Built in a 1936 haveli, the boutique hotel is such a delight that my heart weeps with joy every time I see it. Every courtyard here talks to me, every verandah seems familiar. The walls seem out of our ancestral homes, now abandoned and shut. The windows remind me of my childhood, and the courtyard makes me want to be a child again. The most encouraging thing however is not that a place like this has come in the city. It is how the city has warmed up to it. And I see that increasing with every visit.
The evolution of a city is always visible in the evolution of its food and going by what I experience here, Lucknow has truly evolved.
Last night at Azrak, a flagship restaurant at lebua, we saw a full house. There were also at least 20 people waiting. The vibe was happy and people seemed to be having a good time. The best thing? They were all there for local Lakhnavi food. The flavours that were on the verge of dying, the food that had until now been considered old fashioned was being celebrated.
While part of this could be the city’s opening up to eating out the other is what chef Qureshi is doing in his kitchen. A prodigy of the Qureshi family of Khamsamas, chef Mohsin is not only reviving dying (even dead) awadhi recipes but also making them sing. Majlisi so soft that it would melt in your mouth, galawat so tender that you cannot feel it, kormas, nihari, baghare baigan and biriyani that would make you dance, and rotis that would give the finest breads in the world a run for their money. His mastery on spices and his restraint with seasoning is amazing, his passion to feed guests commendable. To say that he is changing the culinary landscape of Lucknow will not be an exaggeration. Some of his specialties we make a point to tatste are Chicken Korma, Baghare Baingan, Parat Wala Paratha, Bhakarkwani, Veg Galwat and Sabz Seekh. Each item deserves a story on itself but for now, let me tell you that there is Nihari too, which I was in a great rush to finish off, so no pictures. The Parat Wala Paratha came with honey, cardmom, and saffron. The Bhakarkwani was unique and beautiful. The sabz seek however deserves a special mention for the nuttiness and ‘sondhapan’ a word I cannot translate.
Chef creates amazing meals with a brilliant balance of meat and vegetables (I cannot eat too much meat and they ensured I had my vegetarian options).
But it is not only Indian and Awadhi food that makes lebua stand out. There is also 1936, a first of its kind restaurant in the city.
An ode to the haveli that was built in 1936, the restaurant is set around two large tree trunks. With a red brick wall and all white interiors, al-fresco seating, a large courtyard and a lambretta, the place makes a beautiful setting. The food – authentic European flavours, which I have always struggled to find in Lucknow – is however its highlight. Salads, entrees, soups, mains, grills, desserts, wines — everything here gives you an authentic experience. The most important aspect remains the service, which is a highlight of the hotel.
Another part of the hotel I really love – even though I have had an opportunity to sit and soak in the beauty to it’s fullest is Sehar. The inner courtyard open only to resident guests is an enchanting space. Corralled by long verandas, lined with madhumalti creepers and adorned with a fountain it is my dream space in the city and one day I hope to sit here for long hours and write verses to my Lucknow. Until then I’d keep going to partake in the beautiful food that the chefs here create.