I HATE it when people tap me on the head,” says Shivkaran Singh, the bald and garrulous 15-year restaurant veteran, while we dine at his new restaurant Circus, which opened three weeks back in partnership with restaurateur Sunny Singh at South Extension 2, New Delhi. But that is all that seems to annoy him, for he is a picture of hospitality, with his trademark casual Punjabi ‘slap-on-the-back’ style and warmth. He is an interesting mix, suave in speech and attire, but ‘Delhi’ in approach and appeal. It’s been a winning combination so far. He’s changed, he tells me, one has to. The arrogance of the younger years, when he ran the throbbing Smoke House Grill in Greater Kailash, is gone. Today, the ‘scene’ has changed, the velvet rope has dropped and Delhi has relaxed. Circus lets you in on that—the ‘new’ Delhi—with its quirky yet elegant interiors, wait staff wearing colourful clown wigs and Singh in rhapsody over what he calls the ‘Chinjabi’ food section in the menu. It’s not something obscure. In fact, it’s all too familiar for the Delhi diner, but it’s never quite been elevated like this—‘gentrified’ in a sense, rescued from the innumerable nondescript small and dark Chinese restaurants that dot this city. It now stands proud with cuisines from around the world at this fancy new hangout.
So what is Chinjabi? It’s fusion cuisine—before fusion cuisine could even make it to the global food scene at the turn of this century. A consequence of the inventiveness of the Delhi-walla, already skilled at jugaad, Chinjabi took the traditionally ‘bland’ cuisine and gave it a masala twist. So seductive and believable was its authenticity that, as a young college student on my first night out in the US, I suggested to my hosts with all the sophistication I could claim that we should go out for Chinese food. As it turned out, the Chinese was nothing quite like what I was used to in Delhi. I didn’t have a word for it then, but I do now: Chinjabi—the hot and sour soup, chilli chicken, chilli paneer, the clever balance of flavours in American chopsuey, neither American nor Chinese. It’s never been sophisticated enough, but it has been loved. Singh has now brought it into the trendy space and believes it can travel. He already has plans to take it to other parts of the country and the world, “You can’t go wrong with it,” he says. I’m eating as he speaks and I am convinced, but can he convince others? Time will tell.
For now, the restaurant is already picking up. It’s Friday, nearing 10 pm, and the few families with children I noticed when I got here have left. They have been replaced by gym-toned bodies and sinewy frames in slinky dresses. Young, urban India in designer wear, they don’t look like they will dive into Chinjabi. The music changes to electronic beats and the lights dim. It’s packed and alive. The spirit of Smoke House Grill of yore, its ‘nighclub’ vibe, seems to descend on Circus. It’s a whole new place and it’s exactly how it’s meant to be. Family dining through the day and night club at night? It’s planned that way. “We will have club rules on Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the time, it’s a full-fledged restaurant,” Singh says.
Circus, split over two levels, has a rooftop island bar that overlooks a foot bridge, providing a wonderful view of the city and its maze of brightly-lit roads and bustle. There is a separate section at an elevation meant for private bookings. This will provide space for dinner parties and a little intimacy at a restaurant that promises to deliver many raucous nights.
Circus is flamboyant, saucy and fun. It comes with flair in a city where restaurants are increasingly starting to look like each other and the experiences they provide are interchangeable. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It will give you a private, by-reservation-only dining space, but also serve you aam panna and kala khatta with your vodka as a mixer or standalone. The food is inexpensive—in the range of R350 for a starter. “I just want people to eat,” Singh says. Looks like, getting people to eat will be his only challenge post 10 pm, but Singh is a determined man.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants
in India and abroad