The new innovation in Indian cuisine - a return to comfort food? - Punjab Grill, Venetian Village, Abu Dhabi

The last couple years has seen some innovative restaurants launching in Abu Dhabi. Fusion seems to be the buzz word these days and while molecular gastronomy has not quite found a home here, there have been a few restaurants flirting with it. At the same time, though, a restaurant like Punjab Grill comes along and in many ways sets out to bring people back to the basics to a time when what you ordered was what you got - no twists.  Comforting food. I have just had the pleasure of trying Punjab Grill Restaurant - does it succeed in what it aims to do? Does it provide a great level of comfort through its dishes? To what extent does it embrace its North Indian  tradition?

We start off with a chaat selection - papadums and a great choice of chutneys. The Aaubergine chutney is particularly delicious. Make sure to try the Mixed vegetables and Ginger and onion. The presentation is rich and bountiful, symbolic of  a very warm welcome. Finally, a glass of house champagne, Bollinger Brut NV, with the gorgeous Maqta canal setting in the background, makes for a perfect start. Although it is getting hot now, you need to take in the view - the moonlight reflecting off the water while the hotel lights from across the canal also shine in the distance - mesmerising indeed! I suggest starting outside, endure as long as you can, and then move inside. 

Just before heading inside I have the Watermelon slider - it is a fantastic palate cooler, but much more than just a piece  of watermelon. Pomegranate and tamarind bring sweet and sourness to bear on the dish, with passion fruit jelly adding more flavour diversity. Very intense!

Punjab Grill Restaurant, with a stunning bar area, has an inviting selection of cocktails. I follow up my glass of Bollinger with a Cupid straight,  a vodka drink infused with chilli, masala and coriander. It has  a bit of bite, so beware! But so appropriate. 

Having endured the heat, I move inside. It is interesting to see, as I look around the restaurant, that there is  a balance of guests between what appears to be locals, Indian and other diners. It is always a good sign, especially, when you see a lot of Indian guests in an Indian restaurant; it speaks to the authenticity of the dining experience. 

My thoughts are interrupted by a small selection of Vegetarian kebabs brought to our table -  Laban ka kebab, Hara kebab and Beetroot kebab. The Laban kebab has a delicious crunch as I bite into and a melt-in-your-mouth appeal inside while the Hara kebab,  a Spanish patty with a mango preserve brings to the fore another balanced dish. Finally, my favourite of the three - the beetroot kebab. There is that crunch again which reveals a deep red colour of the beetroot, and rather than just the usual mild sweetness of the beetroot, there is a spicy element added. Wow! 

By the way, I also have the Chicken seekh kebab - three words only: tender and flavoursome. Maybe four words - unbelievably tender and flavoursome. 

On the seafood side of things, I try the  Zaffarani Jhinga or Jumbo shrimp, is beautifully cooked - firm but moist, with decadently flavoured saffron. An added high point is the sweetness of the bell peppers juxtaposed with the spiciness of the shrimp. A winner!

Next up, the Spice crusted macchi is then brought to our table. It is so refreshing to see an unusual fish over and above hamour, cod or seabass. Nile perch, something I have not had here before, is served baked. It is a wonderfully balanced dish, which includes porcini mushrooms, asparagus, korma and masala paste. Finally, it is really nicely presented with apple foam and watercress hovering on top. As for taste - this delicately flavoured fish gets all its flavour from what else is on the plate. Chef has cooked it to retain its moisture. While seabass is on the menu, for something different, I recommend this dish. 

No evening at an Indian restaurant is complete without some curry. My daughter raves about the Butter chicken. It is child-friendly but still full of flavour. This is what I alluded to earlier. There is a lot of comfort in a dish like Butter chicken, and Chef Sandeep understands that, staying true to its essential elements.

One of the dishes I always look forward to in an Indian restaurant is the Dal Makhani. Served with an interesting of the-beaten-track choice of naan breads, it is deliciously creamy, accentuated by mild flavours. Another popular dish, the Palak paneer also hits the right note, and the use of ginger brought another dimension to the dish. But still, and this is vital, it remains Palak paneer to me.  

To end the night, desserts of course. They are always a sweet affair in an Indian restaurant, and I am particularly excited to try Punjab Grill's offerings. The dessert menu is especially succinct, with a choice of 6, including classics like Gulab jamun and Ras malai

Jalebi Churros provide theatre as all the toppings are added table side. Condensed milk chocolate is poured over the churros in addition to rose petals, pistachios, almonds and coconut powder. It is sweet but worth it. Balance it with a cup of Darjeeling tea or even a strong Americano. In my case, it was a cup of chai that signalled the end of my dinner. 

In the end, I realised something very important and that is that while Punjab Grill Restaurant comes up with dishes faithful to the North Indian traditions, it does add a few twists or innovations, but not to the extent that it confuses the guest. I will still label it traditional, but with something delightful angles. Chef Sandeep has the greatest reverence for his ingredients, and that accounts for them taking centre stage even though there are some unexpected supporting ingredients to his dishes. 

For Indian restaurants with subtle twists that do not rob their dishes of their traditional integrity, there are maybe a couple in the city. What puts Punjab Grill Restaurant in front is the all round experience - the very  knowledgeable Chef Sandeep, a view to die for, a restaurant that is aesthetically alluring with a bar that catches the eye without effort and of course, some sublime dishes. 

The Essentials

Punjab Grill,
Venetian Village,
adjacentt to Ritz Carlton,
Abu Dhabi
+971 2 449 9839

Dinner for two excl drinks 300AED++

Brandon Stoltenkamp

Disclaimer: I was invited to Punjab Grill  as a guest of the restaurant.