It’s a sultry afternoon in Bikaner, the perfect time for a refreshing Cocktail. I’ve not just found my fix – a Gin and Tonic, but also the perfect spot to sip on it and time travel. All this in just ten minutes after I’d checked into Narendra Bhawan once the retreat for Bikaner’s last Maharaja. Over the next 48 hours I would discover the pleasures of reliving a bygone era through a series of curated culinary experiences.
A walk through Bikaner’s old city and market area is all the evidence you need about this city’s unique character. It’s not as rushed or ‘touristy’ as some of Rajasthan’s other busy cities. The Junagadh Fort may not look as imposing as some of its counterparts in the state but is a treasure trove for artefacts and fine architectural elements. This is a city that unravels itself gradually one experience at a time. And almost each encounter is a throwback to one of Rajasthan’s most formidable empires that began a little over five centuries ago.
Narendrasinghji was the last Maharaja and the eponymous Narendra Bhawan used to be his royal residence. This is no grand palace but an intimate hotel full of Art Deco design elements, that offers glimpses of this Maharaja through a set of curated experiences and expert storytelling. Qualities that were on display during dinner on day one. The setting was exquisite – the pool deck on the rooftop, and the theme – Crescent Grill and Dinner. A meal under a half-moon and stars that was a tribute to Bikaner’s vibrant Muslim community. Narendrasinghji was partial to this cuisine and the menu featured delectable kababs that were grilled to perfection.
Even before Narendra Bhawan came into the picture, it was the Laxmi Niwas Palace that was the venue for state banquets. Built between 1898 and 1902, Laxmi Niwas Palace was commissioned by Maharaja Sir Ganga Singhji to serve as his royal residence. Designed by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob, Laxmi Niwas Palace is a fine example of the Indo- Saracenic style of architecture that held sway in 19th Century colonial India. The Gold Room within this imposing palace was our lunch venue and our time machine took us to the roaring 1920s and 1930s.
The Gold Room takes its name from the 45 kgs of gold used to embellish this regal venue. Our Museum lunch was a typical leisurely lunch that the Maharaja would have hosted for special visitors and dignitaries. The menu (with all descriptors printed in French) included classics like an Asparagus Mousse and pomfret finished in Béarnaise sauce. While this was a multi-sensory experience, dinner at the private dining room at Narendra Bhawan took a unique route – a blindfold dinner (we could have passed off as the cast from one of the Fifty Shades films) where we had to depend on our olfactory nerves and taste buds to spot the dishes. But it was my last meal at Narendra Bhawan – the literary menu experience, that stood out for me. Each of the courses on this menu draws inspiration from modern literary classics. For instance, the chowder references a passage in Moby-Dick (by Herman Melville). This shellfish extract enhanced with Cognac is topped with a crushed Ship Biscuit.