“In the heyday of royalty, especially in Rajasthan, the dining experience – the food, the entertainment, the entire gamut – was spectacular. It was all about how much you could flabbergast your guests…” says Sanjiv Bali, restauranteur and businessman, referring to the inspiration behind the dining experience in his restaurant – 1135AD in Jaipur’s Amber Fort.
Flabbergast it does. And how: it would not be hyperbolic to say that unless you’ve got royal lineage yourself, you’re not likely to have laid eyes on the kind of superlative opulence which the restaurant – spread over two levels – presents.
Truth be told, you do expect something spectacular: whether you choose to walk up through the fort entrance, or better still, take the winding road (which is used exclusively by guests at the restaurant), where a receiving party will give you a traditional welcome, and (if you are so inclined) take you to the restaurant gates on a traditionally bedecked elephant. Not exactly your everyday experience.
Still, nothing prepares you for the regal splendour that the restaurant exudes. From the moment you enter the patio past the Shila Mata temple and are greeted by traditional Rajasthani dancers, and led into an exotic interior with gold-leaf workmanship on the ceilings, ornate silver cutlery, and objets d’art. “We had over 100 artisans working on the interiors for over two years. If you put something just for effect then it doesn’t work,” says Bali who conceptualised and oversaw the interior restoration himself. “There were no compromises when we put the restaurant together. We’ve not used any white metal, we’ve used silver. We’ve used real gold for the inlay work on the ceilings. Restoration work was very important when we started. Everything is removable and we haven’t made any changes to the original structure,” explains Bali whose personal collection of artefacts has also found a home in the restaurant.
The natural lighting – candles, diyas, traditional chandeliers and lanterns – add to the old-world charm of the restaurant. It’s not as if there is no electric lighting, but it’s cleverly concealed and ambient, reflecting off the mirrored frescoes on the roof and walls, imparting a warm glow.
The restaurant has an assortment of seating sections, each more charming than the last: the Shahi Jharokhas are popular with couples who want privacy and stunning views of the sunset. The Shahi Angan is an open-air courtyard where guests can sup while viewing traditional music and dance performances.
But the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the Sheesh Mahal – a private dining for 12- 15 people – where everything – the cutlery, chairs, decorative pieces, tables – are entirely made of silver. Ostentatious? Absolutely. But breathtakingly so.
The outer wall of the dining area has intricate lattice work. “We were trying to clean the jaali work at the Sheesh Mahal when we realised that there was something inside it obscured by centuries of neglect. And then we got someone to delicately chisel it and we realised that inside there were in fact full jharokhas. It makes sense because back in the day, this was a ladies section. And right across is Diwan-e-aam. Below is the Jaleb Chowk where everything happened when a king came back from battle.There was a purdah system and the women could come here and look at whatever was going on down in the Jaleb Chowk through the jharokhas,” explains Bali.
The meal commenced with the waiters – impressively dressed in embroidered sherwani jackets and huge saffron coloured turbans – laying out the succulent (and signature) lal maas (a traditional Rajasthani meat preparation), a never-ending kebab platter and an assortment of rotis. “We’re trying to maintain authenticity yet still offer choices to someone who may want something more regular,” says Bali, adding that, “Totally authentic food is very rich. It uses ingredients like saffron, cashew nuts, raisins, almonds and the like. So the menu is a combination of the very traditional and something new. – jungle maas, lal maas, gatta curry.” The service, as you’d expect, is highly personalised, courteous, and discreet.
Goes without saying that eating at 1135AD is not cheap – but given the sheer indulgence, authenticity, and exclusivity of the experience, the `15,000 or so per head (sans alcohol) that you will shell out for dining at the sheesh mahal is well worth it. Dining out at the other sections will set you back less than a third of that, but the sheesh mahal is the crown jewel that you cannot afford to miss. 1135AD is not a place which you’re likely to waltz into for an evening snack on a whim. In more ways than one it’s an anachronism in this age of homogenised fast food. It belongs to another era when a meal was an occasion – elaborate and ritualised – to be savoured with pomp and leisure. Whether you’re out for a romantic evening with your better half, a gourmet trail through Rajasthan, or just a meal with a side-dish of history, you’ll do well to don the formals, switch off the phone, and settle in for an evening back in time. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the sound of distant hooves. The King’s back in Jaleb Chowk.