Category Archives: Usaquén

Kitchen Talk: Interview with Chef Harsh Bhatia from Taj Mahal

This article forms part of the Conversation with Chefs, a series of articles featuring chefs in Colombia.

Two chefs from India work at the newly opened Taj Mahal restaurant in Usaquen, Bogota. Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma come from different parts of India (Rajasthan and Punjab) and have united their culinary efforts here in Colombia.

Amid the decorations, music, and aromas of the Taj Mahal restaurant, I recently sat down with Harsh to talk about where he’s been, what he’s doing now and what his future plans are.

Interview withchef Harsh Bhatia

After studying at a culinary school in India, he was later recruited to work in five star hotels around India, which brought him the enjoyable challenge of working with chefs from diverse areas of the country and their different culinary traditions.

He arrived in Bogota in June 2013, right before the opening of Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal focuses on food cooked in a tandoor, which is often a clay oven with charcoal or wood placed at the bottom as fuel. The food is exposed to the fire at temperatures that can get pretty extreme. Harsh explains to me that tandoors were originally a hole dug in the ground that was then coated in clay and used for cooking. In time they evolved and now take on many different forms.

I was pleased to visit the kitchen at Taj Mahal; modern, yet with traditions, techniques and flavors reaching back thousands of years. Small bowls of spices, all lined up neatly in a row, were ready to impart flavors to the food.

Spices at Taj Mahal Usaquen

The tandoor, shiny and new, sits in a corner. This tandoor is fueled with charcoal at the bottom, giving the food a smoky flavor as the fat from the food drips onto the hot coals. The top opens up and naan or other breads are placed on the walls of the hot tandoor, and those burning coals provide the heat to bake the bread. Peeking in, I saw the coals burning red hot and the naan clinging to the sides, delightfully puffing up and browning. Other types of food are skewered and placed in or near the coals to cook.

Chefs Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma at Taj Mahal restaurant
Chefs Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma at Taj Mahal restaurant
Breads baking in the Tandoor oven
Breads baking in the Tandoor oven

In India Harsh usually cooked with two tandoors, one always full of naan and the second one with other dishes. At the hotels he worked at in India he was used to cooking for events of up to 200 people, and those events and the frenetic pace of the kitchen in general keeps, as he says, his mind sharp as he works to impart the same taste to every single dish.

What he thinks of Colombia: Harsh loves the permanently cool weather in Bogota. In India he cooked in very hot places, and comments that it’s a challenge to work over two very hot tandoors in that climate. And since Colombians are kind and helpful, he’s found it easy to adapt to life in Bogota.

Keeping Colombians happy: At Taj Mahal, the menu is crafted keeping in mind the likes and dislikes of Colombians. They try to balance the menu to appeal to those unfamiliar with Indian cooking as well as those who love the spicy heat. For the many Colombians not used to eating hot food, they tone down the heat.

Future: Harsh plans to teach cooking classes in the near future, but first has to work on his Spanish language skills.
Chef’s recommendation: His favorite meal at Taj Mahal is butter chicken served with butter naan.

To find out more about the Taj Mahal restaurant, read this article published in The City Paper.

Taj Mahal Usaquen

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A Restaurant Called Abasto

The facade is plain white and the blue letters simple. Abasto. As in, going to the store. We step in the restaurant and the first thing we’re hit with is the sight of some crumble-topped muffins which are just gorgeous.  I hadn’t actually been hungry before that moment but quickly got hungry.

Crumble wr

Since we were with a large group, we were ushered back to the despensa (which means the pantry).  This back room was dominated by a large wood table that seats about 14 people, with a wall stocked full of wines behind it. Hanging on the walls were dried garlic, loufas and flowers. There was an area to buy things, like olives and their oil, quinoa, corn meal and other organic products.

Inside Abasto wr

Then we started searching the menu. I remember some talk about some eggs in olive oil and oregano, but got lost in one word…pancakes. The unfortunate thing is that I didn’t ask what kind of pancakes they were offering. American pancakes?  South American pancakes? The South American ones I’ve had have all too often been rubbery, served in a leisurely manner so they always arrive cold, and no one else seems to care that the butter won’t melt on those hard slabs of wheat flour.

Anyway, without asking, without preparing myself, I ordered those pancakes.

In the meantime, the scones arrived. Oh, the scones. Made with delicious cream. Tender. Studded with berries. Served with a little pot of house-made berry jam and some very tempting butter. Then the bread basket arrived, thick slices of house-made bread, full of healthy grains, with lots of butter and fresh-made berry jam for the top.

scones wr

Bread basket wr

Then the eggs arrived. Not mine, since I had opted for the pancakes in all my American greediness, but my friends’ eggs arrived. Two little eggs nestled in their own little frying pan, with some cream and spinach. The deep orange yolks stared up at me. Wow. How did they get that orange? A taste, offered by a generous friend, was surprising. What flavorful eggs. Apparently that’s what happens when chickens are happy, they produce good eggs. At least, that’s what the sign on the wall led me to believe. And they cost more, too. Another friend had ordered an arepa, a thin toasty looking arepa with lots of grated cheese on top.

Then my plate arrived. Three pancakes, some more of the berry jam, and a sliced banana off to the side, served on a large white plate.

Three pancakes. I stared at them. Were those pancakes? Really? How did the shape get so perfect? They looked suspiciously like arepas. They were perfectly round, rather thick, and very browned, the kind of browned that only comes from adding lots of butter. I moved one with my fork. The butter was melting on top of them, so the temperature was right. Although it wouldn’t be for long on this cool Bogota morning.

Ok, so back to the look of the pancake, and the real question. Was it really an arepa? As I prodded with my fork, my curiosity was satisfied; it was a pancake. Wheat flour. I spread some jam on it (no syrup available) and cut into it. Good texture, though a little too firm for me. Like a stressed out pancake, not soft enough.

A bite.

Wow. What kind of pancake was that? Pancake meets organic and healthy. Not very sweet, but with good flavor. And what was that white layer inside? A closer look revealed a thin layer of ricotta cheese within the pancake, as if enclosed in it. How in the world did they get that in there? Delicious.

Honey was also served with it, a thick, almost solid honey that I had last tried years ago in the mountains of Venezuela. A delicious topping to the pancakes, though perhaps a little insipid. With a little berry jam, it was perfect.

Pancakes wr

An American pancake? By no means. Excellent? Definitively.

After the meal I got a chance to look around the restaurant, which has a marketplace feel to it. Comfortable, busy on a Sunday morning, with an emphasis on getting together with loved ones for a cheery meal.

I received the most unusual surprise when I opened the bathroom door. My surprise wasn’t so much in the clean bathroom (an important detail) but the smell.  A fresh smell of flowers…in the latrine. Hmmm. Unusual indeed. I looked right and left, saw the usual mirror, soap dispenser, sink…where was that smell coming from…

The rafters. I looked up, and imagine that, tied from the wood rafters were bunches of fresh and dried flowers, giving a feeling of an upside down garden within the bathroom.

Flowers from the rafters wr

Overall, visiting Abasto was an enriching experience. It wasn’t just some decent food, but a feeling that more than my stomach had been fed. It was a whole-person experience, satisfying my taste buds, my health considerations, and my love of all things natural.

Abasto, Carrera 6 #119b-52, Usaquen, Bogota