I should have worn pearls, or a twinset or maybe even silk gloves that came up to my elbows. The Orient Express at the Taj is that kind of a place — it’s old style, elegant, courtly dining with all the ceremony of a nicely turned out meal and very little nouvelle posturing.
Plus, you get to eat it in a posh coach meant to catch the romance of the train that once chugged its way from Paris to Istanbul. The elegance of the coach and the classic force of the menu begs one to slow the hand movements, to cross one’s legs neatly at the ankle, to set glasses carefully on the napery and, of course, to refer to oneself as “oneself”. You almost wish you were wearing a flapper dress with a side sweep of feathers in your hair.
Yes, there are truffles and caviar and other James Bondish bits of luxury on the menu, but it takes its cue from the meat — from the corn-fed chicken, with its buttery farmhousy taste to marbled Kobe beef and darkly beckoning Angus steak — and each dish is an art in understated cooking to show off the quality and cut of meat with light-handed flavouring that enhances not overpowers.
So if it’s Angus steak you’re after, you’re going to get it with a mere ribbon of bacon holding it together, a jus that distills its natural flavours and vegetables that do nothing more than help you mop up these juices.
We were tickled recently to be invited to a private lunch in the carriage — the Orient is never open for lunch — so this was a rare treat.
You get to sit in the carriage if you do the table d’hote menu, which consists of three or four courses, plus amuse bouches to get the salivary glands going and sorbets between courses to cleanse the palate.
Classic French cuisine is what the Orient dishes up, inviting you into the meal with delicate salmon canapés or a smoothly flavoured chicken liver pâté before entrees that show all the discipline of modern French cuisine. Had with the right wines from the restaurant’s award-winning list, even the starters take on a touch of glamour.
The Cornish crabmeat hors d’oeuvre was a little fiddly, with the winner in this course clearly the foie gras. The creaminess of France’s most beloved delicacy is done justice here, pan seared and with a warm duck dressing spiked with ginger.
The dish that will have you going back is the cheese soufflé. It is the least attractive of the dishes, no more than a wobble of puffed egg on a plate and topped messily by a cheese sauce dressed with a straggly bit of chilli. But the taste is velvety, the soufflé whipped just so and the camembert done great justice by the paprika. This is a dish so silky that you may be hard pressed to leave a respectful sliver behind on the plate.
For mains, we tried the hugely popular New Zealand lamb that must be cooked, because the meat is so simply presented, no more than medium. The Black Angus tenderloin was very good but better still is the peppered Angus that the Orient serves off its a la carte (served in the “platform” or bar area).
Given that this is a table d’hote menu where all courses must be done justice, you will, even if you’ve wiped the plates clean through the preceding courses, have dessert. While the warm chocolate pudding with a liquid chocolate centre is the house special (and it is good), it’s the apple and almond frangipane tart with caramel that is a standout. Given the prices and the dress-up requirements, the Orient is very much a special occasion treat but what a fabulous special occasion treat.