The old rules for Chinese restaurants in India are dying and we are ready for the new generation, writes Vir Sanghvi.Updated: Jul 08, 2008, 12:52 IST
A couple of months ago, I suggested on these pages, that the old rules for Chinese restaurants in India were dying. We'd seen Sichuan (and its offshoot: Sino-Ludhianvi). We'd seen the next wave of Pan-Asian restaurants (India Jones in Bombay the many ITC places etc.). And, now we were ready for the new generation.
That, I suggested, would take the form of the hip Chinese restaurants: upmarket, trendy and with modern food that owed nothing to the red sauces and chillies of Punjabi Chinese.
Well, I've seen the future. And it is tasty.
The advance guard of the new wave comprises – at least, for me – four restaurants. Two of them have a shared provenance. Though the Hyatts in India are separately owned and managed, they draw on the same pool of global expertise. So the China House at Bom bay's Grand Hyatt does not share the same management as Delhi's Hyatt Regency which has just opened The China Kitchen.
But both restaurants have used the vision of Chef Jack Aw Ong, the Hyatt's global big man when it comes to Chinese food. His experience includes Australia, Singapore (and the Hyatt there which must be one of Asia's most influential hotels in F&B terms), but his chief claim to fame these days is that he helped evolved the chain's Made In China concept for its restaurants on the mainland.
Both The China House and The China Kitchen also look vaguely similar because they are designed by hip Japanese company Super Potato. <b1>
Then, there's the much awaited My Humble House at Delhi's Maurya, opened by ITC in collaboration with the Tung Lok group which operates a restaurant of the same name in Singapore. The Delhi My Humble House opened a month ago and has been packed out night after night, earning more money than any other restaurant at the property except for the mighty Bukhara.
There's also a stand-alone in Bombay: Vong Wong at Express Towers in Nariman Point which tries to do Thai and Chinese at prices that are significantly lower than the five star places. Vong Wong is also packed out, despite its huge size and seems set to become a fixture on the Bombay scene.
Of the four restaurants, the Hyatt places were undoubtedly the best of the lot but I have to say that I also liked Vong Wong and My Humble House has received a rapturous response from many people who've eaten there (including the staff of Brunch who thought it was great).
I approached Vong Wong with a certain amount of caution because the last much-hyped Bombay restaurant I had been to was Tetsuma at the site of the old Athena near the Radio Club and the Courtyard on the Colaba seafront. I admire the sincerity of everybody who works at Tetsuma but I have three problems with the restaurant.
One: it's run by Chateau Indage and they didn't have any of the wines I ordered so eventually I had to drink Chateau Indage's own produce which while not exactly cat's piss is not great either. Two: the prices are much too high for what it is. And three: the chefs really had no clue. This is the Nobu menu as reinterpreted by a half-wit.
Tetsuma tries to be a Wasabi for the unconnected and the ignorant. Apart from the fact that the Nobu formula is now getting a little dated, I think that modern Japanese food (as in Black Cod in Miso etc.) can only work at small places. The punters may eat sushi but basically it's still Chinese food that really gets them going.
Vong Wong operates somewhere in the middle ground between Thai and Chinese (much of Thai cuisine is derived from the influence of the overseas Chinese who taught the fish-eating Thais to eat meat). <b2>
Here's what I liked about it: the kitchen did not try and serve junk Chinese but went the extra mile; the prices were brilliant for the location; the stir-frying was perfectly timed; it was packed out with happy families who were neither on expense accounts nor paying with wads of cash; and I had a very good meal. If they can maintain all these advantages, they are on to a very good thing.
My Humble House is more complicated. I believe – and I may well be wrong – that the Singapore Humble House formula is also getting a bit jaded by now. I'm tired of menus where every dish is made to sound like a poem and modern Chinese/Western fusion is a difficult trick to pull off unless your chef is very good. I am not a fan of the Singapore original and the Tung Lok group's one other attempt to try the formula in India – at Henry Tham's in Bombay where they were consultants – has not been an unqualified success.
The Delhi outlet is a huge hit however, though I still have issues with the lighting (also done by a Japanese company) and thought that some of the food was pretty dismal.
On the other hand, some of it was excellent. The vegetarian food is up to modern London standards (think Kai or Hakkasan) and many of the non-vegetarian dishes were great – foie gras with Peking Duck, a concentrated chicken consommé and wonderful lamb shanks.
I hesitate to make any suggestions about a restaurant that's already doing so well but my guess is that the kitchen is screwing up because they do not have a firm grasp on the essence of their cuisine. Chinese fusion is a tricky business to pin down anyway given its bastardised provenance, but if they are trying to "customise" the food (as I was told) for Delhi tastes, then they are in trouble. The restaurant may make even more money than Maroush did in its heyday but it won't do anything for ITC's image.
But mine is a minority view. Everybody else loves it so go and decide for yourselves. And if you are a vegetarian, then go anyway: you'll like it because the vegetables are excellent.
Which brings us to the two Hyatt places. The two Hyatt hotels are strange animals. They are always efficiently run and the Hyatt group probably has the best F&B systems in the industry The . top management always consists of well-trained expats and it is hard to find a technical flaw in the execution.
And yet, neither Bombay's Grand Hyatt nor Delhi's Hyatt Regency has ever had the customer connect it deserves. In Delhi, the Hyatt is the expat hotel. It gets great business from the non-corporate sector. Plus, during the NDA-era, it had become the hotel of choice for the Pramod Mahajan-type of BJP-wallah. It's not a bad profile but the hotel is not quite the Oberoi and it's not quite the Imperial.
In Bombay, the Grand Hyatt has a problem with the architecture and design. The public areas are cold and the suites, though perfectly functional, are curiously unluxurious and unhip. The expats are all terrific and the Indian staff are friendly and solicitous but you always get the sense that if you return to the hotel in three months, a new team will greet you. In Bombay terms, it's not quite the classy Land's End, let alone the main Taj. <b3>
What both Hyatts do have going for them, however, is the sense of scale. When the Delhi Hyatt opened Djinns, the very size of the operation made the city sit up and take notice. Djinns was a difficult act to get right but the Hyatt pulled it off and transformed its image.
In Bombay the Grand Hyatt bet big on M, a huge grill restaurant , which I love but which is rarely more than a third full (except for Sunday brunch). I blame it on poor design and lighting but no matter what the hotel does, M is a gamble that hasn't worked.
To get a sense of the scale of the Delhi's Hyatt's new Chinese restaurant, think of all of Djinns (mezzanine included) being transformed into a single Chinese restaurant.
For the Maurya to have done something similar, they would have had to have put My Humble House where Dublin now is and to have included a couple of the shops as well. <b4>
In Bombay, the China House is as huge. It occupies three floors and includes a 136 cover restaurant, a private lounge floor and a buzzy lounge bar on a third level. Both restaurants also have room for outdoor seating to be used when the weather improves.
The Bombay operation is already the city's hottest restaurant: people beg to be allowed in and the lounge area is packed out with models, B-list movie stars and Page Three People.
But that shouldn't put you off. You can ignore the partying and enjoy the restaurant floor in isolation. I haven't seen the Made In China outlets on the mainland, but anyone who has seen mezza9 at the Singapore Hyatt will recognise the concept. All cooking is done in individual open kitchen spaces but – unlike mezza9 – the ambience is warm because of the use of wood.
Delhi's China Kitchen does not use the old Djinns' entrance. You go through the pool area to get there but it is easily the bestlooking restaurant in the city It is to the credit of Super Potato . that the vast spaces have been intelligently split up to create a feeling of privacy and cosiness. Compared to everything else in Delhi, this is the new generation of restaurants.
The Hyatt has gambled with the food. It has avoided the Indian Chinese menu completely but it has also ignored the trendy modern Chinese that you get in London and Singapore.
Everything I ate at both restaurants was authentic and represented a dish that you could have found on the mainland. I had dinner with Chef Jack and the resident manager Prasanjit Singh at the Delhi restaurant so I won't comment on the service. Prasanjit is king of the hotel's F&B so naturally anybody at his table should expect special attention. At Bombay's China House, I was nobbled when I walked in so I can't judge the service either.
It is as hard to judge the food for the same sort of reasons but I thought that while it was outstanding at both restaurants, the cuisine in Delhi was better. The Bombay food was very good but the Delhi meal was the best Chinese food I've eaten in India.
The star of both meals was Peking Duck. So far, only the two Pan Asians (in Delhi and Bombay) have got this dish right but Hyatt has spent a fortune on importing authentic Peking Duck ovens and several mainland Chinese chefs because this is the signature dish of both restaurants. At Delhi's China Kitchen they use apricot wood to fire the oven though they told me that they preferred mango wood in Bombay. Either way, there's a wonderful smoky taste to the duck meat at both places.
The other signature dish is Beggar's Chicken. This is a difficult dish to get right because you need to marinate the chicken in wine at least overnight before cooking it inside a clay brick. The dish gets its flavour from the mushrooms, nuts and vegetables that are put into the brick along with the chicken. The brick is then ceremonially broken at the table. I liked the Bombay version but the Delhi chicken was perfection itself: tender, juicy and filled with flavour.
I ate my way through most of the menu (and much of the wine list) in Delhi and I have to say that I didn't come across a single duff dish. Some of this was due to circumstances: I was eating with the people who had planned the restaurant and it was only the second day of its official existence so the kitchen team was on its toes.
So perhaps standards will drop in the weeks ahead. But as of now, Delhi's China Kitchen is easily the best Chinese restaurant in India and Bombay is pretty damn good too.
What does it all mean for the future of Chinese food in India? Well, first of all, I think both the Taj and the Oberoi chains have a problem. The Oberois have no real claim to expertise in Chinese cuisine and if they are closing down their Indian restaurants (as they've just done in Delhi), they need to get their act together for Asian food. You can't base your fine dining reputation on two restaurants borrowed from the Hassler Hotel in Rome.
The Taj has a deeper problem. It's done modern Japanese well (at the brilliant Wasabi in Bombay which soon opens a branch in Delhi) but Thai has run its course and its Chinese food is dated and overpriced – Anjan Chatterjee serves the same menu at half the price at his Mainland China restaurants. The Taj needs to get back into the Chinese food space.
I think ITC will do okay once the My Humble House kitchen finds its feet but within a couple of years the Pan-Asians will seem like they are past their sell-by dates. It faces no immediate crisis but some long-term changes are worth contemplating.
As for the stand-alone places, I think the rules will now change.
There will always be a market for Punjabi Chinese but that won't be enough. The success of Vong Wong and the China House in Bombay demonstrate that public tastes are changing. And that Indians have finally worked out that Ludhiana is not the capital of Sichuan province.
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