Clas­sic cui­sine

The food at Spicy Duck—which will open soon at the cap­i­tal’s Taj Palace ho­tel—may best be de­scribed as con­tem­pla­tive in prepa­ra­tion

The Financial Express - - L E I S U R E - ADVAITA KALA

WHEN TEA House of the Au­gust Moon made way for the trendier Blue Gin­ger at Taj Palace, New Delhi, I wasn’t quite cer­tain if it would work. Tea House had been around forever and it sure looked the part. With a faux bridge, a wa­ter­body, heav­ily-carved chairs, an im­prac­ti­cal seating plan with great views of other pa­trons, and Chi­nese food cooked in a de­cid­edly In­dian way, it had pa­trons who would go nowhere else. Its un­ob­tru­sive pres­ence seemed to sug­gest that it had sur­vived the old and was happy to wel­come the new. There was no mar­ket­ing blitz en­tic­ing you. For two decades and a lit­tle more, Tea House re­mained gen­tly set­tled on the hori­zon of the fre­netic din­ing scene in the cap­i­tal.

I hadn’t vis­ited it for long at the time of its clo­sure, but al­ways liked its warm and com­fort­ing am­bi­ence. There was al­ways a ta­ble avail­able and the long and heavy menu, sep­a­rated by Ori­en­tal-style red tas­sels, parked favourites.

Blue Gin­ger, its re­place­ment, couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent. It had ‘swag’ as op­posed to the gen­tle culi­nary stroll one could take at Tea House. I had known Blue Gin­ger from Ben­galuru, but not so much for its food as for the head­dresses of the wait staff, prob­a­bly the most or­nate I have ever seen in a restau­rant. I also re­mem­bered it for its ‘hap­pen­ing’ bar. Lo­cated outdoors in the un­kempt greens of the Taj West End, Blue Bar, about 10 years ago, was the hippest wa­ter­ing hole in a town that had one on ev­ery street.

I re­mem­ber go­ing to the Delhi Blue Gin­ger in pos­si­bly the first month of its ex­is­tence. The bar was yet to open and I re­mem­ber feel­ing a lit­tle un­der­whelmed. So when I heard that Taj Palace was mov­ing on—some­thing that doesn’t come quite easily to this ho­tel (the el­e­gant Ori­ent Ex­press still chugs along)—from Blue Gin­ger, I was ex­cited. But what was to re­place it? I found out soon enough when I was in­vited to a sneak pre­view of the menu. I’ve worked in ho­tels, so I know that sneak pre­views are not quite as glam­orous as they sound. But with menu tast­ings—if you are able to get a place on the ta­ble early on— you get to be the chef ’s guinea pig, as he tries on you all he has ever wanted to cook. Sure, they are pro­fes­sion­als, so it’s never a dis­as­ter, but chefs can be in­sis­tent about what will work and that is al­ways dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory to nav­i­gate.

As a food writer, though, you get called in when most of the ne­go­ti­at­ing and tast­ing has al­ready taken place and the dishes that sur­vive make it to your plate.

The ir­rev­er­ently-named ‘Spicy Duck ’, the au­then­tic Chi­nese restau­rant, which will re­place Blue Gin­ger at the Taj Palace, has chef Cheang Chee Leong at the helm. Leong has worked in the best ho­tel chains in the world, from Ritz to Fair­mont in Dubai and Shang in Mum­bai. He un­der­stands the In­dian palate and yet beau­ti­fully brings his Can­tonese sen­si­bil­ity to the food. So he will sneak in a steamed edamame dumpling with truf­fle oil and an­other dipped in squid ink, which pops in your mouth, along with the fa­mil­iar veg­etable springroll cooked in milk. The Chilean sea bass, tossed in as pi cySzechu an bean paste, comes with a soft crust that could have been crispier.

Leong likes to ‘un­der­cook’ just a tad—it’s su­per-healthy and also re­tains the orig­i­nal flavours in a mas­ter­ful way. So the stir-fried prawns are just translu­cent enough at the cen­tre, giv­ing away the fact that they are cooked to per­fec­tion.

The art, he tells me, is in how long each dish is cooked for and that’s why the shimeji mush­rooms have a bite, but aren’t chewy. There is artistry; his cui­sine may best be de­scribed as con­tem­pla­tive in its prepa­ra­tion and per­fect on the bite.

But be­fore you get too im­mersed in the ex­pe­ri­ence, a note on his spe­cial se­cret chilli sauce—quite the best that I have tried: it could be bot­tled and sold over the counter, break­ing the spell and bring­ing you back to our fre­netic times. Advaita Kala is a writer, most re­cently of the film Ka­haani. She is also a for­mer hote­lier hav­ing worked in restau­rants

in In­dia and abroad

Wok-fried shimeji mush­rooms with dry chilli and green beans at Spicy Duck

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