A few months ago, I wrote of Megu, the high-end Japanese restaurant at The Leela, and its new take on Japanese cuisine that was innovative, accessible in terms of taste and price point, and memorable. A few weeks ago, I went to dine at its competitor in the national capital—Wasabi at The Taj Mahal Hotel. Wasabi turned out to be the antithesis of Megu in every possible way. We all hate comparisons, odious as they are, but when you pitch yourself out there as the best, it is inevitable. The experience was underwhelming. I don’t even want to get into what I ordered, but I will get into the flavours that lingered for hours after on my palate—seeing that I didn’t partake the sorbet, which was offered on a bed of dry ice post-meal, possibly anticipating the need to numb the tastebuds and, if that didn’t work, then to singe them (the many uses of dry ice).
I love Japanese food. A Japanese restaurant was the first place I ever worked at (as an 18 year old) and at a time in life when free food mattered more than taste. So the Indian dal-eating me developed a taste for Japanese flavours out of college-going-induced penury to start with, but then it was just the yum factor and “hit the spot” delight. No snobby push behind my cravings, just comfort and familiarity. I do like the bite of galangal (can identify its potency by its “skin”) and the pungency of wasabi (I can detect when the latter is stale), but that’s dinner party tinsel.
So back to the meal experience. Post Wasabi, I walked out with the taste of assorted peppers in my mouth. Now, you may scoff and say this wasn’t a wine tasting; you can’t conjure up flavours and brandish them around. But no, like seriously, there was a curry and it was all peppers. Japanese food has a delicacy to it, an artful balance that is meditative and philosophical. Ever seen a sushi chef at work, the clean lines of his instruments, the silence in the workplace, the bent head, the singular concentration, the dexterity of the knife, the rolling of the rice? No whistles, or self-important grunts, or clanging of pots and pans there. Japanese food preparation, like the food, is an act of meditation and detail and subtlety. That Wasabi curry was an assault.
The only time I saw a sushi chef lose it was at another restaurant where I worked where he had a breakdown and broke every ceramic platter in sight. We had to fly him home stat! But then, like I said, Japanese food and its preparation is intense. Wasabi and its very Delhi gentrification of the food, the experience (I can’t recall the music, must have been something piped and chimey) and its manufactured insipidity make one want to break up with Japanese food and switch to Korean. A culinary mid-life crisis if you will!
And there was this sesame paste thingy. Since the lack of subtlety is an art form that Wasabi celebrates, this dish will have one reach out for not the sorbet, but the copper Indian-style tongue cleaner. A pack of six retails for about 200 bucks. Yes, I googled it.
But I’m done with the Wasabis and the dressed up five-star versions of food that hide behind their price point. Instead, I am up for some real discoveries and will now hunt through the city for Japanese food that keeps it real, that cares that you care. And I’ve heard of a couple. So dear reader, do indulge this new odyssey. I shall be sure to bring in other experiences to keep it diverse. Japanese food needs better ambassadors.
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