A Chinese contradiction

Published: February 8, 2015 12:10 AM

Taipan, a 32-year-old ‘authentic’ Chinese restaurant, hasn’t changed much over the years, and yet, it is a truly modern establishment

It might not offer the same ambience as a busy Chinese teahouse in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but if you close your eyes and bite into a dim sum, gastronomic teleportation is a given. Taipan, however, is much more than the steamed or pan-fried bites of goodness it serves up in bamboo baskets—the ‘working lunch’ that fortifies power brokers in Lutyens’ Delhi and which has added to its fame as a lunching destination—or the view from its rooftop perch of the unending greens, or even the music that one doesn’t notice above the polite conversation. Taipan, instead, is a contradiction in many ways. Its dramatic central seating, sectioned away from the rest of the restaurant by ornate drapes pitched to pillars, is a set piece in a truly modern restaurant. One that informs you, as with all fine-dining establishments around the world, that discretion is a promise. However, the voyeuristic thrill of watching other diners is what makes the experience illicitly memorable.

Taipan is 32 years old and as far as memory serves me, it has not changed in over a decade. And I would know. I trained here during my days as a hotel trainee: I folded crisp napkins into a chinois-style shape, stacked them flat and placed them upright when it was meal time. It was an easy task compared to the far more daunting one of cleaning the oil grills in the kitchen (you had to climb atop ladders, pull down the grills and scrub them clean) or even working the dishwasher—so close to the main restaurant that every time you broke a glass or plate, the wait staff would come running in to admonish you (the walls, as thin as the dough used in their delectable dim sums, would let every sound permeate).

Taipan hasn’t changed all that much and yet when you sink into the banquette seating in the section that makes up the wings of the restaurant, there is a feeling of the present and it is because of the food. At a time when all of Delhi was succumbing to the Indian palate, Taipan held steadfast to its promise of authentic Chinese cuisine. ‘Authentic’, but not steeped in culinary tradition. The stream of Chinese chefs who have made Taipan what it is today brought with them, in the time they served the restaurant, the latest in culinary innovation from their home country along with traditional dishes, making the dining experience a modern one despite the heavy drapes and straight-backed chairs.

It was this clever balance in its menu and its choice of chefs that kept Taipan ahead of the curve despite its stoic refusal to give in to more ‘of-the-moment’ persuasions.

The current chef, Qaio Jian, has worked in the finest hotels in Shanghai and brings with him not only two decades of experience in cuisine, but also it would seem aroma therapy! His interest lies in harmonising the tastes and aromas of spices and ingredients when working them into a dish, creating memorable textures and flavours. It is an easy assumption to make that innovation necessarily means new dishes or merging of cuisines. More often than not, it is the symmetry that one achieves in the preparation that truly distinguishes a dish, even one that is familiar to the palate. Of course, there are clever plate presentations as well like, for example, the steamed, silken tofu I tried: it was served as one would a dessert, complete with a spot of red chilli (that looked like compote), quivering and masquerading as caramel custard till you bit in.

And yet, there is also the on-site carving of the famed Peking duck, the traditional way of serving the dish, reminding you that where you sit was once the swinging Chinoiserie, a popular restaurant of its time with a band that played the tunes of the day. Famously, singer Sharon Prabhakar used to belt out songs on special nights for the city’s swish set. After its rechristening, the restaurant toned down the music, possibly a pragmatic decision, given its reputation and long romance with the city. Taipan’s diners cut across all age groups—from the old to the young—so it’s far less complicated when there isn’t music to quibble over. Music, unlike food, is the one thing that divides generations. Food brings them together—and to Taipan.

By Advaita Kala

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.

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