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 a spicy Szechuan 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