Asia is a rich place vis a vis food, each constituent region fairly bursting with unique and distinct specialities, most comprising exciting flavors, local history and culinary evolution. Just the touristy, cliched foods are endless, making the list of true flavors and dishes next to impossible to mention here. Think of Indonesian Nasi Goreng, sambals, rendangs and satays, Malaysian Roti Canai and Murtabak, Sri Lankan hoppers with coconut milk based gravies and so much more.
Surprising it is therefore, to visit the Pan Asian Promotion at Oasis, Vivanta by Taj, Surajkund where the promotion’s marketing collateral uses phrases like, “the best that Asia has to offer”, “Fest of epic proportions” and “just placing an order will prove to be a mountain to climb”. It would be an understatement to say I’m walking in expecting a fair representation of the region, if not a “fest of epic proportions”, because firstly it’s a Taj property we’re speaking of and secondly, because the Taj promised so. Quite unexpectedly, the bulk of the entire promotion menu fits in one six-inch long menu sheet with two soups, five appetisers, nine main courses and one dessert, the bulk of which represents China, some of which represents Thailand and a lone Khao Suey for Myanmar. To add insult to injury, someone even has had the bright idea of concocting a “Hot Garlic Bloody Mary” (INR 650). While I understand commercial compulsions and the need to cater to one’s target audience, misrepresentation isn’t really required nor was there a need to name the promotion “Pan Asian”. I believe the team is capable of better.
I ask for the Steamed Fish Lemongrass Dumplings (INR 450, 6 pieces) and Asparagus Sweet Corn Dumplings (INR 350, 6 pieces), to begin with, hoping the kitchen’s skills aren’t in the same league as that exhibited by the menu designer. These, I think would be nice accompanied by a portion of Tom Yum Kai (INR 400).
It’s a little after seven in the evening, so Indians are going to be a while in arriving at Oasis, the all day dining restaurant at Vivanta by Taj, Surajkund. A bunch of jovial Japanese take up a table behind me, laughter flying all around until their beers are poured and menus handed over, at which point all conversation is muted, save for the odd whisper. Obviously, the selection of the evening’s repast is serious business.The sauces to accompany my dumplings arrive as I write. The usual chilies in vinegar and a good, dark soya are placed first, followed by three more sauces; the inevitable hot garlic, a black bean based sauce and a very mild soy-ginger dip.
My soup arrives; a steaming bowl crammed with mushrooms, carrots, baby-corn and coriander, redolent of lemongrass, accompanied by two delightful dumplings, stuffed with chicken. The soup is hot and full of flavor, going perfectly with the crunchy vegetables. I save the dumplings for last. Their delicate skin has cracked a little, letting the delicious broth inside, to mingle with the generous pocket of chicken within. They’re good! In the meantime, the dumplings have arrived and I turn my attention to them, putting aside “The Rainmaker”, which I’m reading for the fifth time maybe. The Asparagus and Sweet Corn dumplings I find go well with the strong hot garlic sauce, while the Steamed Fish with Lemongrass dumplings with the tiniest hint of lemongrass within go well with the milder black bean or the subtle soy-ginger.
It is now time to choose my main courses. I think the Peking Duck (850) would go well with Assorted Vegetables in Iron Pot (550) and Pan Fried Flat Rice Noodles (500). I place my order and go back to the travails of Donny Ray Black and Great Benefit Life Insurance, looking around every few minutes. A foreign, English speaking couple at the table in front of me discuss the day’s work and a lone expat behind me appears surprised he has the option of drinking his beer straight from the bottle.
The Peking Duck arrives, duck and condiments on one platter and the pancakes in a bamboo steamer. I pick up one steaming paper thin pancake and proceed to fill it with cucumber sticks, spring onion stalks, a dash of plum sauce and a glistening piece of duck. I roll it as a spring roll leaving it open on one side, and bite into it, crunching past the spring onions and crisp duck skin, through to the little pockets of fat under the skin. So good! The noodles arrive as I’m munching my second Peking Duck roll, enjoying the effect of the mildly piquant plum sauce on my palate. I’d forgotten pan fried noodles almost always have wok-tossed vegetables in a mild sauce poured over them and have thus over-ordered. The dish is as expected; oily noodles crunchy vegetables, mild flavor. Despite the oiliness and lack of strong flavors I’ve always found this dish to be very comforting and today is no exception. I take a second helping and proceed with my novel, picking up slivers of duck every few mouthfuls. The Assorted Vegetables in Iron Pot have an almost acrid flavor, perhaps contributed by the strong smokiness of the dried red chilies within, combined with the strength of the ginger used; a dish I don’t like much. Additionally, the same vegetables are used in every vegetable dish – carrots, button mushrooms, wood ear fungus and baby corn.
I ask for a Chinese Mooncake to complete my meal, and learn of a variant of this dish I haven’t tasted before – sweet and glutinous from the inside and sticky-translucent outside. Good again. Chef Peng Yutao obviously knows his stuff though I wish he’d protested a little more before the menu went to print.
The folks at the Taj might have gone overboard in promoting what can only be described as an extremely average menu, completely unworthy of a Taj property, but have executed in a manner that speaks volumes for their provenance and legacy. If you’re looking for a variety of exotic dishes, look elsewhere. If you’re a conservative eater however or enjoy well cooked food from a limited menu, the Pan Asian promotion at Oasis will work for you. You might find the choice uninteresting, but will walk away happy and sated with the food.
Editor: Cover picture is not from this property or promotion.