Sunday, 22 September 2013

CHENNAI CHRONICLES: What It Takes For A Restaurant to Top TripAdvisor Rankings

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

HOW DOES a restaurant, which is barely five months old, reach the top of TripAdvisor.com’s Chennai rankings and stay there? When I asked this question to Vikramjit Roy, who was discovered by Vice President (Operations), ITC Hotels, Gautam Anand, at Wasabi in New Delhi and transplanted to ITC Grand Chola in Chennai as leader of the newbie hotel's Pan Asian team, the young chef launched into a long discussion. Then he said something that has stuck in my mind: “We cook with a mother’s love. We have systems and recipes, but our secret ingredient is love.”
Chef Vikramjit Roy explaining to yours truly and Philippe
Charraudeau, Vice President and General Manager, ITC
Grand Chola, how to unveil the seared foie gras from
its orange peel quilt. That was sheer inventiveness. 
It was this past Friday, around 9 p.m., and Pan Asian was abuzz with people. The early-bird Japanese diners had already come and left, yet the restaurant was packed. A prominent family of Gujarati diamond merchants had occupied one long table to celebrate a birthday in the family. And it was hard to find a vacant table at the 176-seater restaurant.
I wondered why and I got my answer in the course of my meal. It was better than what Vikramjit had ever done at Wasabi — and I have maintained that his ‘swansong dinner’ for the Taj, the one he created for the Delhi Gourmet Club and it was attended by Anand, to be in a league of its own. What he laid out for us at on Friday was deserving of a Michelin-star. His team had transformed even the humble fish cake, a common feature of any Thai menu, by hoisting a stopper full of spicy mango puree on top of each. Before eating, you are meant to squeeze the stopper so that the mango puree oozes out into the fish cake, giving it a dramatically different taste profile. Anyone who can do that gets my instant respect. “It’s a complex affair to make a simple dish,” Vikramjit says, and I believe him entirely.
‘Progressive Asian’ is how Vikramjit describes the menu of his restaurant. Each dish is authentic, but it comes with a twist, or, as Vikramjit puts it, with “layers of elements”. The traditional banana blossom salad gets a young and contemporary twist (apart from another texture) when it is made to sit atop wasabi mash. The Sichuan-style crispy prawns arrive on a bed of avocado puree, with a crispy caramelised pineapple on top and ikura (salmon roe) on the side. Eaten together, they tantalise the palate with a bouquet of flavours and taste sensations.
Vikramjit explaining the intricacies of the
tuna (chu-toro, not less!) tataki spiked with soy
salt and served with wasabi mash. Yours truly
is seen with Atul Bhalla of the ITC Grand Chola.
Likewise, the duck carpaccio with a scoop of yuzu (citrus) sorbet on top was a brilliant reinterpretation of duck with orange sauce, an old-world French recipe. The topping not only added another flavour dimension to the carpaccio, but also made the act of eating raw meat more palatable. We see the same inventiveness in the ‘scallop in onion shell’ (the scallop actually comes in a quilt of onion!) and the baked chicken puff pastry, which looks like a miniature wine barrel and has a film of wasabi wrapping the chicken inside: the competing textures and tastes of the puff pastry, wasabi and chicken make it a treat for the palate and a trigger for the mind’s amphetamines.
In my view, it is dim sum chef Raju’s finest piece of work — he has brought back the best from the three months he spent at The Peninsular Beijing to master the art. He has indeed come a long way since he left his home in Pokhara, Nepal. “My entire team of 14 is from Delhi. We have all left our individual comfort zones with the intention to cook from our heart and connect with our guests,” says Vikramjit. Of course, without the support of ITC, which has a tradition of setting food benchmarks in the country, he may not have gone this far.
The IHM-Kolkata graduate (he talks about Sabyasachi ‘Saby’ Gorai as his super senior, so you can imagine how young he is!) was a part of the pre-opening team at threesixtydegrees at The Oberoi New Delhi, has worked under the brilliant Thomas Wee at Empress of China during its heyday at the hotel formerly known as the Parkroyal at Nehru Place, New Delhi, and been exposed to the best of Japan when he went to the Okura in Tokyo for an exposure to the classical hotel’s two Michelin three-star restaurants — Yamazato, which specialises in sushi, and the teppanyaki place named Sazanka.
Pan Asian is an old ITC restaurant brand. Vikramjit has just reinvented it, but he couldn't have done it so effortlessly had he not been at an ITC hotel inspired by the irrepressibly brilliant Gautam Anand. I hope Anand will now make it a national trend-setter like Dakshin. Fortunately, he has a chef we’ll hear a lot about. We have only seen the tip of his creative iceberg.