The popular Golden Dragon reinvents itself, with a touch of contemporary chic and an element of theatre. SHONALI MUTHALALY has an exclusive preview

For patrons, eating at a good restaurant is like participating in live theatre. Not surprisingly, a successful restaurant, like a successful play connects with your emotional core.

This may explain why the re-opening of Taj Coromandel’s Golden Dragon, two years after it closed, has been awaited with such optimistic anticipation. Judging by how many people reminisce about GD meals, the restaurant was a place where many good memories were made. After all, it existed at a time when eating out was an occasion, a five star meal a celebration.

The restaurant’s greatest strength is the goodwill it’s earned in the past. But the team that has put the new GD together isn’t banking merely on nostalgia. After all, this is a whole new world, where 20-somethings drop by for dim sums, kitty party crowds compare lunch to meals in Shanghai, and blasé executives demand exotica as a matter of course.

Yes, GD’s new avatar has echoes of its predecessor, like the predominance of gleaming wood, but this is definitely an all-new experience. Like a slick Broadway version of an ancient Greek play. Or an Akon remix of an old Michael Jackson song.

The new look — in keeping with the other newly-reinvented outlets at Taj Coromandel — is glossy, bright and business-like. It’s not big on individuality, despite framed robes from the Ming Dynasty, glass-encased bamboo screen and dim-sum basket lamps. With its efficient tea bar, gleaming display kitchen and polished floors, it has an air of conformism, a safely innocuous international look (with enough paraphernalia from around the world to give Marco Polo a complex) rather than conspicuous, decisive character. It’s pretty, of course. But how many specific features will you remember when you walk out?

The food, however, is a brave foray into authentic China. Chef Lo Ka Yan believes in subtlety, which is completely contrary to the Indian approach to Chinese food. Hence his delicate chilli chicken with water chestnut is a world away from the well-loved fiery chilli chicken we’re used too, because it has the heat of chillies, without the accompanying clash and clatter of a legion of spices.

Steamed dim sum here is artistic, arriving in wobbly translucent pockets stuffed with everything from plump prawns to juicy water chestnut flush with coriander. The fluffy lamb bao is especially addictive, particularly when it’s teamed with their designer range of sauces. Spices and ingredients are used so flavours work like an orchestra, sometimes ringing out alone, and sometime playing together. The soft shell crab, for instance, is laced with five cohesive spices. The chicken dry chilli, on the other hand, is a sharp Sichuan pepper solo.

There are barbequed spare ribs, which are tasty but tough, so be prepared to do battle. For populist food, try the crisp honey-covered lotus stem chips or light crispy spinach teamed with caramelised walnuts.

Despite the focus on exotica, it’s the classics that stand out. Like the delicate steamed fish fillet pickled chilli. And the supple Cantonese style mini steak cloaked in sweet Worcester sauce. The humble stir-fried bitter gourd is a charming surprise. Then there’s the Beijing duck, fun to put together and eat, thanks to all its accessories.

Glamorous abalone, on the other hand, is much more interesting in theory. As is the bland lobster.

This brings us to the tea, which comes in 14 fancy varieties: everything from smooth green silk tea to aromatic floral oolong. There’s even a tea actually picked by monkeys in China (imaginatively called ‘Monkey pick’). GD’s done away with complimentary jasmine tea to urge guests to widen their horizons. So, besides the monkey brew, horizon-widening teas include “tea art” where a nondescript leaf ball set in hot water blossoms into an astonishingly ugly flower.

But that’s the whole point of a fancy restaurant, isn’t it? To go to even ridiculous heights to create theatre that’s unique. To wrap you in a hushed world far away from the drudgery of everyday life. To entice you to luxuriate in glamour, drama and colour.

(Call Golden Dragon at 66002827 for reservations. A meal for two costs roughly Rs. 2,500.)

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