Although the restaurant, China Town, has been around for three decades, if you’re not a part of the original China Town fan club, it’s easy to forget it exists, write Shonali Muthalaly
Chinese restaurant nostalgia. How do you explain it to someone who isn’t Indian? Think about it. Isn’t it ironic that for most of us, childhood restaurant memories are inevitably linked with sauce-spattered table cloths, roaring Feng Shui dragons and gloriously greasy spring rolls. I wonder if the reverse is true. If somewhere in the Sichuan province there’s a kid who dreams of dosa dinners. Somehow I don’t think so.
Of course, over the years, the Indian ‘Chinese’ restaurant has grown up. The new contenders are more sophisticated, more authentic, and so much more blasé. No more gaudy red lanterns, plump golden Buddhas and faded soy-soaked furnishing. Now it’s all about hand pulled noodles, heritage food and over priced tea. Which is why it’s so comforting to walk into China Town, which has just turned 30. It’s like going back in time, to days when things were so much simpler. And fried ice cream could make anything better.
Although the restaurant has been around for three decades, if you’re not a part of the original China Town fan club, it’s easy to forget it exists. For twenty years, it had pride of place in the Oriental Cuisines complex, occupying the space that now hosts the Zara tapas bar. (The Oriental Cuisines brands include The French Loaf, Benjarong, Ente Keralam, Wangs Kitchen...) Over the last decade, it’s been moved to the back — and access is through a rather grungy route. Nevertheless, the interiors are reassuringly familiar. All the clichés in place: uncoordinated lanterns, crowded tables and the inescapable ‘Indian-Chinese restaurant music’, which sounds like a xylophone being tortured.
As we settle down, manager Ravi Padmanabhan tells us about customers who have stayed in touch for 30 years. “They come. Bring their children…” Executive Chef Lai Chee Chung also pops by to say hello, and recommend the Phuket fish, which has been on their menu right from when the restaurant opened.
He also shows us their 30th celebration anniversary menu. Silk squash glass noodle soup, Orange sweet and spicy duck and Spicy herbed prawn. But we’ve decided to go retro. So as the waiters fill little porcelain cups with steaming green tea, we wade through the massive menu. Like any good Indian-Chinese restaurant, there’s plenty for vegetarians. Hunan eggplant, hakka mushrooms and spicy water chestnut. Then, there are the usual standbys: Steam boats. Hot pots. Sizzlers. And, of course, China Town’s signature — the ‘As You Like It’ category. “Whatever you like. We’ll make it,” grins the chef.
We start with water chestnuts, which are crunchy, golden and addictive. There’s also Chicken Pau, served in bamboo baskets. However, they’re woefully soggy, filled with indistinguishable blobs of chicken, instead of being light and fluffy.
The meal bounces back with Phuket fish, covered in a nutty paste of garlic and onions. With a dark crunchy exterior and soft flaky insides, it’s a perfect foil for the steaming rice, bright with celery, carrots and beans. There are five spice vegetarian noodles, tossed in the delicate Chinese mix of star anise, cloves, fennel, Sichuan pepper and cinnamon. The thin, silky noodles are crunchy with julienned onions, carrots and beans. It’s teamed with crispy lamb that has been fried till it’s the consistency of cardboard. And a soppy vegetable gravy, with velvety mushrooms, springy tofu and emerald broccoli.
This isn’t food that will wow food snobs. But that’s the whole point. Sometimes you don’t want to be impressed. You just want to be comfortable and get pampered. China Town is ideal for that. Especially if you’re ending with fried ice cream, like we did. Cheerful spheres of slightly melty ice cream, wrapped in crisp wanton sheets. It’s frozen for two hours, then deep-fried for five seconds, before being topped with cashew nuts, honey and butter. “Pop it like a pani puri,” says the chef. We oblige. Its cold, it’s hot. It’s sweet, it’s sticky. The best news? It’s also free. Dessert’s on the house to celebrate the anniversary.
Chinese restaurant memories — they just keep getting better.
China Town is at 27 Cathedral Road. Call 2811 2246 for details. A meal for two costs roughly Rs. 600.