DINING OUT Mainland China's New Year special spread is scrumptiously oriental.

The Chinese, besides stringent communism, also have an undeniably popular cuisine. And this month being the New Year of the Tiger, more the reason you should be heading to Mainland China to try their latest spread.

Unusual surprises

Deciding to be adventurous, I hop-skip-and-jump over the regular soups and settle for Ginger Broth with Fish and Woodear. It starts well enough with floating egg white and shredded dark mushroom till I reach for the bottom of the soup bowl for my share of seabass, and bite into an unusually long, pretty-looking yet pungent ginger strip. Like the menu with surprises packed in everywhere.

For starters I try the Crisp Fried Mushrooms with Wasabi Mayo; its creamy texture is an instant hit with me. The few grains of pomegranate thrown in are unexpected but, surprisingly, the flavours don't clash.

The quick tossed Haricot Beans seem rather dull and anorexic, besides being bland to my trained South Indian tongue — that's until the chef obligingly turns on the spice for me. Steamed Cantonese lobster dumplings proved juicy, if you pep it up with some black pepper paste. All the while, the soft aroma and muted flavours of the sunset-ty orange Wulong tea gently relaxes my taste buds. It's a lot more satisfying than the pseudo-Chinese green tea packs sold on shelves.

Variety fare

For the main course, we move on to Braised Shanghai noodles, absolutely veggie and truly Chinese with the strong soya influence and the Chicken Fried Rice with garlic and celery.

We couple that with jumbo prawns in spicy sichuan bean sauce (as good as it sounds exotic) and a personal favourite, Sautéed Mushrooms generously topped with cashew nuts and dry red chillies. It isn't unbearably hot and goes down well as an accompaniment. The Garlic Pepper chicken with its onion and capsicum tastes disappointingly familiar though.

I love Lohan's Delight even before I try it, simply because of the smouldering hot clay pot in which it's served. It's as Chinese as expected with capsicum, broccoli, and zucchini in the rich black of soy sauce. The dessert line-up has some interesting additions like cinnamon ice cream but also features old-timers like the chocolate brownie-vanilla sizzler.

The non-vegetarian spread is varied and well-done. But the menu's also spruced with a lot of greens; so vegans have more than regular noodles and bland beans to choose from. You'll have to splurge a bit, but the same is true for all fine dining anyway. Besides, part of the bill symbolically goes to WWF India for saving the tigers.

It's not easy on the pocket but sure is healthy for the conscience! The Year of the Tiger Festival ends on February 27. Catch it if you can.

Tanya is a II Year student of B.Com. at Stella Maris College.