Oh dear. Hotel President? Not that I want to sound snobbish. But President? The only time I was there it was more by accident than design.
My friends and I were at Marina beach, watching a spectacular air show. When it ended we got swept up in a sea of sweaty humanity. Jostled, pushed and prodded, we tried to hail an auto, only to have all the drivers thumb their noses at us. Since I was baby sitting a neighbour’s five-year-old son, my friends decided the only responsible thing to do would be to eat. “At least we won’t lose the kid in a restaurant,” one of them muttered. “Taj?” the kid chirped. Everyone glared at me. “Clearly, he’s been hanging out with you for too long.” We ended up walking to Hotel President. And sitting in their sleepy café, ordering plate after plate of omelettes and toast. The hotel was old and tired. The lobby, large and impersonal. The omelettes, flat and oily. Nevertheless, it was an oasis that day. And the coffee was pretty good.
Still, it doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’ll find a trendy new Pan Asian restaurant. Which is what makes Her Name Is Ming such a charming surprise.
V.V. Giri, best known for introducing the city to a trendy new style of luxury, courtesy The Park almost a decade ago, now runs the hotel. In the style of a boutique hotel, the lobby’s more intimate, and opens into their new bar, The Purple Room and the Twenty Fifth Hour, built in the style of a Singapore café-in-a-mall. Slick and chic. They’re offering a buffet lunch for Rs. 777. I’m distracted by a tray of plump gulab jamuns. Then, I notice a bar set up in front of Her Name Is Ming (which I will hereby abbreviate to HNIM, even if it does sound like a high street retail store specialising in reasonably priced skinny jeans.)
“Shooters?” ask the waiters behind the bar. Tequila seems too louche for lunch. Even for me. Fortunately the restaurant is more art movie than MTV. Dramatic, without being ostentatious, it’s designed like a Renaissance oil painting. Soaring bird cages filled with warm yellow lights. Bamboo shoots set in towering glass cases against a deep red background. Sunshine pouring through tall wooden slats.
The meal begins with a crunchy horseradish salad, featuring crunchy lettuce overwhelmed by mayonnaise. And a line up of skillfully constructed dim sum, delicate, translucent and steamy. We eat dimsum filled with finely chopped vegetables spiked with garlic. Chicken dim sum, laced with coriander. Dimsum with perfectly pink prawns. All teamed with a chunky coriander peanut sauce. The steamed buns are too flat and yeasty, filled with a fairly confused barbeque chicken. But on the whole, this is one of the nicest dim sum I’ve eaten in the city so far. We also try pandan chicken, served in pretty emerald knots. And prawn toast, overpowered by the strong, nutty taste of sesame.
Singaporean chef C. Shivajee, formerly at Hip Asia, runs the kitchen here. He tells us he’s just back from Singapore, where he was mastering the art of “hand pulled noodles,” as we dip into big fragrant bowls of Laksa, the house specialty. Thick, aromatic and soothing, it’s slippery with noodles and speckled with juicy prawns. He insists we also try the Hainanese chicken rice, and although the chicken is a little tough, the fluffy stock-scented rice is addictive. Then there’s rendang: thick, dark and bristling with lemon grass.
On the whole, HNIM offers flavours that are brave and balanced. Instead of kowtowing to local preferences, the menu has a mix of the familiar and the exotic. Make the right choices, and you’ll have a good meal. Ours ends with a pandan-tinged crème brulee. And a quick trip to the Purple Room, their new bar, offering a pint of beer for Rs. 200. Don’t judge us. At least we didn’t start with shooters.
Her Name Is Ming is at The President Hotel And Towers on R.K. Salai. Call 2847 2211 for reservations. A meal for two is approximately Rs. 1500.