“XOXO? Are you serious?” My friends collapse with laughter. “That’s so Gossip Girl,” they squeal. “So will you smother yourself in hats, lace and frills for dinner?” I glare. “Will you pout and sign off after dessert?” I snap, “Its XO. Which is very different from the Gossip Girl’s signature ‘hugs and kisses’ – XOXO.” “OXO? Isn’t that a beef stock cube?” The giggling begins again. “Maybe you have to make your own soup there.”
In an attempt to justify my ‘food critic’ credentials, I whip ‘XO Sauce’ out of my arsenal. A spicy sauce, commonly attributed to a Hong Kong hotel, it’s a blend of dried seafood, cooked with chilli peppers, onions and garlic, commonly used for cooking in China’s Guangdong province. I ponderously add information gleaned from a sneaky glance at Wikipedia on my phone. “XO sauce’s name comes from the XO (extra-old) cognac, popular in Hong Kong. Hence it’s the term is used Hong Kong pop-culture to mean luxury.” It’s seems logical enough. I do, however, call the hotel’s PR department to confirm the meaning. “Well, it’s also the sauce,” they say. “But we use XO to mean Extraordinary.” Ah well.
I have to admit, though, the Leela Palace, Chennai’s restaurant is extraordinary. The hotel, living up to its ‘palace’ credentials, is a golden, perfumed, glittering alternate universe. Admittedly, unrelenting opulence can be oppressive. So China XO turns to Japan’s minimalist chic for its interiors. Design Studio Spin from Japan, has created a space with clean lines and intricate detailing to convey a sense of restrained luxury. In the process they’ve also incorporated all the ‘expensive Chinese’ restaurant clichés — woven upholstery, silk screens and jade lions — to make the restaurant feel comfortingly familiar, despite its edgy styling.
Like the interiors, the menu makes an effort to be different. It offers the classics: spicy Szechuan beef and Cantonese chicken; Beijing style noodles and garlic fried rice; pork spare ribs in barbeque sauce and Peking duck made in a wooden fire oven. But for adventurous eaters, there’s also plenty to discover. Lesser-known food from China’s Canton and Sichuan regions. Experimental Chinese food, influenced by global trends. And a whole range of innovative dim sums.
Our meal begins with baskets of dim sum. Delicate chicken Sui mai, juicy Chilean sea bass dumplings and a strangely pasty truffle and Edamame dumpling. Created by a speciality dim sum chef from Singapore, the menu also offers a wide range for vegetarians, using ingredients like Shitake mushrooms, lotus leaves and turnips.
The Peking duck arrives with all the appropriate drama. It’s wheeled to the table, and displayed with pride before being sliced apart by a very cheerful chef with a very sharp knife. First the crisp skin, which they recommend we eat with sugar. An obvious layering of addictive flavours: sweetness, saltiness and fat. Don’t even think of eating more than a couple of slices, unless you have a stomach of steel (and abs of steel to match). Next comes the breast meat. And finally the tastiest part of the duck, think slices of skin and meat from the legs. It’s served with small steamed pancakes, and pots of pungent garlicky sauce, thick dark hoisin and a plate piled with neatly chopped cucumber. As always with Peking duck, it’s tasty but not extraordinary. Constructing the pancake rolls is really what makes this fun. You can make a social occasion of it, provided of course none of you object to reeking of garlic for the rest of the night. (Don’t even think of going clubbing after this.)
The rest of the meal includes the biggest jumbo prawns I’ve seen, slathered in a generous amount of butter garlic sauce. The monsters, flown in from Thailand, are delicious with a bowl of sticky jasmine rice. We eat it with braised brawny Shitake mushrooms, tumbled with skinny Shimeji mushrooms and brightened with chunks of bok choi. Dessert is a palette of colour. Bright musk melon, oozing out of a fried, crisp casing, served with vanilla ice cream. A very subtle, bordering on characterless, almond jelly. And a cheeky red raspberry sorbet. And yes. We end the night at the newly opened Blu Bar upstairs, revelling in an avalanche of flowers, funky art and Deep House music. I hear tales of prime sirloin sliders, seared foie gras and sevruga caviar. Hmmm. Another night? XOXO.
China XO is open for lunch and dinner. A meal for two will cost roughly Rs. 5,000. Call 3366 1234 for details.