Gourmet Files Vasundhara Chauhan

Going, going, gone

The noodles smelt burnt.  

There was a good standalone Chinese restaurant in Delhi called Nanking. It was a cut above the usual chilli-chicken neighbourhood establishments. Housed in a large space spread over two or three floors, with the usual atonal piped music, it was air conditioned to glacial lows. Special regulars were given napkins with their names embroidered in the corner. It’s quite impressive to be taken out by friends and have Sethi or Choudhuri on the blue linen. The staff, pleasant and informed, truly helped to make a meal worth one's while. No longer.

The last few times I’d been, the food was unexceptional but quite edible. Today’s meal was a shocker. We ordered two soups, with the request that everything be made without cornflour starch. One was hot and sour and the other ‘manchow’. Both were almost indistinguishable: brown, thick and muddy; each tasted of nothing but dark soya sauce, and left a thick glutinous coating on the tongue. They had small bits of something, possibly shredded cabbage and, one, the hot and sour, had been spiced with a tablespoonful of ground pepper. We complained and sent them back. One of us asked for vegetarian spring rolls, which were as one would expect, not-so-crisp flour casings around shredded vegetables. Can’t blame Nanking.

I ordered something I remembered to be very good, their three-cup chicken with basil. I retrieved what I’d written then: “…it turned out to be exceptional: delicately flavoured, lightly cooked, and pretty.” Then it had had a refreshing flavour — I think — of basil, star anise and ginger, and it was a light sauce, cream coloured, with cubes of clean white chicken and here and there small chunks of crisp bell peppers and tiny broccoli florets. In a word: delightful. Today it came in watery brown gravy, it had two basil leaves, some salt, and the flavour only of raw chicken meat. Worse, the chicken had not been cut and cleaned by a human. It had odd shapes and sizes, skin, fat, tendons and odd projections. In a word: inedible.

The prawns were okay, but in a sauce of thick beige corn flour starch. Noodles — which I had, to the embarrassment of my friends, given specific directions for — had been cooked as the chef wished, in the style of a roadside dhaba. Woks are light and thin and noodles, like most restaurant Chinese food, are cooked on high heat with lots of oil. Some flying oil drops set the whole dish aflame, and though the fire is momentary, the entire dish smells burnt. This was one such. And they were dark grey with soya sauce and unidentifiable vegetables, when earlier they used to be pale gold, lightly sautéed, with bright crunchy jewel-like red and green vegetables. A roadside van or dhaba with cheap synthetic vinegar and buckets of oil would actually have done an unashamedly better job. The Chinese greens — crisp bok choy and black mushrooms — were okay.

There was such a lack of flavour that I wanted salt and some condiments. We wanted the pop music to be turned down and, after some patient waiting, the lunch to be served. So several times during the meal one of us would walk around the restaurant looking for a waiter, or the steward who had taken our order. Sometimes we succeeded. Every time we managed to get someone’s attention, a new waiter would appear. Not one had any idea of our order and, to be fair, I think not one had any English. They would smile and nod but say and do nothing. We thought that speaking in Hindi might be better, but even that was of no avail.

The serving dishes were an odd assortment. There were some of thick restaurant-grade greyish-white china, and some plastic boat-shaped ones with floral patterns. We had whined so much that at the end dessert that we hadn’t ordered was served: scoops of ice cream with a side of sweet darsan noodles. It was probably an attempt at mollification, but not billing us for the dishes we’d sent back and a simple apology would have done the trick better.

At a time when newer Chinese restaurants are doing so well that they’re opening branches all over the city and the country, I wonder what has happened to Nanking: it looks like the management has changed or they are planning to shut the place.


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