Most chefs and restaurateurs in the West trade-off flavour and spice to suit the local pallet. Indian and Thai cuisines are good examples. Chinese is another. It’s the one cuisine I normally never eat outside of the country of origin. The Executive Chef, Dharmen Makawana, at the Leela Palace in Chennai, however, persuaded me to do so.
My husband, Kuldip, and I stayed in the Leela Palace for five days during which time we avoided the Chinese restaurant opting for the hotel’s other fine food offerings. On the last night before we dined in the hotel’s Indian restaurant, Jamavar, the Executive Chef, insisted we sample some Dim Sum in the China XO restaurant. While there, I discovered they prepare my favourite Chinese dish of all time. On the strength of the quality of the Dim Sum, we changed our travel plans to return to the Leela for two nights prior to our return home to Chandigarh.
Every day for the next three weeks, I drooled over the prospect of sampling the famous dish at the Leela Palace. When the day finally arrived, the duck was cooked to perfection; the skin was crisp and the meat tender and succulent. It was flawless. Surprisingly, the wafer-thin pancakes served on the night outdid those I had eaten in Beijing.
When China XO’s crispy duck skin, lightly sprinkled with sugar, is rolled in a traditional pancake with Hoi Sin sauce, julienned cucumber and leeks, it’s as good as it gets outside China. The Peking Duck here is a must-have if you’re in Chennai.
Although the duck served at the Leela is not sourced from China, accredited Master Duck Chef, Mann Chetri, cooks it. The perfect Peking Duck takes around sixty-five days to raise and fatten up, two days to prepare in the kitchen and forty-five minutes to roast. As the proverb goes: Good things come to those who wait. The Peking Duck at China XO was well worth my twenty-day-long wait.
The Dim Sum at China XO is also to die for. On both occasions we sampled the Chilean Sea Bass, Scallop Shumai, Shrimp with Foie Gras and Truffle and Edamame dumplings prepared by Master Dim Sum Chef, Soon Wah Cheong. All were excellent in terms of flavour and texture. If you’re into Chinese soups, I can also recommend the Crab Meat & Egg Drop Soup with Asparagus. It was superb.
I’m grateful to the Leela’s Executive Chef for convincing me to try the food at China XO. Even though the duck served is not Chinese, the difference between the one I had there and the one in had in Beijing over ten years ago is marginal and not worth mentioning. What is worth a word or two though, is the extra steps the Leela Palace hotel and its chefs take to ensure all the cuisines they serve are as authentic as possible.
Come pre-duck dinner day, Kuldip and I had been travelling for nearly month and craved a simple lunch that wasn’t on the menu. Not surprisingly, the Sous-Chef, Hitesh, at the Spectra restaurant was happy to oblige. Our picnic at ‘the Palace’ that featured French cheeses and fresh and dried and fruits and walnuts is worth writing home about. The house-baked baguette and dark rye fruit and nut loaf are worth a mention too. The four cheeses served comprised Reblochon from Savoy, Brie de Meaux from the Brie region and Bethmale from its namesake village in the Pyrénées. The breads were also a marriage made in heaven with the award-winning Petit Agour sheep’s milk cheese from Basque. We will long remember our languid lunch in the lobby lounge.
As mentioned in my last blog, the value for money ‘Street Food’ and Seafood buffets on Wednesday and Friday night, respectively, are also worth a visit. To do the breakfast justice, requires a post of its own!
My accolades about the Leela’s food must also include a few words about the hotel’s breads, cakes, pastries and desserts. They are as good as one gets in the best patisseries and cafes in France. Authenticity will remain as long as the Leela continues to hire highly skilled chefs such as Executive Pastry Chef, Bhaskar Adeeb, and import the finest ingredients for them to work with.
I feel as though I’ve put on ten kilograms by merely looking through the glass-top counters in the hotel’s calorific Cake Shop. My skinny jeans tell me so. Also, I had no control over the amount of brioche and the number of croissants I consumed and ‘fess up about the Wild Berry and Apricot individual mousse cakes and Mille-feuille that were irresistible. Then there were the macaroons and cup cakes etc., etc. Kuldip’s a chocoholic, so he never got past the Belgian 52% Chocolate Truffle!
I don’t subscribe to the theory: Once on your lips, forever on your hips. Having been a Personal Trainer in the fitness industry, I know what’s required to get rid of unwanted fat. That’s why I don’t mind splurging on food when it’s good enough to do so. The tastes and textures of the Leela Palace in Chennai, therefore, will remain forever on my lips – not my hips.
Since I always look forward to my next meal, the unforgettable ones constantly remind me of where I’ve been. A good example is the Squid Ink Pasta dish I had many years ago in a tiny no-name ristorante in the backstreets of Venice. The extraordinary noodle dish Kuldip and I had in a ‘Udonya’ in Kagawa, the Udon capital of Japan, is equally as notable. The moral here is that you don’t have to be in plush surroundings to get a five-star meal. But if you’re after all-round five-star quality, you can’t beat the Leela Palace in Chennai.