It was a Sunday night, the elegant restaurant in Ashok Hotel was packed to capacity. There were at least half a dozen five year olds on the premises and they were all making a beeline for my table because I was sitting near the fish pond that runs the length of the restaurant. The kids were fascinated with the carp that swam in the water, and screamed loudly every time a fish swam by.
However, that was not the worst thing about China Garden: the hype was. I have realized that the dozens of diners in the all-black eatery were not there for Chinese food. They were there for Nelson Wang’s version of it and from what I can tell after Sunday’s visit, Wang is a canny businessman who gives the market what they want. There are a few clues: no chopsticks on the tables – when you eat at China Garden, you use western cutlery. I didn’t see Chinese or any other South East Asian nationals in the restaurant, which comes across as a Punjabi restaurant with exotic decor.
The menu stretches on for an astonishing 19 pages and lists an incredible 264 items on it. Not all of these are Chinese: there are a sprinkling of Korean and Thai dishes as well as concoctions that have been born and bred in the kitchen of China Garden. Pepper Chilly Paneer and Kung Pao Paneer would never be found elsewhere. Then there are the amorphous dishes that are waiting to be created. “Egg Fantasies” (Rs 295) can mean anything you want it to mean!
The real problem I had was getting someone to suggest dishes to me. I would have loved to see a dozen dishes with a chef’s toque against them, and without a whit of reference, it is not easy to plough through 19 pages of dishes that I have never heard of before. When I asked a waiter for help, he asked me if I wanted something “spicy or non-spicy”. That was the sum total of the classification of the menu for him. I ordered on my own.
Sweet and Sour Duck with Pineapple (Rs 595) was the best dish of the lot. It had lashings of tangy red sauce, more vegetables than duck and a lip-smacking, old fashioned appeal. It took me back to the 1960s, when Sweet and Sour defined Chinese food. Well made, with duck pieces that had skin and fat on them, had I but known it, that was the high point of my meal.
Soya and Wine Chilli Prawn (Rs 650) had neither soya nor wine. What it did have was a modicum of flour coating the prawns, the better to fry them crisp. They were reasonably fresh, but were a poor choice and the person who took my order did not suggest an alternative. One lives and learns!
The third dish on the menu was quite good value for money: nine pieces of lobster for the dish called Butter Chilli Garlic Lobster (Rs 875). It would have been worth the visit had the dish been well cooked. Unfortunately, the lobster had a rather gamey smell and a slight aftertaste of ammonia – a sign that all is not well somewhere.
Will I be visiting China Garden anytime soon? Not likely.
Ashok Hotel, 50B, Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri
M73, M Block Market, GK II
Open from 11 am to 11 pm
Alcohol served; credit cards accepted
Meal for two: Rs 2,500