It is clear that the Intercontinental seeks authenticity. The first signs of this appear in the temple-inspired architecture in their resort, which reminds you that you can only be in Mamallapuram, surrounded by beautiful statues in the Pallava style, and a giant pond of lotuses reminiscent of temple tanks. The painstaking search for authenticity rubs off onto the culinary initiatives as well. Tao of Peng, is consequently not a ‘Chinese’ restaurant, as we might crudely imagine to be the cuisine of an entire nation. It seeks to discover and deliver the authentic tastes of the Sichuan province of China, and is a reminder of the immense diversity in food, and the distinctive nature of cuisines specific to each town, region and country.
Ashis Kumar and Avinash Naha are inspired chefs, themselves avid travellers, who push the culinary boundaries to keep discovering newer frontiers. Chef Avinash Naha, with his experience in premier hotels across the world, coupled with an adventurous streak that seeks out the most interesting food and original ingredients in the nooks and corners of street markets, brings the perfect combination of these to Tao of Peng. He explains the concept of Tao of Peng to us. In a restaurant like this, we realize, understanding the concept is as important as tasting the food.
Tired of the clichéd representation of Chinese food in India, he sought out ingredients, recipes and methods of cooking that produce food as close as possible to the way it is cooked and eaten in China. To capture this, Tao of Peng sources the finest ingredients from places where they originate. We have Belgian endive sourced from Belgium, and Udon noodles that come all the way from Japan go to make up the splendid meal put out for us. As the Chef tells us, while it is important to stay true to the core of the cuisine you’re cooking, infusing elements of other cuisines in the accessories that go with it helps add a dash of fun and colour. In Tao of Peng, for instance, the sauces that go with the Dim sum and appetizers have a European twang to them, but only in form. To interfere with the food itself would be sacrilege.
A combination of fine ingredients, sophisticated yet funky plating techniques, and cooking to perfection, gives us one of the best culinary experiences ever. Through the 4 course vegetarian meal specially crafted for us, we discover yet another part of the world, taste and a special sensory experience.
The perfect setting
Our wine sommelier pours us a glass of fine Merlot. The ambience could not have been better with soft dim lighting, subtle and aesthetic interiors, and some fine cutlery to match. It sets the tone for the evening.
Appetizers, delivered with a punch:
We were first served Hon Shimeji (a type of mushroom grown in East Asia) that has been wrapped gently in glass noodles marinated in a Huanjiu vinegar dressing. The tenuousness of the noodles reveal the tactful touch with which they’ve been wrapped. When you pop one into your mouth, intricate flavours from the Huanjiu vinegar and the texture of the mushroom combine beautifully with Taro crisps and Goji berries. For those who don’t love their mushrooms, Chef. Naha puts together an equally delicious version with cabbage. If we thought we’d already hit a high note, we were mistaken as we went on to discover what else was in store for us.
We sensed Dim sums would come next, and imagined we would have the usual bamboo steamers put out on our tables. Chef. Naha instead brings a giant black slab to the table. It sits there at the centre of the table like a blank canvass waiting to be filled. The Chef then comes back, and squeezes out on to the slab various kinds of emulsion [pomelo and beetroot] to form an abstract pattern. Pickled vegetables, dehydrated powders and oils are added to this already colourful canvass. Dehydrated garlic, black bean dust and dehydrated olives follow and are dusted all over. In a final touch, slices of pickled radish and chards of pepper are placed on the slab to complete the picture. It is literally watching an artist at work, gaping as the painting unfurls in front of you through fine brushes and strokes. Watch this clip that gives you an idea:
This is how we serve our Dim sums, Chef Naha says. This is not mere packaging or artifice. One by one, the masterpieces of the evening arrive, and are placed at various spots across the slab, and we eat them with gay abandon pairing them with the emulsions as we please.
We were served:
- Black truffle and edamame dumpling: Delicately made dim sums stuffed with green soy bean paste enriched with the flavour of black truffles.
- Crystal Vegetable Dumpling: A translucent dumpling stuffed with shitake mushrooms, water chestnut that adds crunch, and carrots and yam bean that impart a subtle sweetness.
- Chive Dim Sum: For those of you who love the subtle flavor of chives and the tenderness, this one will win you over. Pairs very well with a spiced red bell pepper and coriander sauce.
- Poached Peking Vegetable Dumpling: A vegetable mélange served with a spicy tangy sauce.
- Taro And Chestnut Nest: Our personal favourite. Taro root perfectly cooked, mashed and combined with water chestnuts and deep-fried make for the perfect dim sum! It takes a very skillful cook to play around with interesting flavours and textures and Chef. Naha has clearly cracked it.
- Pan Fried Shanghai Dumpling, Vegetables: Yam bean, celery, carrot and water chestnut seasoned with garlic oil and pan-fried. One side is fried and the other side is really soft, and the feel of the two textures combining is immensely exciting.
Following the Dim sums we’re served batter fried lotus root. Used to seeing thin and scrawny pieces of lotus root, we were pleasantly surprised by the huge and hearty ones we were served, almost 3-4 inches in diameter. The dressing is the quintessential Asian sauce that combines the sweet and sour, but the dash of freshly cracked pepper used in the batter elevates the taste. The dish is a tad salty for us, and we were definitely swayed in the direction of the Dim sums.
The Noodle bowl:
The heartiness of an Asian meal comes through only in their rice and noodle bowls. Ours at Tao of Peng confirmed this again. We were served Dan Dan noodles, nestled in a delicious peanut sauce garnished with sautéed asparagus, corn and edamame. The noodle bowl draws its inspiration from a dish commonly made and savoured by farmers in China, involving community cooking in large pots. The hint of Sichuan pepper, once again, sits like a crown on the throne. The flavours are exquisite, and the noodles sit surprisingly light on your stomach.
We got our sweet fix with the Green Tea Pannacotta – a platter of Anise enhanced chocolate dome, lime blossom sorbet, chocolate soil and Ganache. The sorbet was breezy and refreshing, and was offset nicely by the rich chocolate. While the platter was nice as a whole, we couldn’t help craving a portion of rich mud pie or a cheesecake. Asian desserts tend to fall short, but that’s just us. For those who’ve moved beyond the European staples, the Green Tea Pannacotta is sure to impress.
With Executive Chef. Ashis Rout (left)& Chef De Cuisine, Tao of Peng, Avinash Naha:
If you’re looking for a weekend get away and/or a quiet evening to savour some fabulous Asian food, head to InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram and enjoy a journey of thousand flavours at Tao of Peng!