A pan-Asian food odyssey

If you think the palate of the well-heeled and willing-to-try-out-new-food-Indian has not evolved, and that too in the Southern metro of  Chennai, step into the Pan Asia restaurant’s brunch on any Sunday.

Located over two levels at the sprawling ITC Grand Chola Hotel, this fine dining place will dazzle you with the sheer breadth and width of the culinary journey on offer. Right from a stroll through the Chinese Sichuan and Beijing provinces, it walks you through the enticing sushis of Japan, giving you glimpses along the way of the best from the rest of Asia — Korea, Thailand, ­Malaysia, Indonesia and ­Singapore. It is impossible to cover them all in one meal!

But before I can get lost in its zone-wise kitchens, F&B Manager Prashant Chada, tells me how he has now got used to the “Indian palate opening up to … something like sushi. ­Sometimes when we try to tell customers how to take sushi, or about sushi etiquette, we find they are knowledgeable about it … having tried it or at least read about it.”

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I make it clear to him, and his Junior Sous Chef at Pan Asia Michelle Peris, that I would be delighted to be educated about sushi, which  I continue to approach with a bit of trepidation.

Along with sips of some excellent Chardonnay, I get educated on the traditional way of eating sushi —
with a little wasabi (I can’t help wincing at the memory of the blister on the tongue after taking a little too much of wasabi in a restaurant in Spain, but that had come out of a tube and couldn’t have been this good), and gari.

Gari is made from picked ginger juliens, but as Michelle explains, “this is not our traditional adrakh. This is an authentic Japanese product that comes from Japan, and doesn’t have the pungent taste of our ginger. It has a beautiful texture and you take a little bit of gari between sushis to clear your palate….”

Just as you take cheese or bread between different varieties of wine, I intervene, and get an appreciative nod from my tutor!

But sushi comes only in the middle of this brunch; we begin with an array of salads and while the chicken salad served with a Miso dressing (made from soya sauce) is delicious, I enjoy most the salad with thin slices of orange segments, served along with pumpkin seeds. Not only does it stimulate the taste buds without filling you up, it also gives you the much required halo of a perfectly healthy intake!

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She next serves me a clear chicken soup with smoked tofu and noodles, and this is followed by an offering of dim sums and wantons. The vegetarian dim sums on offer are made of water chestnuts, and along with mushroom wantons, can give the non-veg ones — prawn and chicken — a run for their money. They get my thumbs up, made even more delicious by the accompanying Cantonese chilly sauce.

As I savour this sauce, Michelle explains that it gets its special quality after a “long process of being cooked in oil, which extracts its flavour and then a paste is made which is roasted again. This process ensures that the chilly doesn’t hit you,” she explains.

Next comes a selection of sushi, and I try it out with the special gari, followed by lamb patties and Lobster Croquettes. The croquette is a clear winner; it has all the requisites of a perfect croquette — life and fluffy, soft and crispy.

It is humanly impossible to take any more, but as I throw up my hands, Michelle insists that as she has specialised in desserts and pastry, “the best part of the meal” cannot be ignored.

What she next sends to the table is a virtual assault on the senses …  and the taste buds. A beetroot and honey ice cream that just melts in the mouth, tender coconut ice cream which is irresistible. By the time you have spooned through these heavenly offerings, the plum pudding with a brandy sauce tantalises the taste buds along with a cherry chocolate pie. Against such irresistible delicacies, the humble pumpkin custard remains untasted …. saved for another day.

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Plush decor, great ambience and courteous, unobtrusive service make the dining experience at Pan Asia truly special. The warm, oriental colours, the pillars, Chinese paper lamps, urns and bamboo shoots, all these evoke a quintessential Asian ambience. But a single visit to this truly pan-Asian diner cannot satisfy either the taste buds or satiate the senses.

I come away knowing only too well, that I have only tasted a small portion of the sea food delicacies for which this specialty restaurant is famous. And much else remains to be explored.

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