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Culinary ode to the Orient
The Hindu Business Line - 22 May 2013

You know that old joke about going on a sea food diet? (I am on the sea food diet. Whenever I see food I eat it!) No, my sense of humour isn’t failing; it’s the first pun that struck me as I left after a meal at Pan Asian, the newly unveiled restaurant at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai. As plate after plate of squid, crab, sea bass, prawns and salmon roe were set in front of me, I couldn’t help but wonder just how much of an underwater eco system was currently residing inside me. But I’m not complaining, mind you. My only regret would have been not skipping lunch while Pan Asian was on the cards for dinner.
The restaurant, the largest in the hotel, has so many sections that it does get confusing exactly where to start. The corridor at the entrance has been named ‘The Walk of Temptation’ and the Japanese sushi bar has been cordoned off and termed Café Edo. The way to the main seating area is lined with bottles, showing off one of the largest wine cellars in the city. While the expected sake is yet to be served, there is a wide range of Japanese whiskeys and an assortment of wines and champagnes to choose from. A little blue plaque with ‘Indian Ocean’ written catches our eye and we’re told that this where the ‘fruit de mer’ are put on display. A small tasting table next to the entrance is perfectly situated for a small aperitif before dinner. There’s also the Chef’s Studio and the Champagne Lounge on the mezzanine floor – but that’s only on special request.

Seated opposite the live kitchen, which aims to recreate the lively sounds and smells reminiscent of Asian street food, the bright reds of the décor seem to add to that theme. The brick lined walls, carved white wooden screens and dark wood accents give off a feel that isn’t typical of any particular Asian country, but the feel is oriental.

The seafood is definitely the highlight of the restaurant - fresh crab meat, succulent squid and the yellowtail carpaccio were all top notch. I’m told that the secret to the flawless seafood is that the ingredients are flown in regularly from Tsukuji Market – Tokyo’s largest fish market. Carbon footprint be damned, the food is definitely worth incurring the bad eco karma.

The highlight of our meal was the Sichuan-style crispy prawns and the stir fried squid with the generous dose of chopped garlic and chilli basil crumble. A testament to the food was my companion, who is rather iffy about seafood in general, happily helping herself to second helpings of crab meat.

Even the vegetarian options - like the banana blossom salad with roasted coconut and peanuts – had us asking for seconds. Thanks to the deluge of starters, we were left with almost no space for the main course of wok-tossed chicken and black cod with the chef’s special lemongrass and chilli fried rice.

The chef behind the innovative menu is Vikramjit Roy. He isall smiles as he shows us around, and from the sheer pride with which he talks about his food it is clear the restaurant is his baby. Do not leave without trying dessert, he says, insisting that the offering is not the usual crispy noodles with honey or coconut-based desserts that are typically served at most Asian restaurants. He was true to his word and dessert turned out to be the most fun part of the meal. We were served a platter with a row of mini-scoops of ice creams in colours that excluded the usual suspects such as chocolate and vanilla. We proceeded to have a little ‘taste test’ (which reminded us of Masterchef Australia) and our answers were surprisingly way off the mark. Well, three out of seven isn’t bad but lets be honest – how on earth are you going to expect guacamole ice cream to taste this good? Other standout flavours included matcha (a traditional Japanese green tea) yuzu (a citrusy fruit popular in East Asia) and spearmint. Flavours such as a cinnamon, banana and caramel combination, white pepper and guacamole were unbelievably intense and yet creamy – these in-house flavours definitely made for the most interesting way to end the meal.

Pan Asian should be on your list of go-to restaurants if you’re keen on experimenting with Asian food. Don’t be surprised if you see familiar faces at the table next to you – the place is a hit with movie stars and the corporate crowd, but then again, it is the chicest restaurant of the city’s star hotel – what else can you expect?