There are times when dining out transports you far beyond the realm of the gastronomical. The interiors of an increasing number of hotels and restaurants tend to veer toward the more-is-more credo: loud, brassy, and over the top with an excess of chandeliers, dizzy and blindingly shiny marble flooring – and amongst much else, an assortment of objets d’art that clamour for your attention. So, when you step inside Megu, the latest restaurant at The Leela Palace Kempinski in Delhi, it appears to be a zone of tranquillity.
For a moment I thought I was entering a spa or a New Age temple: the reception area of the Japanese restaurant has a narrow body of water with hundreds of red roses floating on it. The exquisitely crafted black granite floor in the room has a Zen-like quality about it. As has, in fact, much of the restaurant divided into several rooms and areas for al fresco dining. The piece de resistance is the private dining room whose walls are decorated with kimonos, both contemporary and antique.
The contemporary and the ancient in fact co-exist and complement each other in the décor of the main dining room. Here, the chairs and tables are stark, minimalist. Yet in the midst of the high-ceilinged room is a large crystal Buddha, sitting in a pool of water and under a towering Japanese bon-sho bell (sacred bell used in Buddhist rituals) which is suspended from the ceiling. Customers are encouraged to pour water over the part of the Buddha that corresponds to the area of their own bodies that are ailing. It is not for nothing that Megu, which is part of a chain of upmarket restaurants (the two original ones are in New York), bears this name. Megu means ‘blessing’ in Japanese.
The balance between tradition and modernity expresses itself in the cuisine as well. Trained by chef Saito the inspired by their own creativity, chefs here have experimented with ancient Japanese culinary traditions to evolve their own brand of what is becoming increasingly popular – Japanese modern cuisine. In addition to traditional dishes there are many contemporary updates. The contemporary sushi we ate was very good, including the ossetra caviar, caviar from a sturgeon: it has a slightly nutty taste. Equally good was the tuna soy akami, which uses a leaner cut of the tuna.
The use of New-Age cooking techniques and out of the ordinary ingredients gives the food an interesting twist. One of these is a special Kanzuri chilli paste which is made by burying the red peppers in the snow and adding salt and malted rice to them before fermenting the paste for three years. Crispy kanzuri shrimp is one of the favourite dishes here.
Evidently, the chefs at Megu do not rely on sauces to tease taste out of the ingredients. The ingredients have to speak for themselves – often in their own voices. Wasabi, the rather sharp Japanese horseradish served with sashimi and sushi was not just served as a green paste. Waiters moved from table to table grating fresh wasabi on to the plates.
Special cooking techniques also enhance the flavours. Roasting on ceramic plates retains the juices and taste of meats and seafood. A grilling technique called bincho-tan involves the use of a special charcoal brought from Japan: it can be heated up to 1,000 degrees centigrade.
Enhancing the dining experience are the serving rituals, table side presentations of their signature dishes and the specially designed crockery. Unforgettable are the pre-heated lava stones with small pieces of raw meat which are cooked at your table: the lava stones have apparently been brought in from Mt Fuji.
Keeping the Indian customers in mind Megu’s Indian chefs have created imaginative dishes. In fact, vegetarian dishes comprise 40 per cent of their menu. Since one of us was a vegetarian we started with their signature crispy asparagus: fat spears coated with rice crispies. Another Delhi invention and a vegetarian’s delight was shira ae. Using such everyday ingredients as yellow squash, tofu and spinach and sesame the chef had invented a surprisingly exotic dish.
Each appetiser differed from the next: yellowtail carpaccio, tuna toro tartare, crispy tofu, maguro carpaccio, wagyu croquette and grilled foie gras. I ordered steamed sea bass as an entree which was subtly flavoured. Sometimes the test of a restaurant lies in the simplest of dishes: Megu’s vegetable garlic fried rice was sublime.
The twist in the ending of this dining tale was the dessert. I approached the wasabi cheese cake with trepidation: it sounded too oxymoronic for my taste. But I was pleasantly surprised. The hint of wasabi was tantalising.
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