Straight From The Heart
He my client!” exclaims Chef Ting Yen as I enter Yuuka, the brand-new modern-Japanese restaurant on the Palladium Hotel’s plush 37th floor. “Your hair different now….” he adds, delighted. The young man with me beams at being recognised. He is an unabashed fan of Chef Ting’s flagship fine dining establishment Oishii Boston and particularly of its more-casual counterpart Oishii Sushi Bar, a fact that I discovered much to the detriment of my wallet. Oishii was the highlight of my son’s four years in a Boston college, a place that he and his band of friends spent entire months’ budgets on. Chef Ting is considered one of the top Sushi chefs in the Boston area and suddenly his contemporary Japanese eateries were boasting of an Indian clientele as well.
In fact chef today claims that many of the walk-ins at Yuuka in these first few days have been familiar faces, people who have already discovered him on their US sojourns. Yuuka means ‘wonderful flavour’ in Japanese and we embark on a meal that makes this promise come true in every way. This 50-seater Japanese-inspired space houses soaring ceiling-height and eternity-edged window frames graced by vertiginous views of the city’s skyline. The solid wooden tree slices and reed wall is custom designed as the perfect backdrop for the jewel box Sushi Bar. Various textures of black-gold portoro marble, high gloss mirrors and Japanese brocade interplay to create a deconstructed origami pattern that is chic and contemporary.
Chef Ting’s expertise lies in infusing modern elements into the detailed, traditional and intricate art of Japanese food. Some of these elements are almost western in concept while here, in Mumbai, he aims to cater to the Indian palate as well. On this, his third visit to the city, with his young son Kevin, chef’s main goal has been to train the kitchen staff who, he says, already show a feel for creating Japanese food and innovative sushi. “You have to use your heart to cook your dishes,” his restaurateur father would claim and this is what Chef Ting imparts to his son as well. Young Kevin has visited some of the city’s restaurants and markets. (Chef Ting enjoys dosas and garlic nan in India.) Father and son love early mornings at Crawford Market though Kevin claims that he will never step into Vashi Market again. His father’s take on the chaos at Crawford Market? “It is crazy but good crazy,” he maintains.
Yuuka, it would seem, is different from the US outlets. “We are on the 37th floor with a view looking out on the sea, this is what world-class restaurants do,” he says. “We are now in a very classic city, very wealthy and to match up to this clientele, we need to create a very different restaurant. I have studied very hard for the last nine months to create lots of dishes to match this city,” says the chef with 29 years of culinary experience. “So far, no one has complained, which means that I have started in the right way!” The vegetarian dishes, and there is a fine selection on the menu, were a little challenging, he admits. “I added flavours and spices to make dishes that are a little different.” Incorporating his particular multicultural background and style into his dishes is something that this chef seems to do almost effortlessly. “I mix my cooking with Italian, Mexican,” he says, “I make risotto the Asian way using sushi rice instead of Arborio….” he says as an example. “In my crab risotto I give a Japanese flavour by adding miso….” One of his vegetarian specialties at Yuuka is the avocado tartare, a starter that arrives tall and proud as the high floor that we are on. The glass is layered at its lower end with a corn tashi, then comes a cage of ice that must be broken to reach the heaped subtle layers of avocado with some crunchy accoutrements sprinkled upon. “This culture likes to break things – like coconuts!” he observes. A dish then with drama enough to suit the culture!
And so we dig into a repast that continues to surprise, offering after offering. The tomato soup features a whole cold tomato with chilled honey consomme; a palate freshener, as it were. Then comes the towering avocado tartare with corn dashi and crispy carrot chips and beurre monte. Salmon on fire adds further drama to the meal served with a raspberry gastrique. The hamachi carpaccio includes thinly sliced yellowtail swimming in a delicious saffron sauce and topped with crispy jalapeno that imparts just the right kick. The tiger tear maki is deliciously vegetarian with avocado, cucumber, crispy habanero and cream cheese; it is spicy, it is cruncy – not to be missed. The crispy mango maki is a little too weighed down with mango but refreshing all the same. A standout dish is the black cod grilled with sweet miso – taking that tender seafood to the next level of taste and texture. Another standout is the toro truffle maki; seared toro, shrimp tempora, spicy mayo, cucumber, all topped with a shaving of black truffle and a tiny dollop of black caviar – incredibly good!
We finish up with a green tea cake that incorporates 40 layers accompanied by aged rum soaked raisins and matcha dust. If this is heaven, I am thinking, this is where I want to stay put!
Chef Ting’s food, I have discovered, is in the details. That surprising crunch, that unforseen piquancy, that unpredicted texture. He is personable and charming with the guests. He hands out napkins to a bunch of lunching ladies who have little idea who he is. He joins the sushi chef behind the sushi counter and watches over his domain. He introduces his son with pride and diffidence, walking away when his son complains about his insistence on precision in the kitchen. He admits that he has no time for checking emails (there are days when they may receive 1000 emails or more) or scouring through accounts, all of which is done by his wife and restaurant manager. He loves to create dishes and that is what he does, in the bargain, creating his own brand of Japanese cuisine for Mumbai.
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