“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” someone once said. And so I was sure that dining at Hakkasan, Mumbai’s very own Michelin star Chinese restaurant, was going to turn me into a high-flier. It would be a conversation starter, just mentioning the Peking Duck I’d had the other night, and that too with Ossetra Caviar, by the way. Given its menu price of Rs 8,500, and on pre-order at least 24 hours prior to the dinner reservation, it had all the assurances of being one whopper of a dish.
Yet, I was taken aback when a Hakkasan employee called seven hours before my husband and I were to head there, informing me that the whole duck would be too much for just two diners. “That’s okay,” I said casually, “We will take a doggie bag.” There was an awkward pause at the other end of the line, “Ma’am, we don’t do takeaways.” I suddenly felt cheated. I can’t take leftovers of a Rs 8,500 dish home? Did they not know this was India? Waste not, we’ve always been told. Even a spoonful of curry is put in the fridge to be eaten the next day, and here I could not get a whole duck home if I couldn’t finish it? Well, maybe that’s what high-fliers do, I thought, and managed a weak, “That’s cool. We will still order it.”
I knew I was overdoing the anticipation when I had my husband wear his best shirt so he wouldn’t land up at the restaurant in a faded tee. I myself wore my favourite dress and a pair of heels I can’t even stand in. After all, what if I run into Ranbir Kapoor? He likes dining there, I’ve heard. One can never be too prepared.
Finally, we are at Hakkasan, and a well-turned-out, well-spoken hostess guides us amicably to our table. As we take our seats and a sommelier asks us which wine we would like, my husband wink-whispers to me, “So this is what a sommelier looks like.” Though we decline his gracious offer to help us choose an extravagant wine, we do ensure that there’s more to chew on than just the already-ordered Peking Duck. We order the Braised Pork Belly in Supreme Soya sauce, vegetable fried rice, and a spicy tofu preparation, a beer and a Bellini.
I am impressed with the service. The waiters always have a smile on, are there when you need them, and not there when you don’t. The ambience itself conveys a hint of fun—perfectly lit, with wooden screens that look aesthetic and minimalist. And the music is great fun. Instead of the selfconsciously far-eastern sounds we hear at most Chinese restaurants in India, Hakkasan is happy to play dance music, the kind that makes us feel we’re the centre of attraction at a happening party.
That’s pretty much how the experience is. Maybe I’m imagining it, but other diners look at me and smile and nod if they catch my eye. Do I have something on my face—a ketchup stain that gives away the pizza I had before I came here? “You look rich today,” my husband says sagely, “And the rich like the rich.” That’s something to chew on. Just as I think of a retort, the duck arrives.
It gleams in all its roasted glory, but a taste of its succulent tenderness will have to wait. This is just a presentation of the dish. The waiters, presumably prompted by our appreciative eyes, whisk it right back to be carved. What returns, alongwith the duck, are delicate little pieces in pancake-like wrappers, topped with caviar.
As we pop the first package in our mouth, the taste catches us unawares. We instantly know who is to blame: our Indian palate that craves spice. The juicy duck, though cooked perfectly, tastes somewhat raw to our taste buds, and the caviar’s saltiness does nothing to satisfy that need for a touch of masala.
The duck is then taken back again and served as the main course with some ginger and spring onion to go with our delicious fried rice. This, again, is rather too bland for our taste, and we find ourselves gorging instead on their scrumptious pork dish.
Perhaps Peking Duck is an acquired taste, and as it attracts more and more would-be and fully-signed-up high-fliers, Indians will get used to it. Internationally, people rave about Hakkasan’s version of the dish. Reviews on food blogs are gushy, calling it ‘a very inventive and divine combination’, ‘so tender, with a heat that leaves your lips tingling’ and much else. But we are left wondering if it wouldn’t taste better cooked in some Schezwan sauce. To be sure, this is not the duck’s fault at all. We Indians just ache for garam masala, and someone with a palate for simpler stuff, like our favourite Masterchef Australia judges Gary and George, may just love this, with or without the multi-digit bill at the end.
As we head for the exit, at least I have no regret of the ‘no takeaway’ rule anymore. But if anybody were to ask how one of my ‘most expensive meals ever’ (a neat bill of Rs 16,000 for a dinner for two) turned out, I would say it was a fun, entertaining evening, even if it gave us no intimations of culinary nirvana. And that, for the moolah we dished out, could mean we feel shortchanged. As we drive away in our little hatchback that has been standing meekly amid Aston Martins and the like, we both know we wouldn’t be doing this again—at least not until we make our first crore. And then we can start all over, trying to acquire a taste for Peking Duck.