The new kid on the Chinese block is China XO, the specialty restaurant and brainchild of Leela Palace, Chennai. And a force to reckon with they are. We had the good fortune of dining at China XO for dinner couple of weeks back and the fact that i took so long to write about it must give you an inkling to how much i wanted to take time out to do it justice, because anything else would not just do. It would be an understatement to say we were bowled over by the entire experience. The authenticity and the painstaking effort put into making each element a pleasant journey for the senses or the palate shows. China XO is class personified, and i'm thinking eclectic and exquisite should probably begin to describe it.
Nestled in the far end of the wide corridor that branches off Jamavar to the right (which i'm so tempted to visit in the near future - a peek through the glass in the aforementioned corridor literally beckoned me in, it was like a cornucopia of colors, soft lights and elegantly dressed staff meandering through the maze of laid out heavy furniture - how do they strike such a balance you wonder!), China XO strikes you as elaborate and very stylish. Keeping with the Leela tradition, it is contemporary, yet chic, and they know the right dosage to make sure you feel wowed, and yet not overwhelmed. Oh, and rest assured, you are bound to run into celebs here. There were some esteemed restaurant owners and filmdom glitterati that we rubbed shoulders with at the restaurant. We were also given a tour of the 3 Private Dining Rooms, which are actually 3 rooms of infinite luxury and style.
Coming to the food part of the night. Food, oh glorious food. We were spoilt for choice, and decided to start with the chicken dumpling, chicken and prawn siumai and chilean sea bass dumpling. The siumai was yum, as were the fillings for the other dumplings as well, though we found the steamed coating a tad dough-y.
To make the transition to the main course, we ordered a Char Siew Chinese style pork roast with honey. It was big on flavors, however failed to kindle any special amorous feelings for the dish.
We were contemplating on the next plan of attack when the kind exec chef, Chef Dharmen dropped in to check on how we were doing. He took matters into his own hands and ordered for us. And that is how one of the highlights of the night, the Cheong fun dim sum prawn happened. The Cheong fun dim sum prawn gives all other dim sums a bad name in that, it takes dim sums to a entirely different level, what with its tender, succulent and juicy jumbo prawn enveloped in a 'crisp-as-crisp-can-get' light coating ,which is in turn covered by the steamed exterior that we are so used to eating for momos. This excellent combination of textures and the eventual explosion of the mildly flavored prawn just set off all the alarm bells in our heads, and we couldn't have enough of it. As we kept affirming to Chef Dharmen over mouthfuls, it is their winning dish.
Or so we thought, till the Crispy kurobuta pork belly came.
So here's the thing, watching the number of TV food shows that Pavan does, or eating/preparing pork in as many various ways as possible, there's this understanding between us: he is the pork connoisseur and i'm the sceptic (for some self confessed weird reasons). He is all for the, you know, proverbial crispy skin, juicy fat, glaze of fine sauce, and the delicious meat underneath it. Well, the Crispy kurobuta pork belly was all this, and much more. The stuff good food dreams involving pork are made of. The crackling on the cubed pork belly was an eye opener and it may have just converted a sceptic. We unfortunately do not have pics, and that should give you an idea about how much we enjoyed it.
So here we are thinking we have pretty much seen it all when we realize the Chef has ordered a Peking duck for us. We had heard about it and how it was their signature item, so we waited in quiet anticipation. While we were waiting for our duck to arrive, we saw a couple of ducks travel in style and amidst much fanfare to the respective tables, on dinner carts and accompanied by the Chef. As we looked on with slightly open jaws, the Chef proceeded to slice up the duck there, in front of the guests and serve the diners. We were intrigued to say the least, and Chef Dharmen gave us a brief outline about this fabulous dish while we waited. The Peking duck is a very popular dish from Beijing, so much so that it is considered a national dish of China. The dish is prized for its crispy skin, so distinctly separate from the fat underneath it, the literally melt-in-the-mouth fat and meat. In the authentic way, the cooked duck is brought to the diners, carved and sliced by the Chef using a dangerously sharp looking knife, and then served to the customers with a side of pancakes, sliced scallions and cucumber and hoisin sauce.
After placing the order at China XO, the diners are told that it will take 45 minutes, as the duck has to be cooked in the wood fire oven on order. Our interest sufficiently piqued, we waited it out with Chef Dharmen who is possibly the most fun and un-assuming Chef ever. He regaled us with his many anecdotes which we will remember very fondly every time we see a ship washed up the shore or sees dim sums. :)
Our Peking duck was ready and wheeled out to us under the auspices of Chef Mann. Chef Mann set to work as the accompaniments were laid out in front of us. Without exaggeration, we got a plate of the most delicate and crispest duck skin ever imaginable, another plate of similar beautiful skin with a bit of luscious and divine fat under it and a third plate of tender, gently flavored duck meat. We were beside ourselves with excitement and instructed on how to go about it, as there were an array of items in front of us, including a bowl of white sugar! So this is how we do it: lay out a pancake on your plate. Spread the hoisin sauce on the pancake making sure to cover it with a light smear. Place the skin with fat on the pancake, followed by little garlic butter if you fancy it, followed by the meat. Top it off with the sliced scallions and the cucumber and roll it up into a tight roll, and dig in using your hands. Await the explosion of all the different flavors and textures and be prepared to go 'wow'. I can not seem to type all of this out now without drooling a tad bit onto my keyboard. The texture of the meat is amazing and pairs perfectly well with the rest of the accompaniments. And the best part of all this was, none of it left us feeling overly stuffed. It was light and easy on the stomach.
P.S: Strange as it may sound, the sugar is meant to be sprinkled over the skin and popped as is. A little prelude to the amazing-ness that ensues. That caramelized, crispy skin literally melts in the mouth with the sugar and leaves you wanting more.
Their Peking duck is nothing short of 'wow!' and it is clearly their pièce de résistance. It beats everything else, hands down, and will remain 'The dish' for me for a long time. And that says enough about this exquisite dish, really.
The icing on the cake/this brilliant meal was the dessert. Frankly speaking, and with due apologies for stereotyping, all i've come to expect from a Chinese dessert is fried ice-cream, ice cream served with crispy fried noodles or fruit salad. But China XO does things with style. We got to try a little bit of everything: Crispy muskmelon with vanilla bean ice cream, fried sesame dumpling with black sesame paste filling, crispy sesame pancake with lotus and almond jelly. Our favorite was the crispy (oh so crispy!) muskmelon with the vanilla bean ice cream. The almond jelly was good, light and just a tad bit almond-y. I took a shine to the fired sesame dumpling and found the black sesame filling particularly intriguing. Onto the highlight of the dessert: The crispy muskmelon! The musk melon was puréed and stewed and had a super crispy outer coating that just enhanced the subtle taste of the melon. That, paired with a scoop of the ice cream was the perfect ending to a fabulous meal.
ChinaXO is currently open only for dinner, and i cant wait for them to open for lunch, i'm told the view of the sea from the restaurant is spectacular.
The staff's attention to detail is, again, heart warming and as you leave, can't help but feel, Leela had checked all the right boxes, yet again.