Food for thought. How frequently do “eureka” moments occur in a lifetime? Not often. Yet, this conjurer of epicurean highs does it consistently, enough to make one peer past his introspective surface to unearth the secrets from his kitchen. With his irreverent and straight-talking epicuriousity, Manu Chandra is that kind of persona.
Year after year, the culinary whiz finds inspiration to take that veritable rabbit out of his deep and probably bottomless chef’s hat. This time, it’s a unique ingredient-spurting dragon that speaks in Cantonese, with hints of untouched China. Chandra’s tryst paves the way for this new Chinese Bar House, Cantan (the name inspired by what the Portuguese endowed China) on Lavelle Road. It has arisen from his sincere meanderings into the essence of Chinese cuisine. The idea: To make it fun, happy, unique and contemporary. Its flavours are exemplary, its demeanour is old school and its experience fits into a space where none before existed. Albeit with a whimsicality - be it the prawn and mango fried rice, the mud crab or the sea snails (yes!) in black bean sauce (made in-house). Chandra unleashes Shaokao (barbeque), Guokui (a street snack) and a taste trail that he has been mulling over for some time, after a visit to Taiwan and Hong Kong for an art festival, where courtesy, a motley crew of local artists, he was party to local foodie forays.
Manu Chandra takes his ideas (he is already onto three new ones), tucks them away, embellishing them from time to time, with reading, experience and learning, to create spaces that invoke a “never-beforeness.” Like Olive, Toast and Tonic, Fatty Bao, Monkey Bar… in those hurriedly written slips of paper stuck into corners of books on his scattered desk at home, he is inspired by history, street corners, originality, etc. He then emerges with exceptional trends. It is but apparent that he has struck aptly again. An able team helmed by executive chef Prashanth as part of the Olive Group of Restaurants founded by AD Singh with Chef Manu Chandra and Chetan Rampal as partners, they also have two locals partnering. To decipher those Chinese leanings, enter Cantan and chop-stick away, elegantly, of course.
Creating new addresses that ooze soul, Manu Chandra explains, “We needed a kickass Chinese restaurant, and me being me, I would never conform to a singular thought process. I wanted to bring in fun, a contemporary edge without being contrived. I have always had this urge to reinvent. With Chinese, I felt there was a massive gap… either it was the overtly greasy, with corn starch desi Chinese places or five stars that are preposterously priced… So where did the most popular cuisine in India suddenly lose its way?” asks the non-conformist chef who brings Cantan to sit pertly to fill this lacuna.
“Prashanth and I worked on the menu for long. We brought the bao and ramen into vogue, we created the first gastro pub in India, the thought was, let’s create something different,” Chandra adds.
We started the meal in a space that is part Opium den on the top floor, with vivid wall paper, cutesy curtains, colour, hues and kitsch and an equally colourful first floor dining thanks to WDA Designs’s Jatin Hukkeri. Sceptical, given how Chinese cuisine has lost the plot, every part of the carefully curated menu asks to be ordered. Well, at least once. Then you can decide. The carrot, wild mushroom and truffle oil dim sum was delectable, bits of crunch, the slupr inducing rush of truffle. Phew. Must-have. The spicy beef and coriander guotie was succulent in bites with dips of plum, ginger, chilli and spice. Wow. The spinach and fish rolls with black bean had delicate greens with a subtle fish that went down beautifully.
The cold plates that Chandra and Prashanth have added to the menu add a unique spin. Perfect with cocktails that celebrate China's flavours, be it the refreshing spiced Cantan XO or a juicy orange inspired Monk of the Yangtze Orchard and the mulled wine on ice The Tao of Dublin.
The Pork and Marinated Cucumber came on a bamboo hanger over a burnt chilli oil and garlic bowl. We felt the cured pork was a bit chewy, could be crisped on the edges perhaps, or lose its fat. The smoked tuna cold spring rolls were perfect… chilli oil, garlic chives in a crunchy, fresh, deliciously light rendition.
We loved the quirk in each dish, yet how it has stayed true to its inherent nature. For mains, it was a taste trail of flavours: delicious sizzling pork, succulent, and crunched up with goji berries, black vinegary tang and duo jiao sauce, a spicy punch. Wow. With it was what might just be our favourite order (even though we are more noodle scroungers), the raw mango and prawn fried rice with a hint of XO sauce. A bounty of ingredients married beautifully, with a welcome raw mango bite. Must-have. The menu also has Cantonese, especially Guangzhou, Shanghainese and Sichuan influences, with the odd reinvention of a 'Chindian' staple, thanks to Chandra’s mindful sensibilities. A menu that has signatures, unique ingredients inimitably plated. So much to order, that it’ll take many visits to taste all, yet if you are foodies, then there’s no getting around that.
Chandra explains, “What is this desi-fication of everything? We’ve done four decades of Chinese food appropriation and I think the market is ready enough to take Chinese food for what it is and actually enjoy it. Pushing the envelope, the space and food surprise you, and it becomes a happy place. That is how I approach all my places.”
For dessert, it was the Cantonese steamed cheese cake, a spongy cake with a dollop of ice cream and mulberry, fresh and a compote. Good. “How much umami needs to be there?” Chandra has mulled about this and imbibed it beautifully … now it’s your turn to experience the same umami.
CANTAN - Chinese Bar House, 1st & 2nd Floor, 25/4 Lavelle Road
Meal for two: Rs 1,600 + taxes
Call: 48669269/ 48669267 (12 noon to 4 pm, 6:30 pm to 12 am (Monday to Sunday) At night only kids above 10 years permitted on the First Floor
Value for money: Set Menu on First Floor