Orient Express : Restaurant Review
3.5 stars out of 5 (between Good & Excellent, but this is indubitably a royal restaurant)
New Delhi, India
Visited in October 2015
NB : This rating is strictly a synecdoche only, and not designed to be a comprehensive assessment of Orient Express. At the time of writing , I don't even live in the same country that this regal restaurant is domiciled in, and my 36 hour halt in Delhi could only accomodate Orient Express's elaborate 4 course dinner which is too heavy on the stomach to think of adding more dishes for better assessment.
Review Begins :
When friends would remark "Oh, the food doesn't matter - as long as the company is good" , when discussing which restaurant to go out to, I never empathized with this scatter-brained remark. Oh yes the company is indubitably important but disregardng the cusine quality while planning important outings , is a dangerous habit I don't encourage. Later in my life , I started going to select restaurants without the company of these kind of people and then I realized that there are some places where the food is not uppermost on your mind when planning a visit. Yes these handful of restaurants do have cuisine that can range from being merely above average to solidly good to flat-out excellent, but what is truly Outstanding in these establishments is the glorious amalgam of service and ambience they create specially for you. I have visited Orient Express at The Taj, Delhi only once but the next time I'm in town, you can bet your bottom dollar or fluctuating rupee that I will return to re-experience this guest-oriented phenomenon.
Random groups of hoi-polloi may bring down the rarefied luxury of the Taj's portals as you step into it but as you traverse the tastefully appointed lobby and make your way to the ground floor location of the restaurant , the unique appeal of this place looms larger. The restauarant's architecture and design is modelled on an Orient Express train carriage - the English version - and once I entered inside, I just stood there and admired the plush and elegant tones of polished wood, golden lamps, mirrors, white tablecloths and gleaming tableware. Once inside this grandly aristocratic compact space, you may safely consider yourself to be in any part of the world from the Continent to America to of course India (before this last block of four hundred years, India was long established as one of the richest countries in the world).
(L) Mr.Vikas Singh (Manager) (R) Chef D N Sharma
White-gloved top-tier excellence and world-class graciousness elevates Orient Express's service . It is designed to make you feel like a royal, and I haven't encountered a higher level of service anywhere in India. There was only one host ( I don't have the heart to call this elite performer as 'waiter') and yet there was no strong need for more than one because of his vigilant caring quality and as there was never more than two tables occupied including mine (they smilingly informed me that it was a "dry day", it being October 2nd : Gandhi Jayanthi with no alcohol publicly served or sold nationwide). This young gentleman on duty was smoothly assiduous from the start to finish of the evening and never lost his pleasant smile.
On manager Mr.Vikas Gupta's recommendation, Truffle Capuccino became my first appetizer. I'd been eyeing an alternative appetizer option of "Avocado, celeriac and truffle" , while wondering how the chef might orchestrate these ingredients with a dressing to synthesize a memorable symphony. But the Mr.Gupta's recommendation made me hope this appetizer , amongst several previous disappointments, would finally incorporate those bold seductive "truffle" notes that so many restaurants fail to deliver. The cup of this "cappucino" when it arrived in white china, had an immaculate South-Indian-coffee-style surface completely covered by tiny brown bubbles - technically it was indubitably impressive. But apart from that, the truffle was lost on me and what I had was finely distilled mushroom soup convincingly masquerading as cappucino - but that was not what I had bargained for .
Far more fetching was a mocktail of 'Chocolate Dream' - it incorporated a beautiful balance of chocolate and pineapple with each pleasurable sip giving exquisite blended currents of the said ingredients. Though it was a "dry day" this wonderfully blended mocktail gave me more pleasure than many other alcoholic drinks have done.
Next two pictures : Complimentary offerings : good but not spectacular
(L) Duck Liver Parfait
Among all Western-cuisine restaurants including those in Australia and New Zealand, I have not eaten a better designed or more generously portioned crab rendition than one I had the fortune of consuming that night. To nitpick, no , this was not the best crab I'd ever eaten but its design gloriously recalled the plating from the luxury restaurants of France. A thick ,neat disc of chopped dressed crab sat in the center while citrus greens formed the punctuated circumference . I thoroughly enjoyed these tender flavourful chunks of crab, made more creamy and slick by the avocado - what's more I had stopped automatically at a certain juncture as my palate had registered that this is where the appetizer portions in most fine-dining restaurants end. But to my pleasant surprise , more than half of the crab lay there waiting to be joyously consumed (for your supermodel reed-thin girlfriend, this venue will suit no doubt but not the portions). And both the avocado vinagrette and citrus greens perfectly cut the creaminess and added refreshing dimensions of balance.
The dish which Orient Express is proud of and is credited with introducing to India - Camembert Souffle - barely had any memorable flavour and the paprika-accented heavily creamy orange sauce which smothered it, could not play enough of a supporting role to salvage this high-calorie drowner. The souffle's texture was agreeably light and fluffy (although it lost a bit of that of that gossamer ease progressively) but the overall flavour profile desperately called for strong balancing acts which were alas not there on the plate. When Chef D. N Sharma asked me for feedback about the camembert souffle, I diverted the attention to the crab dish of which I sang my honest hosannas. The staff did come around with the pepper grinder but while Zodiac Grill in Mumbai had counselled me that the chef actually recommends pepper for the camembert souffle, here I was not told so and hence , as per my habit, I declined the pepper.
It requires a special blend of attention and discretion to constantly fulfill your guest's needs while taking care to be sometimes out of sight so as to give "space" to your patron - and Orient Express faultlessly accomplished the feat that night. Manager Mr.Vikas Gupta was adroitly solicitous and helpful . The gentleman insisted , despite my protests, on bringing to me a free seafood dish after our discussion on "coastal logistics". I can't remember the last time a whole table was voluntarily moved by the staff so as to bring it nearer to me. Only one time has this level of service, vigilance and respect ( but without the regal ambience) been experienced by me - and that was when I was the only patron for lunch for one hour and fifteen minutes in Graze at Taj Vivanta, Bangalore in 2012.
When packaged fish travels across continents , unless the whole process is swiftly timed and masterminded by driven top-money Japanese sashimi and sushi chefs, it does not necessarily achieve its purpose on reaching the destination. I had eaten imported seabass of middling quality cooked by an Italian chef in JW Marriott Bangalore , and in Orient Express too alas my apprehensions materialized when I ate the beautfifully presented large cut of Chilean seabass (the portion was so much that I couldn't finish it). It was soft no doubt but the pristine white flesh barely had any flavour ,and an accompaniment of a citrus mash was far too acidic with oversweet accents. If Orient Express had rendered my seafood main spectacularly, it would have tilted the scales that much more towards my fondness for this kitchen's offerings.
When Chef D.N Sharma and manager Mr.Singh were conversing with me, I asked them why they don't serve Indian fish given our long coastline and a lengthy heartening line-up of fresh flavourful seafood. Chef Sharma reported that the way ill-educated Indian fish-handlers gut and clean the fish, is suboptimal, resulting in the fish getting bad odours when the package is opened by the chef. I was disappointed that the supply chain has not been trained to handle fish in a world-class way and I strongly felt that five-star hotels - rather than other establishments - have the clout to rectify this shortcoming, although it will involve a lot of arduous grassroots work outside five-star environs. Though Delhi is not exactly near the ocean, it is only two hours away by flight which is why I feel the logistics of ferrying smashingly fresh fish here are still feasible.
At the end of this conversation, manager Mr.Gupta insisted, despite my protests , on getting me a free order of indigenously sourced prawns. I ultimately yielded, as this protein is one of my favourites. A beautiful presentation of two large prawns was then parked on a separate plate beside the fish dish. But when I got to those huge specimens ensconced stylishly in a mini-paella, and when my knife was being taxed far too much when cutting them , I received an unfavourable prescience which was confirmed on the tasting . They were on the tougher side with barely much flavour. I'd expect this degree of "execution" from a way-side trattoria too busy for quality control but not from the country's pre-eminent institution of fine-dining.
The dessert - Warm Chocolate Pudding with a Liquid Chocolate center - was a technical beaut alright but each passing year taxes a restaurant no matter how great it is. What I mean is that I'm familiar with an exactly similar version cooked by Abhijit Saha from the last four years in his Fava, Bangalore - though Orient Express and its first-in-India triumphs pre-date the latter contender by at least two decades. But I appreciated what Orient Express had achieved much before other European restaurants in India had caught on. The warm liquid chocolate ooze from the sliced cake, is admittedly of the surgical emergency kind , but the chocolate is more of a medium-voltage pleasure rather than an intense seduction . Mixing in vanilla ice-cream offered by the side, does enhance and create a hot-cold wave of double-dimensioned sweetness. Graze in Taj Vivanta, Bangalore copies this flavour profile albiet with a technically mediocre 'regular' chocolate cake.
What puzzled me a bit at the end was that after all the warmth and generosity shown by manager Mr.Vikas Gupta, I caught no sight of him when I left the restaurant nor was there another member of managerial staff to bid farewell. It was 10-15 pm when I left and even if the manager had gone home at his closing time of duty at 10 pm presumably, shouldn't they at least bid farewell to you before they leave?
Tariffs : A kingly restaurant like this is justified in charging suitably regal amounts - my bill inclusive of the mocktail exceeded Rs.9,600. A couple who have a hearty meal here spurred on by a bottle of wine , will not have difficulty making their check cross Rs.20,000 (US$ 400).
So while the crucial element of food did not exactly blow me away at the end of the night, the truly regal ambience and the outstanding level of service pleasured me. This is easily one of the most romantic restaurants in India, and irrespective of whether you are narcissistic or not, you may consider it worthwhile being here alone (although with a experience like this, you aren't really alone). At the time of writing , the year is 2015 and Bombay's Zodiac Grill - the other "big-shot" Indian restaurant serving continental cuisine in the subcontinent - is sadly closing down , but I'm glad that Orient Express will continue to entice diners with its exquisite vision of fine-dining.
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