China Doll, South Ex II, New Delhi
Anyone remember The Chinese; a quaintly decorated, mid-size restaurant in Connaught Place? It’s closed now, temporarily I think, due to the renovations happening in CP, and used to serve some of the lesser known Hunanese dishes. In any case, I have no reason to return to The Chinese… their secret ingredient now rests comfortably at China Doll – Zhu Can; the chef.
Tarun and I did lunch at China Doll a couple of weeks back and I was thrilled and amazed at the quality of food churned out from Chef Can’s kitchen. First, the restaurant. China Doll has only abut 70 covers, when many other places might be tempted to pack in a hundred. Seventy covers on well separated tables, each one situated in a niche seemingly it’s very own within a quiet and elegant ambiance done in wood, stone and bamboo for most part, accentuated by recessed lighting, perhaps even dramatized. When Indu and I visited again, she couldn’t stop talking about how pretty and elegant the interiors were! The central seating area also features a huge, open skylight.
Back to the food.
If you’re tired of seeing the same ghisa-pita items in menus all over the city, you’re in for a treat at China Doll. Apart from a few dishes, that I suspect were inserted specifically for the butter-chicken-royal-stag crowd, the menu at China Doll is a delight to read. Winter Melon with Mushroom, Hand shredded cabbage with chili soya sauce, Sour and Spicy Shredded Potato, Tea Flavored Prawn, Diced Chicken with Walnuts and Sour Cabbage with Glass Noodle being just a few examples of dishes in this restaurant that you probably would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
If you’re anything close to a real foodie, you should be swallowing to keep from drooling and wondering whether to switch tabs to figure out where the restaurant is to book a table, or continue reading this article. I suggest you continue reading.
Tarun and I started with Spinach and Coconut dumplings (225), Taro Duck Cake (365) and Corn Cake with Hot Garlic Sauce (280). I’d never eaten spinach and coconut as a dumpling filling nor had I heard of it before then. In fact, we had agreed to order dishes we hadn’t eaten before. Mildly reminiscent of coconut with broad overtones of spinach, this was a green dumpling that looked and tasted unlike anything I’d tasted before. I can’t say I liked the Taro Duck Cake (dry and low on duck) and Corn Cake with Hot Garlic Sauce (homogeneous and heavy) though given that Chef Zhu cooked it, it must be right and my comments remain as personal preferences.
Continuing on to vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions of Wonton Soup (350) I was once again reminded of how important balance is, in food. The soup consisted of dumplings (wontons) dunked in a clear, mildly flavored broth that was a subtle as subtle can be. Each dumpling however, contained a little more flavor than the broth, and biting into them after a few spoonfuls of broth was much like an explosion of mild flavors that was only possible due to the shy and unassuming broth.
Our main courses were:
- Tarun & I: Water boiled lamb (475) and Eggplant with Green Chili (435) with Hunan Fried Rice (500)
- Indu and I: Water boiled lamb, Eggplant with Green Chili, Smoked Pork with Leeks (485) and Chinese Cabbage with Hunan Pickled Chili (465) with Steamed Rice (200).
Yes, China Doll is an expensive restaurant that looks and tastes the part, but doesn’t quite feel right yet. It’s let down by what I think is crockery that lacks finesse and staff that share the same attribute. If you’re selling a glass of wine at the same rate at which I’d buy a bottle, both need to be far more refined than they are now.
The Chef was off, and the food was markedly inferior to what I ate during my two previous visits. I expected the service to be bad, but it was even worse. Items on the menu weren’t available as, in the words of our server, ‘they didn’t turn out well’.
I suggest confirming the Chef’s availability prior to visiting and expecting dhaba-style service. If you’re taking guests, ensure they’re just as hard core about food as you are, else the service will ruin your evening.
China Doll’s rating is now ‘Average’; down from a ‘Thumbs Up’.
25th February 2013: A friend, highly trusted, told me yesterday about a recent, highly negative experience at China Doll, that was all about the food. I’m sad that the restaurant couldn’t keep their great food going for more than a few months. China Doll is now no longer recommended and is a ‘thumbs down’.
Again, back to the food. Here, I’m going to go with the meal Indu and I shared, as there were more dishes in the main courses and no dietary restrictions, which led to a greater number of textures and flavors on our plates. I piled rice into a bowl requested for this purpose and topped it with generous ladle-fulls of Water Boiled Lamb, then proceeded to make little piles of the eggplant, smoked pork and cabbage dishes on my plate. This allowed me to savor my rice and lamb separately, interspersing it with flavor and texture relief; soft+crunchy (eggplant), spicy+crunchy (cabbage), smoky+chewy+meaty+crunchy (pork) all with soft, spicy, crunchy and meaty mouthfuls from the topped up bowl.
We finished with deliciously understated, batter fried sweet potatoes glazed with sugar syrup and coated with sesame seeds, where the only thing I’d change would be the thickness of the sugar syrup, to stop it congealing on the plate.
Our meal experience at China Doll was superlative to say the least, unrivaled by any of my existing favorites, Gung included. I cannot say enough good things about the food at China Doll and urge you to visit as soon as you possibly can. Ignore the service please; the food is well worth it.
After you’re sitting back satiated, ask yourself:
Q: Who can cook the best Chinese food in Delhi?
A: Zhu Can!