The thought of visiting hotel restaurants, by and large, fills me with dread. It really is a mishap that I’ve eaten in one too many. This is actually all a numbers game and the hotel’s core business revolves around selling rooms, so the restaurant is just an add-on intended for the rabbit caught in the headlights. Your flight was delayed, you’re exhausted after a 12-hour journey, you’re hungry and who cares about sifting through reviews of all those local eateries that you’ve earmarked. You’ve been eating plastic airline meals all day and now as a matter of urgency, you’re hankering for a gratifying dinner. In your somnambulant state, you’ll happily pay for a second class, overpriced meal and you’ve reached that point where you couldn’t give a jot. Sound familiar?
Then, there are those hotel restaurants that break the mould and leave you reminiscing long after you’ve left. Mumbai’s iconic grande dame, the Taj Mahal Palace exudes elegance, sophistication and colonial charm. This majestic landmark was built by the industrialist Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata in response to his humiliation of being turned away by another Mumbai institution for being Indian, during the days of the British Empire, so the story goes. The hotel, overlooking the Arabian Sea and subsequently the Gateway of India; a monument to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary on the waterfront at Apollo Bunder, opened its doors in 1903. It has had its fair share of adversities and during World War I was converted into a military hospital. One November night in 2008 saw one of the most violent terrorist attacks in Mumbai’s history, with armed terrorists storming the hotel, turning uber luxury into a war zone, causing untold damage. Moving on from these difficult times, the hotel has displayed a resilience that knows no bounds and its restoration has elevated the hotel into a historical monument. For Mumbaikers, the attack on the hotel was personal and tantamount to it being in their own homes, so in the aftermath, they remain very protective.
Negotiating the streets of Mumbai, you encounter an unabbreviated sensory overload. The street food hawkers present a dizzying array of choices and the stalls are ubiquitous. It’s a mecca for street food and everyone from local workers to food fashionistas will go to snack on the addictive Pani Puri, a fried hollow semolina shell, filled with crushed chickpeas and spicy water creating a flavour explosion on your palate. Mumbai’s streets are congested with traffic, vociferous headache-inducing honking, which is chaotic and overwhelming. Coming towards the Gateway of India and seeing the iconic Florentine-esque red dome atop the hotel which has now become a symbol of Indian pride, I’m overcome with a warm, familiar feeling, fuelled with euphoria. This hotel has created a wealth of childhood memories for me. I would watch with my face pressed up against the window, from the Sea Lounge, (famed for its afternoon tea), the ferries bobbing up and down on the sea, transporting boatloads of tourists to and from Elephanta Island. My parents would elegantly sip tea, pinky out, and my disregard for etiquette would lead me to run up and down the grand cantilever staircase.
Returning to the hotel after decades, post the 2008 attack, creates a mishmash of emotions. I’m drawn to the redness of the painting behind the reception in the lobby, which miraculously survived the attack unblemished. It is a triptych by M.F. Husain, the prolific modern Indian artist, titled Three stanzas of the New Millennium. The hotel is steeped in history, where royalty, politicians, Bollywood and Hollywood celebs, visitors and locals all rub shoulders. Every corridor is graced with artwork, but the most poignant is the minimalist marble memorial inscribed with the thirty-one names of the fallen.
My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to drop in on one of the restaurants, The Golden Dragon, which in my opinion is the proverbial jewel in the hotel’s crown. Patrons of this Mumbai stalwart have been feasting here since 1973, myself included. The restaurant has delighted several generations of my family and is where many of our personal milestones were celebrated. The Golden Dragon’s new avatar, may not have the swanky aura of the hotel’s Wasabi by Morimoto, which has put Japanese food onto India’s gastronomic map, but it’s like an old friend who you meet after years and just carry on from where you left off, as if there has never been a time lag. I am greeted by the imperial golden dragon at the entrance and without further ado, the Taj hospitality comes into full force and I’m seated seamlessly. Unequivocally, the restaurant designed in tones of gold and ivory, now has a more contemporary vibe, with a new live kitchen which makes great viewing of this culinary theatre. Millennials are dotted all around the room, pausing proceedings to photograph each dish as it arrives, deftly setting the scene with cocktails, appetisers and cutlery, just for that perfect instagrammable shot. Woe betide anyone who tries to dive in for the first bite.
The Dragon, as it’s affectionately known as, by its established clientele, has a staggeringly impressive menu, lovingly curated by bona fide expat chefs. My default button of wanting to order everything on the menu kicks in. The signature dishes, song of the dragon cooked in a bamboo basket with blistering fiery chillies, beggar’s chicken (which requires 24 hours notice), wrapped and baked for hours on end, konjee crispy lamb, scorching on cast iron, are to die for and should really come with a health warning. You can’t come to Mumbai and not experience the local jewel of the sea, so the pan-fried pomfret with Szechuan chillies and soya is a must and totally steals the headlines. The omg moment is when I savour this utterly delectable fish, native to the sub-continent, with its crispy exterior and fragile white flesh. Oh and P.S., the crispy lotus root with chilli honey is still seducing my thoughts. The desserts don’t jump out at me, however, clearly some adept kitchen wizardry has been performed to create the delicate, distinctive, creamy chilled mango pudding. There’s no cutting edge cooking here and I’m not convinced that the food is entirely archetypal Chinese, but the Golden Dragon is a restaurant where I could eat forever, albeit somewhat expensive. I marvel at the genuine care and dedication of the staff who diligently go above and beyond the call of duty. Personally, I’ve been swathed in a blanket of nostalgia. I was first introduced to this restaurant by my grandmother and I’m anticipating bringing my own grandson soon enough.