Slice of Japan Pondicherry Cafe entrance
When The Pondicherry Café decides to take on a new event, they go all out to make sure everything is in sync with the theme – right from the food nametags to the attire of the hostess and waiters. The most recent venture for the restaurant was the Slice of Japan with Chef Kazuhiko Santo, who has had years of culinary experiences of working in close to 15 restaurants worldwide. Chef Santo has travelled extensively, taking his knowledge of his hometown cuisine wherever he goes; and we were thrilled to have had the chance to sample his food.
On entry, the hostess and waiters, all of who were dressed in kimonos, greeted us with the traditional ‘Konnichiwa’! It was so fascinating to see that it was not just about the celebration of Japanese food but also in ways about the culture. Oil-paper umbrellas and Japanese Lanterns with cherry blossom prints hung from the ceiling, while the buffet tables were decorated with cherry blossom designed nametags. One could even spot Yin-Yang symbols; and though it is originally a Chinese philosophical concept, the theory has its place in traditional Japanese philosophy too.
While we were going through the buffet, trying to decide what was going to go into our stomachs and what was not, we were introduced to Chef Santo who seemed cheerful even though he was busy making sure all the plates across the buffet were full. He took quite a lot of time out to explain the menu to us, dish by dish. Most of the food that was served were traditional dishes that one would generally find at a home cooked family meal. The dishes use a lot of the common spices like those of the Indian cuisine, like ginger, though the food does not have the ‘spiciness’ that we’re used to, which means it could taste bland for some people. Chef did also point out that since a lot of the ingredients are local ingredients found in India, it might taste different that what it actually is supposed to, but we think that makes this celebration of food a little more artful. There were so many dishes, that we’ve never even heard of because Indian version of Japanese food revolves only around Sushi, so this was a good experience to get a little more insights into the Japanese cuisine.
For drinks, we couldn’t be at a Japanese food festival and not try their traditional ‘rice wine’, Sake. It was served in style in a black tokkuri, a traditional ceramic flask and had to be drunk out of an ochoko, a matching cylindrical cup. The novelty of the drink soon wore off as it wasn’t like any ‘wine’ we’ve every tasted. The fermentation gives it a strong liquor taste, which can be unpleasant for some. Though the experience was great, we doubt we would ever order that again. Thankfully, we also got a Bourbon Martini; the sweet, warm whiskey was almost soothing to our throats after the sharp Sake.
For food, we decided to sample a little bit of most of the dishes laid out. We started out with the salads, of which the most traditional one was Yasai No Asazuke, that is an assortment of pickled vegetables. There was also a bacon and potato salad along with a Namasu, which is mix of raddish, carrots and chicken. There was also Kabocha (pumpkin) salad that we decided to skip. We decided to wash our salads down with a warm bowl of Udon noodle soup with pork and leek. The slightly salty soup was a perfect blend with the wheat flour Udon noodles. There were a couple of extras to the salad bar, like the traditional miso soup, kabocha nitsuke (that is a traditional Japanese style gravy) and Ankake Tofu, which was a shitake mushroom gravy with tofu, which we skipped past because our eyes were feasted on the next section: sushi!
We have to admit, the size of the section was a bit disappointing (we kind of expected a whole row of different kinds of sushi), but definitely got brownie point for taste and ingredients used. There was a vegetarian section too which we didn’t bother to venture into for obvious reasons. The non-vegetarian had the three main kinds of sushi that one would expect – the makizushi, the nigirizushi and sashimi. The makizushi is the regular sushi rolls with the nori wrapped around the sticky rice and meat; while the nigirizushi is a hand-formed mound of sticky rice topped with the meat piece; and the sashimi is plain thinly cut slices of meat. The variety of meat included the regulars like salmon, tuna, yellowtail, snapper but they also had the sweet eel, which happens to be our favorite! Even though the sushi was pretty simple, one could tell from the taste that all of it was really fresh, which actually is the most important part. There were chopsticks and wide sushi platters along with gari (pickled ginger), wasabi and soy sauce for those experienced sushi eaters.
For main course, though we were already stuffed by then, we sampled just the , though one could choose to eat it with some rice or noodles that were being prepared as per requirement at the live station. The Buta Shouge Yake was sliced pieces of pork in ginger sauce and was quite a pleasant flavor because the ginger wasn’t as over-powering as we thought. The Kara Age Curry was a chicken dish with the Kara Age which is the traditional version of a curry. The taste reminded us of ready-made noodle masala, which to us wasn’t a bad thing! The last was the Sakano Nitsuke which had red snapper fillets cooked in a Japanese sauce, which had subtle hints of fish sauce and soy. The fillets were soft and took on the saltiness of the sauces. Traditionally the red snapper is cooked as a whole fish, but since there wasn’t a bowl big enough and to accommodate the buffet system, it had to be filleted.
We’ve been here a number of times, and every single timec Pondicherry Café has always put on a good dessert show! The extreme corner is designated to cakes, puddings, Indian sweets and so much more. Even Chef Santo was thoroughly impressed and fascinated. Out of the entire section, the Caramel Kasutera and the Green Tea Cake were related to the Japanese festival, while the rest were just an assortment of sugary treats. The Green Tea Cake tasted a lot like plain vanilla but we assume that’s because green tea by itself doesn’t have a taste of its own. The green colour and the decoration was pretty intriguing though. The Caramel Kasutera is actually a dough of sponge cake, baked and then topped with a sticky caramel toffee. Out of the other assortments, we tried the mango coconut jelly, which was a good combination of flavors though we thought the texture of the jelly was a bit funny; and the white chocolate brownie – need we say more? We also sampled a sliver of the lemon raspberry dacquoise, which to be honest, wasn’t as great as it looked and tasted pretty much like ordinary cream cake; and the Paris Brest. That, was probably the most interesting piece of heaven we’ve ever tried. It reminded us of macaroons, but only bigger. The outer choux pastry sides were firm and sandwiched between them a creamy fruity filling that tasted like a mix of peach and passion fruit with hints of praline (which is generally the filling in a Paris Brest). Whatever it was, it was good!
Our favorites for the evening were the Udon noodle soup, the Namasu chicken salad, the sushi section – especially the eel and the Sakano Nitsuke, which we wish we could have tried with some noodles. Even though those were our top picks, everything else was surprisingly pleasant. It was a good starters guide to the Japanese cuisine and might have even given us a little more confidence to try the real deal in Japan!
Sofitel Hotel, C 57, Bandra Kurla Complex,
Bandra East, Mumbai