If you always thought that Sichuan cuisine is just about those popularised spicy Chinese dishes, you must visit China INC at Taj Santacruz, Mumbai, to change your mind. Although the combination of Sichuan peppercorns (Ma) and dry red peppers (La) is a distinctive feature, Sichuan cuisine also has other flavours like salty, sweet, flowery (Sichuan peppercorns), bitter, smoky, etc. Sichuan cuisine is bold enough. It is all about how a chef balances the spices to bring out the best of the Oriental flavours to your palate!
We were seated in a cosy dining area of the spanking new China INC, affording us a unique view of the interiors of Taj Santacruz. We loved the huge glass dragon that hung from the ceiling. The swirl of gold added a majestic touch to it. The transparent and mauve hand-blown glasses and crystal bulbs, against a backdrop of a warm yellow fabric, resonated the theme of the Great Orient. A warm yellow hue in its décor was very soothing with wooden and marble flooring accompanied by glimpses of bronze.
For us, both the food and the drinks were worth the experience. At China INC, one can choose from a range of 11 speciality teas, including the Jasmine tea and the Artisan Flowering tea. We were offered a subtle Jasmine tea, which was a good match with the delicacies served there.
Not only that, China INC’s cocktails are specially crafted to match and balance the cuisine. Their signature cocktails include the Vodka-based Sanlituntini and Szechuan Smash, and Scotch Whisky Based Golden Spice Apple Pie! We were offered another special cocktail made with Old Monk Rum, lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon, apple juice and Angostura bitters. What made it stand out was the addition of whole Sichuan peppers!
The wine-pairing was done thoughtfully. At first, we were offered a fine Italian Spumante, made with Moscato Bianco grapes. The slightly sweet flavour of this Italian sparkling wine was perfect with the spicy dishes in the menu. Later, white and red wines followed. The Sommelier suggested that Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz and German Riesling pair well with Sichuan dishes.
At China INC, get to eat some of the best contemporary Chinese food as well as other all-time winners. The menu focusses on Sichuan and Cantonese cuisines, along with some specialities from the Xiao Long Bao region of Shanghai. You must-try their iconic Congee Crispy Lamb and the Peking Duck: the latter being a traditional Beijing duck served with classic condiments and pancake.
In the Bouche, we loved the canapes. The Corn and Asparagus Pearls tasted yum. The Kimchi, Pickled Kabucha, Five Spice Tofu, Sichuan Chicken was also quite interesting.
The Skewered Chilli Butter Garlic Prawns with Sweet Chilli Relish was spot-on. The juicy and slightly spicy prawns were doubly loaded with good flavours of butter and garlic. A must-order!
China INC has an interesting menu of dimsums and starters. They do have exquisite dimsum tasting platters, which is something that I personally look forward to. Be it the Spiced Chicken Dumplings, the creamy and healthy Steamed Edamame with Truffle Dumplings, the Chilean Sea Bass Dumplings or the Spicy Coriander and Vegetable Bao—each was delicious in its own right. My favourite was the Spiced Chicken Dumpling.
Then came the Crispy Fried Prawn, Oat and Curry Leaves. It was very well executed and tasted great, although the presence of crisp-fried curry leaves was something that I wasn’t expecting. The oat crumb was crispy and golden. The Crispy Calamari with Golden Roasted Garlic came as a pleasant package of flavour and texture melodies in our palate.
If you got tired of eating the same kinds of mushrooms (Button and Shiitake) in most of the Oriental restaurants in Mumbai, there are strong chances that the Stir-fry Shimjei Mushrooms with Dry Red Chilli and Green Beans will instantly please you. We loved the dish because these mushrooms weren’t overcooked, so these retained their firmness to a good extent. Another wonderfully understated dish with real respect for the ingredients was the Crunchy Vegetable Pepper Salt. I loved the freshness of this dish.
Among the soups, the Spicy Lemon Coriander Soup was outstanding in terms of comfort, flavour and texture. The light and healthy Lemon-Coriander Soup was perked up with zesty bites and textures of white and black fungus, Goji berries and a few Edamame beans. It was one of the best Asian soups that I have had in a long time! Although the menu read that it had to be served with a Mantau bun, the latter, however, didn’t appear on the table.
There were excellent dishes in the Main Course as well! The Sichuan Poached Chicken, Chinese Cabbage and Shiitake Mushrooms at the China INC was worth fighting for. Although a bit on the spicier side, it was wonderfully balanced.
For our palate, the Chilean Steamed Sea Bass was the perfect choice. The seafood was so fresh that you can actually feel it in each bite. Ingredients like sizzled ginger, chilli and spring onions added flavour to the steamed dish. This dish is a perfect choice for health freaks, I must say.
The hero of all the dishes has to be the Stir-Fried Slice Lamb “Yunnan” Style with Red Chilli and Chinese Celery. We strongly recommend this dish. The lamb was succulent and oozing with flavour. Chinese celery imparted a degree of warmth and completeness to the dish. Red chillies added the heat, but thankfully, the spice level was just perfect to enjoy these beauties! This dish was quite substantial.
Broccolini can tate that good? China INC’s Stir-Fried Kai-Lan is the perfect choice for those who love eating crunchy greens. I loved the fact that the Kai-lan retained its colour. Chef Nitin at China INC explained that they take utmost care to cook these dishes in traditional Chinese ways, and the retention of the natural green colour in that dish was an implication of the same. These were cooked in sliced garlic and Thai chillies. This is a must-have vegetarian dish here. I believe, simple and soulful vegetarian dishes, such as the Seasonal Vegetables with Black Pepper Sauce, are also always good to order, along with other delicacies.
And of course, the classic Stewed Beancurd “Ma Po” Style was there in the menu, and it was good, too! It was cooked with vegetables and chilli bean paste. If you love spicy Sichuan dishes, go for this. However, I wasn’t as taken by the Home-Style Udon Noodles. But the Clay Pot Rice was very good and I loved the earthy flavour of dried morels in them. There was Steamed Jasmine Rice, too.
We were served a dainty dessert. I was glad to see that like most Chinese restaurants in Mumbai, China INC did not serve me the same repetitive Chinese desserts that I got tired of eating. There was a beautiful plate of Batter-Fried Milk Cake with Chilled Rambutan. The dish was quite interesting and I appreciated the subtle flavours. The crust of the milk cake wad deep-fried till it was golden and crispy. The chef also made sure that the milk cake doesn’t have that extra oil seeping down into the plate. It was completely non-oily to touch and looked very inviting. Served with chilled Rambutan, the dish had a nice temperature contrast. The only thing that was quite disturbing about this dessert was that the milk cake was extremely hot, even when we ate it with a piece of the chilled Rambutan! I would suggest the chef to be sure of this point before they serve this dessert to their guests.
We loved the Chinese delicacies at the China INC, Taj Santacruz. The food was excellent and prepared with great passion and care. In each dish, we enjoyed the play of flavours of the Orient without any lip-quivering. The dishes were cooked with authentic Chinese ingredients like Kai-lan, dried morels, Sichuan peppercorns, Shimjei mushrooms, etc. What’s more, the food was paired with the right kinds of wines and cocktails. Next time around, we would love to taste other house specialities like Wok-Fried Lobster, Moo Shu Lamb, Braised Eggplant, Assorted Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoot in Chilli Oil and their Date and Banana Pancakes. Overall, the experience at China INC was a great one and we will definitely visit there again very soon for the sake of tasting original Chinese food. The crowds should continue to pour into this Mumbai newcomer. China INC is here to stay!