Ming Palace, the Chinese on Colaba Causeway, Mumbai, could easily pass off for a restaurant in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Half the clientele seems to be Oriental (mainly Korean, but also Chinese, Singapore and Malaysian, and occasionally a Japanese bowing away to kingdom come).
Chinese voices fill the restaurant, two Chinese girls in slit dresses float around, showing guests to their tables, and the decor is Chinese, from the chairs and crockery to the design of the staircase that leads to the upper levels and the cosmic paintings on the walls. But the main point is the clientele. If so many expatriate Orientals dine there, then the food must be authentic.
Last week, the place completed one year. And, to mark the occasion, Proprietor Rajabali H. Meghani invited me for lunch. It was my first visit to Ming's Palace and I was impressed. First, there were several familiar faces, Manager Joy Chang (ex-Mandarin, as was his father before him), and Executive Chef David Lee, ex-Mandarin (for 14 years and now heading a small battalion of nine cooks). We sat at a round table, facing a little pool with water splashing and gold fish swimming. Around us was the gloss of fine teak and rosewood, with stairs going up to the main dining area, and a floor above with its little terrace garden and an area that could converted into a banquet room. Mr. Chang explained: "We can do a buffet for groups of ten to 50, at Rs.350 per head, a ten-course menu of four starters, four entrees, choice of soup, rice, noodles and dessert." I'll keep that in mind, I said. Meanwhile, to our own meal.
The cooking is mainly Cantonese, though there are items from other regions, and there is a long list of soups and seafoods, including guaranteed fresh squid, either served in a black bean sauce or with broccoli or Chinese cabbage. I have a great fondness for squid, very few restaurants make it, and fewer still make it well. It is either undercooked and rubbery or overcooked and hard. Chef Lee takes care of it personally, discarding the legs (arms?), the head, keeping only the body, cutting it into round rings, cooking it carefully with garlic, button mushrooms, a light batter on the squid.
But to begin at the beginning, for starters we had crab claws stuffed with minced prawns, battered and deep fried (Rs.150). And, from a square brass brazier (charcoal sigri to you and me), placed on the table, we helped ourselves to barbecued chicken (Rs 125). The chicken meat was almost glazed, easy to eat.
I may mention that the starters on the menu also included, the now popular in all Chinese restaurants salt and pepper prawns (Rs.95), the usual suima and dumplings (Rs.150 per dozen), and gin chicken. I do not know if they serve the last-mentioned with mint sauce, I hope they do.
For soup, I asked for the Ming Palace Special Soup (Rs.100), a thick soup, with minced toful, plus chicken, plus crab meat, with egg white. There were the regular sweet corn and chicken, wonton and noodle soups, and tum yum, whose ingredients were proudly displayed as coming from Bangkok, direct, but there was also a more exotic chicken Chollsui Soup. I understand that it is made with Chinese rice wine. The wine is homemade from China Town, Calcutta, it comes in a bottle and is actually a rice paste, pink in colour. It is mixed in the broth. A bowl of the Chollsui costs Rs.70. The restaurant also serves a hot pot soup, the steamer placed on the table and six diners sitting around it and serving themselves. The price, a modest Rs.350; divide that by six.
We shall now move on to fish, chicken, beef and lamb. Unfortunately, there is no pork at Ming Palace, and, while I agree that a Chinese restaurant without pork is like China without Taiwan, this cannot be helped as the proprietor is a Muslim. Come to think of it, it is surprising how many Chinese restaurants are there in Mumbai, Muslim-owned and pork-less, starting with the Chinese section of Delhi Darbar.
But the seafood is more than adequately represented with crabs and lobsters (priced as per size), whole pomfrets steamed and deep fried, Mandarin pickled fish, and pomfrets served with Chinese cabbage, in oyster sauce, red chilli sauce, and Hu Nan style. Plus a variety of prawns, done satay, chilli dry, and in orange sauce (marmalade and orange squash), very popular with the Parsi diners from Cusrow Baug across the street, especially Mr. Hosi Merchant's family.
The restaurant is actually at Electric House, opposite the BEST depot. It is where the department store, Meena Bazar was. There is a valet parking service, a doorman to open the glass doors for you, and two hostesses to greet you. Lunch extends till late in the afternoon, and last orders for dinner are at mid-night. With half the shoe shops shuttered down on the Causeway, Ming's Palace, arguably, is the only attraction left on the road. Though that would be unfair to Leopold's, whose popularity as a meeting place has stretched over 50 years.
The poultry section (only chicken, no duck) includes a full roast chicken, marinated in soya sauce and deep fried. You may ask to have it carved at the table. There is a Korean chicken, shredded, with lettuce, chillis and black bean sauce, and a chicken cooked delicately in sesame sauce, with garlic-ginger paste. More unusual is steamed chicken with red dates and button mushrooms. You may also order teppan yaki, satay and lemon chickens. I shall skip the tenderloin and lamb sections, but remember to ask for the Chinese pao, either plain, or stuffed with beef or chicken, for the gravy dishes.
Keep place for the noodles or the rice, and specify either soft noodles or the rice, and specify either soft noodles or steamed rice. The Ming Specials have slices of chicken and squid, cooked in oyster sauce, topping the noodles or the rice. Both a meal by themselves. Price Rs.110. Or order the chicken mun fan (Rs.85), the finest quality basmati steamed with the chicken pieces, and with black and button mushrooms. It is served in a clay pot with a long handle, though not cooked in it. Style, I suppose.
And one dessert, before I thank my host and get up. It is a creation of Chef DAvid Lee, the fruit-nut money ice-cream. The cake is made out of walnut, cashew nut, date, fresh cream, very rich, it is wrapped in a thin wanton skin, and deep fried. Served with vanilla ice-cream. You hold the cake by the crisp wanton skin and bite into it, follow with a spoonful of ice-cream. Price Rs.95. Thank you, Mr. Lee.