The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has an iconic scene in which an early hominid ancestor of man bludgeons a rival to death with a large bone and ecstatically throws it upward. It transforms into a spacecraft in heavenly flight. This is the bone, or its 10th cousin once removed, that New Punjab Club turns into the best tandoori lamb you’ve ever eaten – in fact, the best tandoori dish you’ve ever eaten – in fact, one of the best things you’ve ever eaten.
It isn’t merely a chop, but the entire rib bone (a double bone, to be exact), extracted from the ribcage, trimmed scrupulously of all fat, with a large eye of tenderloin at the end. It’s thuggishly large and would be perfect for bludgeoning a rival or, say, an irritating neighbour. Tender, smoky, lamby but not gamy, it is brilliantly spiced and magnificently charred (slightly beyond caramelisation, but short of incineration) to the achingly elusive point of perfection. It hits you upside the head with its salty, juicy, meaty, carbonised flavour. This by itself warrants New Punjab Club’s one Michelin star. Served with potato mash and half a tandooried onion to help to buffer the meat concussion, it sends you heavenward.
New Punjab Club seems crafted by set designers, casting directors and costumers and conjures a time when the British were overlords in India. At the door is a turbaned greeter. You, the customer, are amongst the Raj, who, as is your right, are waited upon by deferential, stubbled waiters in uniform while you absorb iced gin against the heat and malaria and general ennui. It feels as if you’re in a play. It feels as if you should take up cricket. And were this the United States, it feels as if the entire concept of this restaurant (which hearkens to a racist time and place) would get you in hot soup. But this is Hong Kong.
Your gin drink, from the gin trolley of course (how have you lived all your life without one?), is easily the best mixed drink to be had in Hong Kong and possibly the greatest mixed drink you’ve ever had in your life. To be honest, you’ve only had one of their mixed drinks (and you haven’t had all the drinks in Hong Kong, though you’re working on it), but it’s so delicious, you feel no need to try others. It’s a gin and tonic with a piece of dried grapefruit and kaffir lime leaf suspended above it on a long toothpick. They use a small torch to set the kaffir lime leaves on fire, then quickly douse them in the gin, thus releasing all their essential oils into the drink. The drink is chilled by transparent ice cubes (which take a lot of work or a fancy machine to make), for nothing less will do. They cost HK$178, about US$23 dollars. So what? Good medicine is expensive.
The food is richly detailed. A starting plate of peanuts is served warm atop a banana leaf with a relish of minced spring onion and jalapeño. There is a slice of lime to squeeze over. They’re fabulous. Maximally munchable.
There is a troika of chutneys: a jangling mint that is a perfect foil for the lamb, pineapple that you think is too sweet (but your wife loves) and a chilli-onion chutney that pushes you right up against your capsaicin threshold and is fiendishly flavourful. You love it so much, you eat it by itself.
Your group loves the keema pau (spiced mutton), served with milk buns that are brioche-like, shellacked with ghee (you think) and toasted perfectly. The mutton is minced, sauced and sprinkled with deep-fried potato sticks, a delightful textural contrast. You put this on top of the milk bun slices, anoint with chutney or raita and eat like the sloppy joes served in your junior-high cafeteria. It’s heretical, you know, but you think it would be delicious on top of spaghetti.
The tandoori gobi (tandooried cauliflower) with raita and green mango is as fine a cauliflower dish as you’ve ever had. Green mango is rarely seen outside Thai restaurants, so it’s nice to see it here.
Everyone at the table fights for the dal makhani (lentils stewed with fenugreek), a bomb cyclone of flavour and ideal with their perfectly cooked basmati rice and a spoon of their cooling raita, jewelled handsomely with pomegranate seeds.
And everyone but you agrees that the the saag paneer (spinach, soft cheese and garlic) is delish. Fuddled by demon rum (well, in this case, gin), you have no recollection of this dish at all. Could it be that your companions snarfed it all up before you had a chance to try it? Knowing them as you do, you wouldn’t put it past them.
The butter naan are great, blistered and pliable, but the paneer kulcha are greater, stuffed with what you think is molten cottage cheese. You think that neither would be hurt by a pinch of fine sea salt.
Dessert, which few would accuse of subtlety, riffs sweet and salty, a pudding-like banana cake with popcorn ice cream and toffee sauce. Overwhelmed by the sweetness, you mildly like it. Overwhelmed by the sweetness, your wife adores it. Popcorn ice cream by itself would hold little interest for you, but played against the toffee, it’s somehow just right.
This is food created by chefs within an international restaurant group (Black Sheep) with an international knowledge base, not just Indian. It allows New Punjab Club to bring ingredients and techniques to its cuisine (deep-fried potato sticks atop the keema pau, popcorn ice cream) and details to its service (transparent ice cubes, a gin trolley) that few experienced Indian chefs or restaurateurs would likely know. It provides the boost that makes this restaurant so extra special.
Not convinced by the food? Then go for the loo, possibly the world’s best, which you wish you could duplicate in your own home. It’s all mirrored gold tile. Muted light. An intricate mirror. The moment you walk in, a kind of monkish chant starts, so as you wee, you are induced to contemplate the meaning of life. Which surely involves another one of their gin and tonics with kaffir lime.
As long as you can keep nicking coins from your children’s college funds, you’ll return again and again to this exceptional restaurant, New Punjab Club.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 4.5
Given the gushing review, you may wonder why this restaurant doesn’t receive all 5s. The reason is that though it is truly terrific, remarkable really, it still doesn’t quite reach the high orbit of Little Kitchen (now shut), Amber (reformatted) or the transcendental Restaurant Floreyn in Amsterdam. Its lamb ribs do by themselves, but as a totality, the restaurant resides half a notch below these exemplars of preternatural greatness. It is ever so slightly cramped. Sometimes the service feels unfocused, as though the waiters are a bit jaded from repeating their lines too often. And there are no specials on the menu, which suggests a kitchen that is template bound, shy of taking risks. You can easily say though that out of the dozens of Indian restaurants you’ve visited in your life, including those in India, this is, by an order of magnitude, the best.