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Their playlist includes Johnny Rivers burning up his Stratocaster with Secret Agent Man. Their candlelit loo vibrates with deep, subwoofer chants that tremble your soul. Their ice-cube-filled urinal is as captivating as a carnival shooting gallery, no man would disagree. So, before breakfast even starts, the landing zone is hot.
It starts catawampus with orange juice bittered by peel oil, a baffling unforced error. Instantly righting itself, New Punjab Club’s mighty kitchen buckles down and begins to seriously deliver. [Editor’s note: read David’s previous review of New Punjab Club here]
Jutting like gnarled fingers, deep-fried pasilla and Anaheim chilies battered in chickpea flour are swiftly brought in order to reach you crisp. Chickpea batter is typically heavy and sodden, but by the addition of rice flour, this batter is almost tempura light. There is a distinct, though not punishing, nip of capsaicin. Dosed by mint chutney (which they should bottle and sell), these peppers could not have sacrificed their lives for a worthier cause.
With the chillies come warm, spiced peanuts. Though a small side, the kind given scant attention elsewhere, here it receives the same cheffy attention as the mains. You speak with Chef Palash Mitra – thoughtful, articulate, cordial, ascended from the kitchen trenches – and learn that they are coated in chopped Poona onion (imported from India), green chilli, dried green mango powder, salt, sugar and dried fenugreek. There is fresh lime to squeeze over. Thus a simple item becomes transcendent and puts you in danger of derailing your life through substance abuse.
There is also tamarind chutney (bottle it and sell it, please) and wonderful plugs of cold, seedless watermelon to dulcify your palate. New Punjab Club has a Michelin star, and these meticulous sides are one good reason why.
House-made chai, redolent of cardamom, is served from elegant porcelain. If a snuggle could be turned into a beverage, this would be it. How can you ever drink Starbucks’ chai again after such good brew?
Makki di roti, sarson da saag is like a hot corn tortilla but richer, topped by a green mash, a lump of butter melting lusciously, charred corn kernels, green chilli, chopped onion and shreds of jaggery, a dark, unrefined sugar made from sugar cane. The flavours, the jaggery in particular, hit unusual notes, like music played in a minor key. But what great music it is. Effulgent with corn flavour, the flatbread is made from corn kernels imported from Punjab and ground in-house. The green mash is made from mustard greens, also imported from India, as well as spinach and choy sum, a local green. When you think of cornmeal flatbread, you think of Mexican tortillas. But nothing in the Mexican food vernacular is really like this. From the flatbread itself to its topping, this great dish is unto itself.
Masala omelette, paratha, a frittata made from regal Japanese Taiyouran eggs, is brought to you sizzling and slightly overcooked on the bottom, flavoured with turmeric and bits of tomato. Your wife, who demands two poached eggs on toast every Saturday and Sunday morning from her personal pool boy (aka husband), loves this. Jazzed with mint chutney (which would make flip-flops delicious), you like it, but were it not on the set menu, you’d never order it again. It needs a kick in the pants. Could they not add some cheese? Some pulled lamb? A razzle-dazzle relish? Or how about putting the omelette inside a naan? Or how about breaking a poppadum into it tableside? And why an omelette? Why not a scrambled egg breakfast burrito made with a cheese naan? Or lamb bacon, lettuce and tomato folded into a cheese naan? These would be insane! Designer pizzas overtook the world in the 1980s, so why not designer naan now?
Somewhere in this delicious onslaught a roti – pliable, blistered – is served hot from the tandoor, exhaling steam. It has an incredible crumb, elastic but taffy-like, resistant to your pull. You would welcome a dusting of sea salt, but that trifle aside, wow! On top is a particularly delicious knob of butter imported from India. Butter on hot, fresh, blistered roti is a pleasure you have never before experienced but that is now essential to your life. Chef Mitra explains that this is Amul butter from Anand in Punjab, half cow, half buffalo. He uses unsalted Amul on the corn flatbread, but here it’s salted. Is there some kind of jam, tamarind or guava perhaps, they could serve with this? Or coconut chutney? Or would this tip you into the abyss?
Your first main course is amritsari tawa paneer, soft cheese, globe artichokes, fenugreek butter. The artichoke heart and inner stem is extracted from the globe, which you know, from much experience, is brutal yet delicate work that endangers your fingers and even your entire hand, much like extracting your corgi from inside a crocodile. It is caramelised yet crisp, no easy balance. For lovers of the thistle, it is bliss. You implore New Punjab Club to provide more than just two per plate though. It needs four at least, if not six. Paneer – which New Punjab Club makes in-house from Indian buffalo milk – is not your favourite cheese, but your wife, more inclined to mild tastes, loves it. It is served softened by heat, singed lightly. Is there no sharper cheese in the Indian pantry? There are also wonderful, lightly charred cremini mushrooms. All ingredients are coated in “gunpowder”, ground, dry-roasted, spiced lentil chutney, which adds a satisfying toasty-spicy flavour and texture.
Bhuna masala chaanp, braised lamb ribs (really chops) served with a side of kohlrabi. Never before have you known such an exquisite cut of meat subjected to a braise. Usually these darlings would be grilled medium or medium rare. Almost any other restaurant would use a plainer cut such as lamb shoulder, which would do nicely. But “nicely” is not sufficient for New Punjab Club. They’re deluxe and delicious, devoid of any excess fat or tendon, and the gravy in which they lounge is deep, slightly sweet, gently spiced, comforting.
Another flatbread arrives from the tandoor, blistered like the roti but puffier and less pliable, nubbed by sesame seeds, sheened by oil, touched by cardamom, chilli and saffron. In your view, it too could use a light dusting of salt. It gives off the same rhapsodic scent you get when you walk by the open door of a bakery on a spring morning. It’s perfect for dipping in this gravy or just by itself.
Kissed by heat, the kohlrabi (so easy to overcook) is perfect. Given the stupefying complexity of their cuisine, it is remarkable how the kitchen maintains precise control over these granular details.
Your favourite main is the McLeod karhai murgh, three-yellow chicken, tomatoes, sour cream. This local chicken lives up to its reputation as remarkably flavourful and juicy, on par with the premium French poulets. It comes to you bubbling fiercely in a wok within a ring of lactic braising juices caramelised on the wok’s interior, which is so flavourful you scrape it off with a spoon and eat it by itself or on roti. The danger with chicken braises is that despite the liquid, the chicken, unmarbled, dries out. Not this. In order that the different cuts of chicken – breast, thigh, leg – cook optimally, they are added at different points in the cooking process. Once more, you’re struck by the precise culinary control.
A fine meal needs the happy clutter of many dishes in just the same way that a fine family gathering needs the happy clutter of many children. There are chunks of spiced potato sprinkled with cumin seed (which you love), a timbale of lentils, one of chickpeas and your favourite, perfectly trimmed and sliced baby carrots flash-poached along with other veg in a splash of salt water. The carrot, sliced lengthways and somehow peeled (it’s so small, it’s hard to see how they do it), is adorably sized for a hamster. Each dish, carrot aside, is uniquely spiced, tinged lightly by capsaicin.
Which leads to the gin and tonic, a cocktail evolved to go with such food. You drink the best you’ve ever had, what Zeus and Hera must surely drink on Mount Olympus, suffused with kaffir-lime-leaf aromatics released by torch just before serving. You love their transparent ice cubes (you can’t say why – they’re just better than opaque). They’re served from a gin trolley. Like all successful men, you have a monogrammed hip flask, an ivory moustache comb, a zebra-hide razor strop and a sword cane (for the inevitable duel), but no gin trolley. You badly want one.
You do think that an excellent dry Alsatian Gewürztraminer or Riesling should be available by the glass. In fact, why not a flight? That would be apt, delicious and so classy. Inexplicably, Alsatian Gewürztraminers and Rieslings are under-represented on almost all wine lists. This should change.
Like the satisfying ending to a story or symphony, a fine meal needs a satisfying dessert. Given the complexity and weight of this meal, it’s a challenge. But they stick the landing with pista phirni, slow-cooked ground rice, pistachio and buffalo milk, blinged by silver leaf, hand-beaten no less. It’s a smooth pudding with an intense pistachio flavour. There is a cupola of pistachio meringue. You enjoy the textural contrasts and deep pistachio immersion.
Then, like a knock at the door after all the guests have gone, another dessert arrives. You’re full and warily eye it. It’s a small cake that comes with popcorn ice cream and toffee sauce, subtle as a sumo wrestler. You pick at it, but your wife goes full piranha. Perhaps it’s the salt in the cold (scrumptious) popcorn ice cream against the sweet, warm cake and toffee that frenzies her. You say it’s banana cake. Your wife says carrot. Strife is nigh. Chef Mitra re-establishes harmony by explaining it is banana-carrot. Thus, he can add “Marriage Counselor” to his job title.
More chai is served to mollify your murmuring middle.
The service is attentive and personable, though there are occasional traffic jams owing to the close quarters. Your server is knowledgable about the food. This contrasts with a number of swell places in Hong Kong where the servers are woefully ignorant of the food (and even less of the drink) they serve. The servers at New Punjab Club, and all the Black Sheep restaurants you’ve been to, strike you as enthusiastic teammates – how it should be.
You’re delighted by the cutlery, specifically the knife of solid heft, made from Damascus steel. It is so finely wrought that you can actually see its grain. It must be hand-washed and polished.
The playlist is fab, but it doesn’t include Jimi Hendrix’s Watchtower. How can this be? It is vital they add it. Little Wing too.
The meal, without drinks, gives fine value at HK$798 per person.
New Punjab Club is the only Indian restaurant you know that does not use the ubiquitous Indian spice blend garam masala. Chef Mitra believes that using it tends to make all Indian dishes taste too much alike. He explains that he intentionally spices his dishes mildly so that the flavours of the primary ingredients shine, unobscured. Waxing foodosophical, he adds, “As sorrow accentuates joy, salt accentuates sweet.”
The sourcing of ingredients astonishes: mustard greens, lemons, onions, buffalo milk, dried corn, butter and who knows what else from India. The kitchen purchases in modest quantities and shops often in order to maximise freshness. The food is pretty, but not runway-model pretty. Unlike some tony restaurants that prioritise visual Viagra, Chef Mitra believes first in “flavour, then aroma, then looks”. Amen.
Some believe there is a causal link between a chef’s arm tattoos or fluorescent hair and their kitchen mojo. Chef Mitra has no visible tattoos and his hair isn’t pink. Nonetheless his cuisine is thrillingly original within its genre. It is the edible manifestation of great talent honed by years of hard play on the culinary pitch. Besides his food, a combobulation of fine details – from the cutlery, to the playlist, to the loo, to the life-altering gin and tonic, to the service – strongly affirm New Punjab Club’s starred stature. This restaurant is buff and powerfully dedicated to staying that way. You and your wife are powerfully dedicated fans!
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 5
In addition to numerous dinners, you’ve eaten two breakfasts at New Punjab Club. As a musician might improvise a tune, the second breakfast was slightly different from the first. This review reflects most of the first breakfast, with a detail or two from the second. Both were terrific. [Editor’s note: New Punjab Club’s breakfast tasting menu is served on Friday–Sunday]
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.