Some years ago, at a South Delhi eatery that grandly announced it served "Chinese, Japanese, Mughlai" cuisine, I came upon a young Oriental couple and their two small children with the man muttering and gesticulating at the order-taker, who too was doing the same. Sensing help was needed, I walked up to him and asked if I could be of assistance.
"Oh, thank God, you speak English," he said, getting up and bowing. "This man, he tell me, Japanese, that this is Japanese food. This is good food, not Japanese food."
The point being made is that in those days and, indeed, even to the present day, you could pass off virtually anything as "Chinese food" but you certainly can't do that with Japanese cuisine, which is far more elaborate.
Thus, when, in 2000, the 74-cover Sakura fine diner opened its doors at the Metropolitan Hotel and Spa in the vicinity of Connaught Place, positioning itself as a speciality Japanese restaurant, arguably the national capital's first, there were many who wondered whether it would work.
It did work -- and how. Those were the days when the Indian economy was slowly opening up and increasing numbers of Japanese expatriates, led by car-maker Suzuki, were increasingly making New Delhi their home for varying periods of time.
Over the years, nationalities from other countries began coming in and Sakura saw the opportunity to reinvent itself as a heightened pan-Asian eatery.
"We have incorporated dishes from other Asian regions mixed with Japanese spice and herbs to create an extraordinary fusion of taste for our customers. The idea is to amalgamate expertise with novelty to create something magnifique," the Metropolitan's Head Chef, Swapnadeep Mukherjee, explained as a Wasabi Martini, a delectable combination of vodka, lemon juice and wasabi paste, arrived at the table.
"Also, when Japanese ingredients are mixed with pan-Asian dishes they truly elevate the palate, giving our customers something unique -- like salsa, mixed with Thai, Chinese and Japanese spices and herbs, helped us create a range of pan-Asian salads," Mukherjee continued as on cue a Som Tam salad appeared.
With raw papaya and long beans as the base, cherry tomatoes, palm sugar, lemon, roasted peanuts, chilis and garlic created a joyous cacophony of lingering flavours.
"We wanted our pan-Asian menu to be not a regular Asian menu and wanted to have a touch of our Sakura in it, so we infused Japanese herbs and spices after lot of R&D. Detailed trials were done before dishes from different Asian regions went into the final menu. Hence, the new pan-Asian menu is a fusion of dishes from Asian countries blended with Japanese spices to create a unique taste and flavour for our well-travelled guests," Mukherjee explained.
Proof of this was in the Wasabi Martini, the vodka blending seamlessly with the other ingredients.
For the main course, I decided to be a little adventurous and nibble at a combination of Prawn Schezwan, Foojing Rice, Geang Keaw Wan Pak (veg Thai curry) and stir-fried Chinese greens in black bean sauce; but before that there was to be a change in the cocktail -- this time an Orange Martini comprising vodka, orange juice and lemon juice.
Martinis are generally clear drinks but the different hues of the two served, combined with the greenery outside the restaurant's huge bay windows on a Sunday afternoon, made for an absolute sense of peace and tranquility.
The Prawn Schezwan was grilled to perfection, accompanied as it was by the martini. It was then time to dig in to the Foojing Rice -- chicken, green peas and scallion fried rice -- lay out some of the Thai curry and sprinkle on the greens. Each of the flavours came through, robustly complementing each other and not clashing.
Surprisingly, there was still room for more and up came a Kung Pao Chicken -- the magic lying in the sauce that was a combination of wine, soy sauce, sugar, onions, garlic, water chestnuts, peanuts, vinegar and chilli paste.
It made the tongue tingle, but ever so lightly and the martini served to enhance the experience.
Not surprisingly, the desert was a three way offering -- litchi with ice cream, date pancake with ice cream and coconut custard -- all unique in their own ways and had to be delved into one at a time so as not to muddle the flavours.
The ice cream provided the ideal accompaniment to the litchis and the date pancake was an interesting case of blowing cold and hot but then, dining out is all about what you make of the experience. The coconut custard was rather unusual, one having never come across such a combination before and it more than passed muster.
Was the proof of the pudding in the eating? It definitely was. Kanpai to that!
What: Sakura at The Metropolitan Hotel and Spa
Cost for two (without alcohol): Rs 3,000 plus tax
Timings: Lunch 12 noon-2.30 p.m.; Dinner6 p.m.-11 p.m.