(Tan)door to heaven
The New Punjab Club, Wyndham Street
August 16 2019
Customer Care: 9.1
In the frantic casino of our whirlwind city, typhoon roulette ranks as one of more dangerous games to play. How often have Hong Kongers avidly tracked incoming cyclones on the HKO app alongside finishing their 8th or 9th mid-week Gin and Tonic, before seeing it inevitably slink off towards Taiwan? Reality hits: it’s now 5am, those G&Ts had been preceded by equal numbers of Asahi pints, with sides of Jaeger and Red Bull, but now the Observatory has downgraded the previous ‘Super Typhoon’ to ‘Tropical Queef’ and you’ve got an 8am meeting with the CEO…typhoon roulette can be the very definition of an anti-climax.
When Sat Nav selected the New Punjab Club for the OCC August meet, similar apprehensions rang true in some members’ minds. Promises of “bringing swagger back to Punjabi cuisine” in their “bold, regal and unapologetic setting” all sounds well and good, but the OCC’s standards are notoriously high, and wary of pretension. Slick websites and ostentatious surroundings do not sway the OCC’s relentless focus on value, service and, above all, poppadoms crisp, sauces tasty and curries spicy. So would this meet prove to be a direct hit, or fizzle out in the warm waters of the South China Sea?
Heady with anticipation, the OCC arrived en masse to the Wyndham Street venue - with its drop-down low-level swing lighting, abundance of green leather and teak wood counters, the New Punjab Club feels like a Maharaja’s dining car painted by Edward Hopper. A first concern was immediately raised: whilst not the smallest establishment the OCC have visited, the layout of the New Punjab Club is such that fitting in a group as girthy as the OCC (10 members present that evening) was not possible, so we were split between two adjoining booths. Though the seating was not ideal for a large party - they did have a corner table which would seat eight, but that was already booked - the OCC were determined to make it work. Speeches would take place between the two booths, and the sophisticated couples filling the other tables would have the perfect excuse to ignore each other and revel in the wit and wisdom of the Chairman’s oratory and tales from Badger and Depadawan’s curry odyssey.
And work it did: partly because the normal free-flowing conversation between the OCC was regularly stemmed by a stunned silence accompanying each course on the chosen taster menu. The samosa chat was a savory Eton Mess of a dish, all sticky sweet-sour tamarind, the textures of smashed samosas and crispy noodles balanced by creamy curds. A second starter - the keema pau - featured the butteriest, milkiest, briochiest buns alongside lashings of spiced mutton. The OCC cooed with delight: speeches would have to wait.
Tandoori cobia followed - a firm and flaky locally-caught white fish which surely must prefer the cosy tandoor to the troubled waters of the fragrant harbour. Smothered in samphire chutney, it set in another eerie silence amongst the OCC - the calm before the storm perhaps? As he provided us with an update on the tempestuous politics back in Brexit Britain, TJP looked quizzically over to Spider Steve - why had he brought masking tape with him?
Chicken makhni and achari dal were both awash with buttery, spicy goodness, though most members agreed were the weaker of the dishes served in the evening. If we’re going to be extremely picky, tastier naans have been consumed at other OCC-approved venues - these were a little on the fluffy side for this member’s taste, but the roti made up for it.
Perhaps this is slightly unfair, as really these dishes just weren’t relatively as good as the undoubted star of the show: the house special - lamb ’tomahawk’. It took several minutes for OCC members to recover their powers of speech after its arrival, and when they did, all hell broke loose: Spider Steve made landfall, swaying like a skyscraper in a T10; Joa-who (sadly at his last HK meet) declared that he 'didn’t f***ing care' about any retribution from the stand-in Punisher and waxed lyrical; Life of Riley wielded the lamb bone like a Royal Hussar leading a final charge into the valley of death. With OCC procedures temporarily prorogued by the tandoori lamb chop’s moorish umami, the Punisher struggled to maintain ‘ordeur!’ But the high winds eventually subsided, and when the dust settled Spider Steve duly took his chili fine (“like a cobra has died in my mouth”), and Sleighman finally paid the piper too. The mango lassi, sweet and rich, yet also light as air, lay pulped under a rubble of chopped almonds, and made the outrageously spicy chilis consumed almost worth it.
In the aftermath of the lamb chops came some distinctly British desserts - sticky toffee pudding and treacle tart - both glutinous delights - but the bread and butter pudding was the highlight of the trio - the sauce as silky as a handspun shamina, dotted with intensely sweet sultanas. A round of chickpea fudge was thrown in for afters, leaving the OCC prostrate on the leather banquettes like gleefully-beached peshwari humpback whales.
Whilst the lamb stole the show, the service fully deserves a gong for best supporting role - it is no doubt daunting to have an internationally-renowned curry club on your doorstep, but they rose to the occasion. The waiter suggested we start with gin and tonics, move to wine, and finish with whiskey - not the usual OCC way, but many went with it. After sampling a second G&T, Life of Riley was asked if it was to his liking - “a little too aromatic for me” came the nonchalant response, as he polished it off. The waiter promptly fetched him a whiskey-based cocktail “on the House” to make up for it. Newly-wed VC Grae looked on incredulous as Life of Riley happily accepted this compromise. Red wine was topped up effortlessly, Sat Nav praised the generous free pouring of whiskey, and the OCC were invited to meet the Michelin-starred head chef Palash Mitra, who delighted in joining in some OCC chants with his kitchen staff.
As we left, the waiter stopped us - we had started with gin, moved to wine, but he had promised whiskey and wasn’t going to let us get away with it. Out came a bottle of Johnnie Walker (again courtesy of the House) and 12 crystal tumblers, and the OCC toasted the end of a wonderful evening at the New Punjab Club. It had been one of the more expensive OCC meets, but the numbers that came through the next day reflected that it was entirely worth it in members’ eyes, with an overall score of 8.4. There are currently 44 Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong, making the award somewhat banal: the coveted ‘OCC Recommended’ sticker only goes to the best-of-the-best. New Punjab Club thoroughly deserved theirs, and it will be interesting to see if it can be beaten for CHOTY 2019 before the year is up. In the meantime, we'll be checking Spider Steve for any structural damage and erect the bamboo scaffolding for the next hotly-anticipated meet.