Saturday 8 August 2015

Sampan at Novotel - Juhu, Mumbai.

"Lost recipes, Treasures of the past..." I exclaimed as I heard a garbled message over the long range radio. I had no idea where I picked up that signal from but I knew that as a sailor I would never leave an opportunity to find treasures. Especially, if they are edible. We drifted on the sea randomly until the signal became stronger. Experience suggested that we were getting closer to our destination and soon I spotted Juhu Beach. I knew that the source was somewhere near the beach. And thats when me crew pin pointed Novotel overlooking the beach. Time for another foodventure.

When I first heard the name Sampan, I thought that it was an Indian name until I learned that it means 'Boat' in Hokkien. And as I love anything that is sea or sailing themed, I obviously accepted an invitation to sample some of the treats from their special event Menu.

Sampan is an old gem that has been around for 38 years and has seen the change of eras, styles and generations. But the legendary Masterchef Penpa who ran the kitchen at the very beginning is still at the helm treating patrons with real Chinese food even today. From Holiday Inn to Novotel, Chef Penpa has been around for a while. God, I'd love to have durability like that. His food must really be great.

With the old master, comes an experience of decades and a taste of times long gone. From August 6 through 16, 2015, Sampan will be serving some of its favorites from the past decades. When times change, the menu changes too. Many dishes popular in the 70s or the 80s are no longer the "in things" in today's era. But style and trends are temporary, knowledge is eternal. Eager to taste food that existed even before I was born, I stepped me foot into inside. Let the Voyage begin aboard this Sampan.

Sampan has an elegant yet humble ambiance. It feels like a mix of 70's Chinese restaurants(If the old Jackie Chan movies are a good sample to go by...kidding I looked up some old pictures of 1970s Chinese fine dines) and modern day fine dining standards. The furniture and walls appear simple while the small bar shines out like a Golden island in the sea.

 The atmosphere is very comfortable and if you are fortunate enough to get a table near the windows, you can even have the pool and the sea by your sides. The beautiful Chinese oldies in the background feel as a relief when compared to loud clubs with in your ear pop music. I guess Novotel's professional experience rubs off in its establishments.

Me Table

Moving on to the food, I was treated to all of the special menu's entrees. The things to note about Sampan are its generous portion sizes and old world Chinese cooking. The food comes with a certain charm which can only be found in the books of a bygone era. There is no fancy plating and naming, just good old Chinese food. Its comfort food for the soul.

Talumein Soup was a tasteful medley of prawns, carrots, purple cabbage and coriander in a dense soup. I like my soup thick so I was completely enamored by this one's complete package. It had a savory-umami flavor with a little bit of tang somewhere. The after taste felt a bit sweet which made it an interesting blend of flavors. I finished it to the very last drop in the bowl. So one could say that it is bowl lickin' good.

Captain : Can I have seconds please?

Crewmate : Wait you already finished your first serving?

Captain : I finished yours too. 

Crewmate : What in the world..You couldn't have...where is my soup?

Prawn Snowball is a rare to come across treat and is usually found in select places. This little morsel was packed with tasty prawn meat and went well with the hot Garlic sauce. Though I felt that the coating may have been a little thicker than needed. Nonetheless, I would love to have a snowball fight with these balls. A fight where I would open my mouth and chomp on the tossed snowballs, ha.

Roasted Chicken in Hong Kong style was well cooked and a bit crunchy. For a chicken with bone, it had quite a lot of meat and less of bone. While the item itself was good, I did feel that it paled in front of the other delights that were offered at Sampan. Even Ozzie would look small if he stands in between MJ, Beethoven and Mozart.

Stuffed Chicken wings with Prawns mushroom intrigued me at the start. Rarely have I seen multiple meats fusing into great Asian dishes. And those dishes I have always encountered outside India. In fact, you won't find this item even on Google that easily. (I tried)

This was the first time that I found a dish with a perfect fusion of prawns and Chicken in India. The thing had a good texture, the coating was perfect and the taste was quite addictive. These are the kind of dishes one expects from a master chef like Chef Penpa. This should be a permanent fixture on their menu I feel.

Captain : What do you get when you put prawns inside chicken lad?

Crewmate : An oddity?

Captain : A tasty oddity..

Yam Potato in Sweet and Spicy Sauce was the perfect bar nibble. If you are vegetarian, you would love this one. Its difficult to imagine Potato and Yam being together in one dish and yet maintaining their traits. But this dish achieved that smoothly. The Yam provided natural sweetness while the potato provided the savory. The sweet and spicy sauce made it a delectable mixture. The Tuber tag team did well in this game.

Crispy Okra is another star that would make a great bar snack. Regardless of what you are drinking, a bowl of Sampan's Okra would surely fit in. I never imagined Bhindi being used so creatively outside Indian cuisine. The world is certainly vast and this sailor learns something new every moment. The dish looks vibrant and colorful. The flavor is dominated by the water chestnuts but all other ingredients play their part in making the perfect snack. It tastes savory and would easily be a nice replacement to unhealthy potato chips. Forget the 70s and 80s. This is another item that should be a permanent fixture on their menu in 2015.

Fried Corn Cream feels much more recent with its modern artistic plating and the application of cheese and cream. If you like cream or cheese then this appetizer would certainly satiate your senses. Each bite lets out a creamfall of gooey goodness.

I have absolutely no idea what Santee Noodles are but I could write an entire page of praises for it. These were the best noodles that I have ever had, anywhere. I used to think that certain people over react or exaggerate their feelings when they come across really good food. But now I can relate with them.

This preparation was so good that it literally brought tears of joy into my eyes. I felt that I was sitting in a place like Guangzhou in an old street side restaurant and eating Chinese food as its meant to be. I could even feel a bit of Sepia tone seeping into my overactive imagination. The noodles were very smooth with a taste of Chicken, spinach and perhaps a bit of egg. I do not know if anyone else would feel this way but the Santee noodles made me really happy. My day was literally made after this.

Co-incidentally, this item is the chef's favorite too which he states is a regular at his home. That would make sense since this item has been evolved to ultimate perfection.

Crewmate : Whats wrong Cappy? A man of the sea must not cry.

Captain : I am not crying lad. I am just sweating with my eyes.

Sampan Special Rice was decent. But I felt that it paled in front of the noodles. This is not a bad thing since the noodles were at a completely different level. This rice was fragrant, soft and full of flavor. This would go great with any gravy.

Due to a little confusion the drinks were served after the appetizers but that was not a big problem.
Me drink is the one with the heart shaped melon pieces.

I turned to my friend who was drinking the thing with a slice of Cucumber and made a dramatic dialog. "Mere Paas Dil hai. Tera pas Kya hai?" (I have got a heart, what have you got?) and my friend instantly responded with "Mera pass Kakdi hai." (I have got a cucumber) Whether he found it funny or not, I had a 'hearty' laugh.

Rosemary was a cooler with the flavors of cranberry, watermelon, rose syrup and watermelon working in tandem. It had a hint of Rosemary, apple and perhaps raspberries too. Quite a fancy virgin mix.

Captain : I have got a heart. What have ya got lad?

Crewmate : I have got a Cucumber. (Laughs)

Captain : I just had a feeling of Deja vu.

Crewmate : Deja who?

Moving onto the mains and other assorted delicacies.
Steamed Egg pouch felt like a traditional dumpling swimming in a bit of a salty savory broth. While it may find fans in a dumpling enthusiast, I found this to be a bit mediocre.

Roasted Chicken in Cantonese style was a gravyful(if there is such a word) dish made with chunks of roast chicken. While this mixture had unique spicy overtones, I felt that in essence it very much resembled the Roasted Chicken in Hong Kong style. Well that is possible considering Cantonese is the main language of Hong Kong so a link seems to exist.

Silken Tofu in Lemon sauce was the vegetarian friendly main in the menu. I however felt that it would make more of an appetizer than a main. The Tofu was very ordinary but the lemon sauce had a zesty, tangy and candied feel to it. Made with lemon and butter, this sauce was quite addicting and transformed the ordinary tasting Tofu into something quite delicious.

Brocolli, Mushrooms, Carrots and Water chestnuts were a tasty affair. Soaked in a creamy Garlic sauce, this dish combines Chinese seasonings and Chef Penpa's experience into a visual and gustatory delight. This would surely be a pleasant experience for vegetarians all around. And it is quite a colorful delight.

Captain : This dish feels like sailing on a river of Garlic sauce through a colorful island.

Crewmate : Edible island, I reckon.

Captain : Indeed.

Chicken and Prawns dimsums were a slightly above average affair. The flavor and dumpling tenderness very much resembled momos which I adore so I was quite fine with it. Although a fifth piece in the basket would have made it more visibly inviting but I guess that's me nitpicking.

The Banana pancake made quite a good end to a great food voyage. It was more of a puff pastry with Caramel, banana, nuts and Caster Sugar than a pancake. But I am not complaining. It was a tasty affair although I would have been happier with a more oriental dessert.

Special mention for this cup of Jasmine tea. The unmentioned staple accompaniment of any Chinese Fine dine has more benefits than the traditional tea. I was feeling a bit sleepy and sickly when I had arrived at Sampan. This tea expelled all those feelings and made me quite cheerful. I had always been a lover of Green Tea and avoided Jasmine Tea until today. New things work, Thanks Sam I am.

The service was excellent, as expected of Novotel's standards. Resham who served our table with his team was well spoken, well informed, professional and incredibly patient dealing with all of the food paparazzi. He knew a lot about the restaurant's history, transitions and the meaning of many Chinese symbols around the place. I have been to a lot of places and have seen glitchy service but there was not even one error anywhere in my Sampan experience.

The pricing tends to be on the higher side as its a fine dine inside one of the most iconic five star hotels of Mumbai. But they do full justice to the food and portion sizes. One would completely get their moolah's worth over here.

Sampan has been a timeless classic that has charmed multiple generations of customers. Combined with the seaside view, charming ambiance and Chef Penpa's golden grub - This place is easily amongst the best that Mumbai has to offer. Do check out Penpa's classics over the time from 6th-16th August 2015.

The Captain's Score : 9/10

"Best stray signal that we ever caught, eh mates? Treasures do exist across the infinite blue. Now lets resume our hunt for even more treasures."

Map Co-Ordinates
Sampan at Novotel
Juhu Beach, Balraj Sahani Marg,
Juhu, Mumbai

-I was invited as part of a Blogger and reviewer meet by the Restaurant. Special Thanks go to Palki Hatangadi, Ruban Das, Amarjeet Singh, Chef Penpa and Resham.-

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