He’s been awarded ‘Chef of the Year’ by some of the top food critics and publications in India. Specializing in Asian cuisine – Kolkata native Chef Vikramjit Roy helmed restaurants such as The Kimono Club and Whiskey Samba, as Group Corporate Chef at White Hat Hospitality (partnering with Ashish Kapur and Joydeep Singh), preceded by a brilliant career with Asian restaurants at ITC Maurya, The Taj Group, Hyatt, Westin, and many more. Chef Vikramjit Roy was about to launch his own restaurant, complete with entertainment and beverage programmes, when Covid-19 struck. “We had invested 19 years of our lives to finally do our own restaurant,” says Chef Vikramjit. “Everyone else decided to wait and watch, whilst we started the research and follow the West to understand the impact and the time it would take for resurrection.” The outcome what not a happy one, and that’s when Hello Panda was born. “It took us a month of execution between lockdown and closed state borders,” says Chef Vikramjit. “Our will to not be bogged down, is why we could start anew, and the only way we could build amidst the pandemic.” He decided to start from the bottom of the pyramid, with the first few spaces for delivery/takeaway only, and then with smaller seating spaces, over time.Chengdu Chicken Wontons with Dried Chilli Sauce
One look at the menu, and it’s the sheer variety of the dishes that jumps out – from dim sums, and sushi, to ramen bowls, mini meals, and a gigantic selection of hot appetizers and mains – the focus being on Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cuisine. Chef Vikramjit tells me that this was a deliberate move. “We are on a mission to disrupt the preconceived notion one has for a model like this,” he says. “Smaller, tighter, menus corresponding to better quality control may hold correct for people who may not have the bandwidth we operate with. If a guest who eats with us at a restaurant cannot come to us now, we would take a bigger and better version of the restaurant to the comfort of a guest’s home.”Hello Panda's Chef Vikramjit Roy in the kitchen
And Chef Vikramjit has given the original name of the dish, where possible. “I want to communicate the research of the Sichuan flavours that I have spent years to understand, perfect, and execute,” he says. “I don’t want us to be confused with any other Pan-Asian restaurant and have people expect moderate flavours. Our Lazi Ji (Chongqing Chicken with Chillies) would have 70 percent chillies (a different kind) to make sure that the smokiness (and not spiciness) is not moderated with. We wish to give our diners the real flavour of these regions for these specific dishes without compromising.”Liangban Ji, Cold Dressed Chicken with Spring Onion and Peanuts
There are some dishes that we tasted, like the Liangban Ji (Cold Dressed Chicken), that begged for its flavour profile to be decoded. “The backbone of this typical Sichuan dish is the savouriness from either soy sauce or a specially seasoned chicken stock, a hint of sweetness and a deep, satisfying halo of red chilli oil,” says Chef Vikramjit. “There will also be a spritz of vinegar, a tingle of Sichuan peppercorn and a touch of fragrant Sesame oil. Sesame Paste is added for the body and fragrance. Also, to round things up, there is chopped raw garlic, pickled chillies, spring onion, celery and crispy fragrant peanuts tossed with sesame seeds.”Black Pepper Fish Dumpling
Ask Chef Vikramjit about his incredible dim-sums – that I had last tasted when he was heading The Kimono Club – and he’s quick to give us their genesis. “Our dim sum story began from my learnings from working at Din Tai Fung (a world-famous restaurant in Taipei),” he says. “We believe it’s the stuffing that takes years of working to perfect. The skin and accompanying sauces are the supporting scots of this movie.” We were fortunate to sample the exquisite Spinach and Roasted Garlic Dim Sum and the Thai Basil Chili Chicken Dumpling. “Our core is using the best protein/ingredient, and treating it with utmost respect, and making each one with single-minded focus,” says Chef Vikramjit. If you’re a real dim sum buff, you can even make a full meal out of it – the Natural Charcoal Black Pepper Fish Dim Sum, Crystal Shitake Mushroom, Chengdu Chicken Wontons With Dried Chilli, and Spinach and Roasted Garlic Dim Sum are especially popular.Ramen Noodle Soup
From Dehydrated Lotus Stems to Malaysian Sambal Olek, King Prawns, and Shrimp Tempura, the menu caters to a vast array of diners and their tastes. “We didn’t want to compromise on the experience of a guest, even if she/he doesn’t visit the restaurant,” says Chef Vikramjit. One of his favourites happens to be Shuizhu Yu or Poached Red Snapper in a seething sea of chillies. “It’s a difficult dish to execute, as the chillies have to be smoked to the right degree, with the right amount of peppercorn, and the stock much be pungent yet mild but intensely flavoured, and moreover the fish must be cooked just right,” says Chef Vikramjit.Prawns Thai Green Curry
For his Thai curries – the Green Chicken Curry and the Spinach Yellow Curry – he makes the curry bases from scratch, with no packaged paste or artificial colours and preservatives. “The Yellow Curry is inspired from North Thailand, specially Chiang Mai, where very interestingly the curries become thinner but the flavours remain balanced,” he says. “I personally love these.” Chef Vikramjit’s soups are also a must-try, like his Roasted Pumpkin Soup. “This one is our own invention,” he says. “There are pumpkin soups in Japan, China, and Thailand, but none are made this way. Whilst I keep travelling and working in different countries, there are dishes one sees that have the potential of becoming stars when you put your touch to them. So the base of this soup is Japanese, and it’s seasoned with miso, and then we just added a hint of spice from Thai chillies and sesame oil.”Negima, Chicken and Leek Skewers
Fancier mains include Black Cod and Chilean Sea Bass, sourced from Canadian waters and Japan, respectively. “Being a Bengali by birth and having grown in Japanese Kitchens, my love for fish and seafood is immense,” says Chef Vikramjit. “I love all cooking styles but yakizakana (grilled fish) is something that has taken me years to perfect, and that’s what I love the most.”
There’s also Grilled Pork Belly and Pork Spare Ribs – two of Chef Vikramjit’s faves since his Whiskey Samba days. “I love cooking and eating pork, and so do my guests,” he says. “My affiliation with my pork breeder in Bangalore goes back to more than a decade. Now there is pork which is identified and marked as ‘Vikram’s’, which are Yorkshire beed and dry-fed.”Fried Cinnamon Apple Pies
And if you know a Chef Vikramjit dessert, you know that they will be unusual and definitely one-of-its-kind. We tried the Peanut Butter Tart and the Chocolate Dim Sum – both classic desserts that he’s innovated upon. “My pastry team is by far the most experimental, and they are constantly pushing boundaries,” says Chef Vikramjit.
While ordering from this highly eclectic menu, a question comes to mind. Should one remain in a cuisine region, or travel – metaphorically – with a blend of dishes from different countries? “Food is subjective,” says Chef Vikramjit. “As much as I hate people mixing wasabi in soy and bathing sushi in it before eating, it is finally a guests liking and preference to which I have no right to say anything. We only recommend pairings and ways in which we think the dish would taste the best, but eventually it is up to you.” He says that the basic idea of an Asian meal is to have multiple dishes of different flavours, textures, and taste, that one eats with rice.Chef Vikramjit Roy, founder of Hello Panda
And which dishes are his personal favourites? “Choosing between kids is impossible,” says Chef Vikramjit. “I love each one of them from the very core of my heart. Some of these dishes have been with me for years – and that keep giving me accolades and happiness; some are born today, which hold a special place in my heart. But for the sake of answering your question, I think the Sichuan dishes, Thai curries, the Japanese grills and dim sums are very special to me.”
When the world finally opens up, post-Covid, Chef Vikramjit says he would love to explore Ginza, Japan and Chiang Mai in Thailand. “And then Hong Kong, and Singapore, then Taipei, then Bangkok, and after that, Fukoaka, and Sapporo,” he says. “I want to start with these and then there’s a whole lot more for the second phase of travel.” We’re tired before the trip has even begun! Hellopanda.inHello Panda Exotic Summer Bloom premix by Ankur Chawla
An order from Hello Panda also means choosing from a selection of mocktails and cocktail mixes by the talented Ankur Chawla. Ankur, whom I’ve known since his JW Marriott days, runs a beverage consulting company, Scope Bev and is the co-founder of Fabonest Food and Beverages (which has launched Responsible Whatr, India’s first natural spring water beverage in endlessly recyclable aluminium cans. You can buy these online at responsiblewhatr.com, when you order from Hello Panda, or from premium retail stores in India).
Ankur has collaborated with Chef Vikramjit to create tantalizing concoctions that perfectly marry with the Pan-Asian flavours. “Vikram’s food has an uniqueness, complexity, and freshness, and I wanted to match up to it,” he says. “Secondly, I wanted to give value for money, with something you cannot buy off the shelf.” The Yellow Dirty Fellow is perfect for summer in India, with mango and black pepper syrup. “We were experimenting with flavours and we found that the sweetness of mango with the spiciness of black pepper worked out well.” Ankur has used freshly crushed black pepper to make the syrup.Hello Panda's The Spicy Bengali premix by Ankur Chawla
Another catchy beverage on the menu by Ankur is the Colonial High Tea. “The idea was to infuse a tea in one of the drinks as it gives it a ripe, mature flavour,” says Ankur. “With the focus shifting towards health and wellbeing, the best option was to use Earl Grey tea, as it’s effective against stress and anxiety. We made it a long, refreshing drink, so the mint and peach flavours came in handy.” And all of the premixes on the menu can be enjoyed with vodka, gin, or whisky (as indicated), which lets us play bartender at home. But I noticed that nearly all of the premixes contained Sepoy & Co.’s award-winning tonic water – Indian, Mint, Spiced Grapefruit, or Ginger Ale – which isn’t surprising, as this Indian company makes some of the best tonic water I’ve tasted. “I love the fresh and clean flavours,” says Ankur. “The best thing about Sepoy tonic waters is that the flavours are completely natural and low in sugar. Also, the addition of flavoured tonics ensures that though the consumer is making the drink in their home, that drink will be consistent in flavour and taste, every single time.” And that’s no small feat.
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