Gone are the days in this country when Asian cuisine was represented by two sauces; The Red Schezwan and the Black Manchurian. For long we Indians have relished these two dishes and it's multiple 'Chindian' (Chinese-Indian) variations. The coming of age for this Pan-Asian cuisine has seen a rather long curve with growth of Black Bean based dishes, use of Lemongrass and Shrimp Paste and the burst of Dumpling outlets at very nook and corner. More recently in the first half of this decade, the South East Asian cuisine has brought a wide array of flavours that also somewhere inside of it has shown mild hints of Indian influences. The Burmese Khao Suey / Kaukswe, Thai Papaya Salad, Tempura based appetisers, Sushi and Sashimi are a few dishes that can be now seen on the menu of almost all mainstream Chinese eateries. While many have opted to introduce a few of these iconic dishes into their regular menu, only a few have managed to keep the authenticity intact. Pune is in the middle of a similar Pan-Asian storm where dying eateries are refreshing their menu with new offerings while a handful of start-ups are building a strong base with authentic provincial dishes from almost all of the South East Asia. One such example of a budding startup offering an attempt at South East Asian dishes is 'The Asian Box' located in Koregaon Park, Pune.
The owner couple - Dheeraj & Priya Mahtani who shifted to Pune from Singapore also brought with them their experience and flavours of the Singapore street food. More importantly they believed in the concept of a humble street food joint where ambiance and decor was secondary while tang was primary, thus came the birth of 'The Asian Box' which offers dishes from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Japan and Burma. In both of our dining experiences at the outlet (a dinner followed by the next day lunch), the food was consistent & uncomplicated with straightforward flavours. Regional favourites like Malaysian Kway Teow, Nasi Goreng and Burmese Khao Suey were ordered along with contemporary dishes like Kung Pao Chicken, Roast Hainese Chicken Rice and Chilly Bean Chicken.
The 'Roast Hainese Chicken Rice' came with a cautionary advice about it being on the bland side of the palate and needed a heavy dousing of the side chilli sauce. Nonetheless, one spoonful mix of the humble rice brightened by the soup, one fork full of Chicken strip dipped in Chilli Mix and you experience the ultimate amalgamation of fundamental Asian flavour. Period !
Our 'Nasi Goreng' bowl of fried rice was topped with a fried egg, crackers and two skewers of Chicken Satay. Yet again a generous dish with heat derived from the chopped Red Chillis and briny flavours from the long grain rice coated in Oyster Sauce. The Singapore and Indonesian favourite had already wooed us and got us confident enough to indulge into a bowl of the pinnacle of Burmese culinary craft - The Khao Suey. Going for a seafood variation was only a matter of trusting the kitchen to deliver an intense Coconut Milk broth deepened by chopped Basa fillets and handful of Prawns. It's a dish not for the voracious eater, but someone who understands how to tackle two large bowls of curry and noodles combined into one and ornamented with fried garlic, onions, chopped spring onion greens and red chili. This Khao Suey could have easily toppled Busago's version had the celery not been missing from the accompaniments. While it is tiny little addition, the celery brings a zing that stops the repeated flushing of palate with coconut and seafood meat flavours. Vastly on all fronts this Khao Suey is a bowl to be reckoned with.
The Penang favourite 'Kway Teow' flat noodle dish too was deeply enjoyed across the table. A little dry in nature, but was well accompanied by the slightly curried Chili Bean Chicken. The presence of Sambal Paste in the Kway Teow comes out quite distinctly in the dish, though they do offer the dish minus the sambal paste for people who are intolerant to fish sauce or shrimp paste.
Although they offer a few known desserts for the end of a meal, we're lucky to be offered bowls of a unique 'Pandan' flavoured Panna Cotta with a touch of dark sugar syrup on top. The Panna Cotta was a bit firm, though what intrigued us was the simultaneous presence of an interestingly nutty and grassy flavour caused by the infusion of the Pandan leaves. Top marks for simply bringing the leafy flavours into a Panna Cotta.
In conclusion, the hospitality of the owners, their presence and effort to educate the patrons on their order are some of the highlights of this humble eatery. The quality of food and restricted Pan-Asian menu is a conscious yet brainy move that plays to their strength, which has also build its thick set of loyalists. Not only has all of this earned them a top spot in the Pan- Asian list of eateries of Pune but also bagged them a title of "Best Pan-Asian (Casual Dining)"during the Times Food Guide Awards 2015, held in Pune. It's an appreciable testimonial for honest cooking, humble beginnings and resolute road-map to success.
Location : Ground Floor, Shahinsha Building, Lane no. 6, Koregaon Park, Pune.