Moti Maha (Pearl Palace) is tucked away in Covent Garden opposite the Freemasons’ Hall. It has smart modern décor, with wooden floor, cream walls, and a large window into the kitchen area. The chef, Anirudh Arora, was once private chef to the prime minister of India. At the time of writing, the restaurant web-site mentions that he has cooked in “Mumbai’s finest eateries, including Udaivillas”. Whoever put the web site together seems rather geographically challenged, since Udaivillas is in Rajasthan, a little matter of 800km from Mumbai; quite a commute. Anyway, the important thing is that he was actually there in the kitchen when we visited. The wine list is unusually well put together by the standards of Indian restaurants, starting at £5 a glass and organised by style. Examples include good growers such as Josmeyer Pinot Gris le Fromenteau 2005 at £48 for a wine that costs around £16 retail, Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2005 at £60 for a wine that you can buy for about £22 in the shops, and the excellent Argentinean Malbec, Mendoza Catena Alta 2004 for £85, which compares to a retail price of about £24. The menu was a long way from high street Indian norms, with dishes such as rabbit kebab and roast partridge. Starters were £6 - £18, main courses £12.50 - £19.50, vegetable side dishes mostly £4.50 and desserts £5 - £6.
As we looked at the menu an amuse-bouche appeared, a cup of spicy mushroom shorba (soup) topped with a little tandoori bread, on which was a blob of spicy tomato chutney. This worked very well, the mushroom taste coming through well and working nicely with the spices (4/10). I started with a trio of scallops, attractively presented on a little bed of mash (made respectively from regular potatoes, Peruvian blue potatoes and sweet potato, each lightly spiced). The scallops themselves glazed with tamarind were just barely cooked through (which is actually the way I like them), seared in a pan with onion seeds and coriander stem, but unfortunately the somewhat fiddly plating had resulted in the scallops waiting around in the kitchen, as by the time they arrived on my plate they were distinctly cold. I would have scored this dish 3/10 as the idea was good, but serving a hot dish cold is a pretty basic slip (1/10).My wife ’s vegetable patties consisted of three puff pastry parcels with a spiced winter vegetable filling, and a little side salad with chunky tomato ketchup. The pastry was well made but there could have been more filling relative to the pastry, and the spicing was a little too subdued (2/10).
For main course a fillet of wild bream was flash grilled with garlic, and had good taste, being well timed. This was served with baked Devon crab and bean cakes with a quail egg where unfortunately the delicate crab flavour was almost entirely lost (2/10 overall, but the fish was better than this). I was pleased to see sorpotel on the menu, a Goan festival dish that I up until now I have only eaten in Goa. It is a spicy dish made from wild boar and okra, in this case topped with a masala fried egg and garlic pao (bun). It should have a vinegary punch to it, which balances the inherent sweetness of the meat. Unfortunately when this dish arrived the meat was seriously dried out, and the vinegar flavour absent. I asked if this could be made again, and after initially being told by our waiter that it was supposed to be like that (really, it isn’t) the kitchen made a fresh one. This was far better, the meat having better texture, the vinegary acidity clearly present. In terms of scores, as where the first dish that appeared was really a 0/10, the proper version was 3/10. Dhal makhani was rather bland for my liking (1/10) while a side order of chicken makhani was pleasant, pieces of chicken in a mild tomato-based sauce (2/10). Naan had reasonable texture (2/10). A raita was very good, thick creamy yoghurt with shreds of cucumber with a sprinkling of spices (4/10).
For dessert a trio of pineapple dishes was varied, with a pleasant pineapple ice cream, an Indian bread pudding with lots of saffron (too much for my taste), and a warm pineapple “thandai” (soup) which I did not enjoy (average 1/10). Home-made ice cream had vanilla with plenty of vanilla taste but made too sweet, and a green apple and cranberry sorbet that was really more like stewed apple than a sorbet (2/10). Water was £4 a bottle, Cobra beer £4 for a small bottle. The bill was £110.25 for two, with just four beers between us.
Overall I found this a rather frustrating meal, and difficult to mark. Clearly the chef is reaching out beyond high street clichés and has produced an interesting menu, dishes were attractively presented, with some ingredients (such as the bream) that were good, and in parts the food was very enjoyable and carefully made. Yet in one meal I had a starter that had gone cold and a main course I had to send back and have remade, which suggests a significant lack of consistency. I have tended to the forgiving side of marking and scored this 2/10, and yet it seems to me that you could eat both better, and worse, than this score implies.