One of the keys to a restaurant is consistency, delivering dishes of the same standard night after night. Tonight’s meal was an example of where that lesson is not followed: I had a good meal here less than a year ago, and so anticipated a similar experience, but this did not happen.
A starter of steamed sea bass was served in a banana leaf, the fish itself cooked quite well, but the spicing of garlic and turmeric being overwhelmed by the coconut, giving a rather one-dimensional character (2/10). A pair of crab cakes, notionally made with green chilli, lime and ginger, were rather bland, a little tomato chutney providing some spicy bite, but the crab flavour itself barely came through (1/10 at most).
My main course Goan chicken was fine, the meat cooked correctly and the sauce imparting plenty of flavour, in this case with chilli, coriander and coconut. There was actually not much chicken relative to the sauce, but the chicken that did make an appearance was tender, and the spicing in this case was quite vibrant (3/10). The monkfish that arrived was simply dismal, the fish itself soft and flabby and having an odd taste (0/10). It was served with a sauce of cucumber, onion seeds and mustard, but that was irrelevant as the fish was inedible. We changed it for a decent enough paneer (1/10). This fish should never have left the kitchen.
Bhindi suffered from okra that had become soggy, as it so easily can do, in this case with a simple tomato-based sauce with mild spicing (0/10). Naan bread was reasonable, quite soft in texture though small in size (2/10). Rice, both plain and lemon pula, was fine, though served in a tiny dish (2/10). I did look at the dessert menu to see whether they still did the gulab jaman that I so much enjoyed last time, but this was no longer available.
Even the service was off tonight: when the starters arrived the waiter just looked at us and asked who ordered what. This may be acceptable at a garden centre café but not in a restaurant at this price level. The manager was good about taking the dishes we did not eat off the bill, but even so the bill came to £54 a head, with just three beers between two people, no popadoms and no desserts. This meal was simply unrecognisable from the enjoyable one I ate year less than a year ago, yet apparently the same head chef is present.
Below are my notes from a far happier meal in August 2010.
I have been to Chutney Mary many times over the years, but not recently. It is now 20 years since the restaurant opened, and so it seemed appropriate to return and see how the food was these days. Chutney Mary has spawned a group that includes Amaya, Veerswamy and the simpler but highly successful Masala Zone chain. Co-owners Namita Panjabi, Camellia Panjabi and Rangit Mathrani have prospered as a result, with the original Chelsea venue still pulling in the punters with its ambitious Anglo-Indian menu.
The main dining room is in a basement on two levels, though there is also a private dining room at ground level. Some years ago a conservatory was added, and that was where we sat tonight. The furnishings are smart and the conservatory is light and airy.
The menu has always been more ambitious than most Indian restaurants, and priced to match. There are unusual dishes like monkfish biriani (and I later noticed that the biriani was served, as it should be, with the dish sealed with a pastry case) as well as the classics of north Indian cooking. The wine list is unusually serious for an Indian restaurant, with extensive tasting notes. Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2009 was £36 for a wine that costs around a tenner, the classy Chapoutier Condieu Invitare 2008 was £73 for a wine that you can buy for around £31, while Chateau Pontet-Canet 2001 was £93 for a wine that also costs around £31 to buy retail.
Tokri chaat is a common Indian street food (snack mix served in a basket, priced here at £8.50) and was here served in a crisp straw potato basket, with its mix of pieces of potato, moong beans, tamarind, onion, coriander and spices with strained yoghurt and chutneys. This was tasty and nicely balanced (3/10).
Scallop malabar £10.50) was a pair of small scallops that were seared and served with a coconut ginger and saffron sauce. The scallops themselves were very carefully cooked, the sauce perhaps with more saffron than I would have chosen but nicely spiced; even for a starter though, this was quite a small portion (4/10).
My main course of four pieces of malai tikka (£16.50) had tenderised (marinated) chicken cooked in the tandoor, served here with fenugreek leaves, a little green chilli and coriander shoots as garnish; when the plate appeared the chicken looked a little dry around the edges, but inside was moist, the spices of the marinade having permeated the meat (4/10). Tandoori prawns (£23.50) were carefully cooked when so often they are not, marinated in red chilli, tomato, ginger and palm vinegar, and again the spices were accurate (4/10).
Pickled potatoes (£7.50) were shaped into patties and tasted a little of the vinegar and spices in which they were prepared, but the potatoes still retained some firmness of texture (3/10). A yellow dhal (£5) was well made, with firm texture, though the bowl of rice that arrived was tiny (admittedly this was only £2.50). Garlic naan was quite supple in texture (3/10).
I often skip desserts in Indian restaurants because so few places actually make their own. However I was pleased I tried the gulab jamun (syrupy balls made from flour, butter and milk, with sugar syrup). So often these are dried out and hard, but the version tonight was genuinely superb, light and very moist inside, the syrup not overly sweet. This is a tough dish to get right, and these were the best gulab jamun I can recall; these were garnished with little pieces of pistachio and served with a rhubarb ice cream (6/10). Black cherry kulfi was capable, but merely very good by comparison (4/10).
Service was attentive, and topping up of drinks etc excellent. The bill came to £63 a head, and that is really the only thing that rankles a little. The food cost for this kind of cuisine is not that high, and while I can understand that they want to be careful on the portion control of expensive ingredients like scallops and prawns, chicken is hardly costly, and to give such a silly little portion of rice just seems mean. Still, this is definitely skilled cooking.