The Red Fort has been plying its trade in the heart of Soho since 1983. It has a long, narrow dining room seating up to 80 diners at one time, and is smartly decorated, with an attractive bar downstairs. Our white linen tablecloth was immaculately ironed. The menu offers the Mughal food of the north of India, but as well as familiar choices it branches out into unusual territory with dishes such as rabbit soaked in vinegar and cooked with fennel and tomato, something you probably don’t see in your high street tandoori. Starters ranged from £6.50 to £10, tandoori dishes £16 to £36, main courses £16 - £20 and vegetable side dishes £6 - £15, with rice £6 a portion and breads at £6 for a selection of naans.
The wine list was quite lengthy for an Indian restaurant, and had some erratic but at times searing mark-ups (one of the cheaper wines I checked was £56 for a wine you can buy for £10 retail). Head Over Heels Shiraz was £28 for a wine you can pick up for £8 in the shops, Penny Hill Footprint Shiraz was £85 for a wine that retails at £26, Chateau Kirwan 2004 was £120 for a wine you can buy in the shops for £32, Etienne Sauzet Referts 1998 was £127 for a wine that costs £30, while Pichon Longueville 2005 was £265 compared to a retail price of £90. In view of these mark-ups, I drank beer. Mineral water was £4.95 a bottle, with Kingfisher beer at £3.95 each.
Malai murgh tikka (£16) was very tender, the marinade of cream, coriander and cheese softening the chicken breast nicely to a lovely texture (comfortably 4/10). Khumb tandoori (£7) had button mushrooms stuffed with Cheddar, green chilli and white pepper, garnished with chopped red chilli – this did have a spicy kick but these were cheap mushrooms, and the cheese was not really integrated into the dish, so it just tasted like cheese and mushrooms with added chilli (1/10).
Tandoori kingfish (£19) was skilfully cooked, the fish marinated and tender, having absorbed its spices very nicely (easily 4/10). Tandoor prawns (£28) were cooked a little longer than ideal, and had that whiff of iodine you get with cheaper farmed prawns; they were not exactly chewy, but not perfectly tender either, though their spicing was well controlled (2/10).
Teekhay aloo (£8) had small potatoes marinated with chilli, mustard and poppy seeds; this dish worked well, the potatoes still having plenty of texture, and the spices well balanced (3/10). Yellow dhal (£8) had a good, thick texture, tempered with onion and asafoetida (4/10). Rice was extortionately priced (£6) but at least was good, with clearly defined grains. A selection of naan breads were acceptable, though not quite as pliable and soft as they might have been (2/10). Mango kulfi was made with seasonal Alphonso mangoes, and had lovely fragrance and flavour; it was served too cold, but the texture was good, and if I would have had time to wait longer for the ice cream to warm up this would have been even better (still easily 4/10 given the genuinely good flavour).
Service was fairly inept. Initially we were brought the wine list and a single menu, the waiter explaining that they only had one menu available at that time. This was a little odd given the dining room was far from full, but fair enough. Less good was seeing an order from a table two along from ours being taken, and those menus being whisked away (I did try and catch the eye of the waiter, but waiters as a species are generally skilled at avoiding eye contact), followed by another waiter confidently bounding up and asking if I was ready to order yet. This gaffe aside, service was tolerable, and at least they knew who ordered what, but this team is not going to be winning any service prizes any time soon. The manager did not inspire confidence; when I asked the name of the chef the waiter looked puzzled and said “it’s a long name”, and when I asked the manager he claimed that the head chef was Azad Rahman (actually the executive chef here is Mohammed Rais, and has been for at least six years) and that he had been cooking here for 28 years, which would be good going.
The bill was £67 a head, which is, let’s face it, a lot for a meal with two courses plus a shared dessert, no popadoms, no wine and just three beers between two. Portion sizes are quite carefully controlled, and this is a little irritating given the high prices. However the cooking was, a couple of slips aside, very good, with several genuinely excellent dishes. This was my second recent visit here, which has rather restored my faith in the place since a poor meal a few years ago.
Below are notes from a (much less successful) meal in July 2008.
The Red Fort has been around for ages, and its upmarket take on Indian food was fairly bold in its day. However it has had a considerable variety of chefs over the years. The menu sounds appealing, with various unusual dishes such as monkfish tikka. I almost ordered the hare curry (khargosh achari) just to be able to say “Waiter, there’s a hare in my dish”, but I chickened out in the end.
Popadoms come with three freshly made pickles: tomato, sweet mango and papaya, each of which were good, the mango one having smooth texture as well as genuine mango taste, so different from the ones out of a jar that most restaurants use (3/10). A starter of tandoori salmon (£8.50) suffered from overcooking of the rather tasteless farmed salmon, though the ginger and garlic it was cooked with came through well and compensated a little (2/10). Roast quail (£8.50) was again cooked for too long, and although the coriander, curry leaf and mint it was presented with distracted a little, the meat was dried out (1/10).
Nimazi murgh (£15) followed the recurring theme of overcooking, the chicken dry and the sauce, supposedly of garlic, coriander and green chilli, just tasting of tomato sauce with a vague chilli warmth (0/10). King prawns with chilli, Thai lemon leaf and spinach sauce (£17) were a disaster, the prawns having the distinct whiff of chlorine that you get with cheap, farmed prawns, the prawns mushy (0/10). Breads were adequate but had been lying around for some time before being served, causing them to be hard rather than supple (1/10). Okra (£8) stir-fried with pepper, chilli and spices was surprisingly good, not greasy (2/10). Similarly a mushroom curry (£9) with a spicy onion, garlic, red chill and cashew nut sauce was pleasant, the spices in this case being reasonably distinct (2/10). However panchramgi dhal (£6.50), made from five different lentils, had an odd hint of sweetness that should not happen in this dish (0/10). Service was fine but the bill is absurdly high for the level of food here, nearly £60 a head for two courses and just four beers between us. The food tonight was much worse than on my previous visit here in 2005.