A week in Goa

Saturday, January 31st , 2009

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I cannot say that I had soaring expectations of Plane Food, the Gordon Ramsay venture at Terminal 5. However just as Terminal 5 had some serious reputational issues early on but seems to be to have settled down very well, Plane Food was better than the mostly hostile press it received on opening.  There are drawbacks in running such an operation: the place can seat 200, you need to be able to deliver dishes fast, and no naked flames are allowed in the building. However although there were certainly slips in the food, such as an overcooked pasta dish, there were also some perfectly well executed dishes. A sea bass with cream and horseradish sauce was actually quite good, while the chips would shame many central London restaurants. We may have just got lucky with our waiter, but he was far better than I could have expected, with thorough knowledge of how the dishes were prepared and surprisingly in-depth wine knowledge also. Of course sitting down to a three course meal before their flight may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the place is prospering, and has certainly raised the bar of food that you can expect at an airport (admittedly this was a bar that would previously challenge the most flexible limbo dancer).
Other than that my week was spent getting some much-needed winter sunshine at the Leela Palace Hotel in Goa. It is nice for breakfast to try freshly made dosa cooked in front of you, or to try utthapam or soft bhatura bread. However the Jamavar restaurant is the hidden gem here, and although there are some other dining options in the hotel complex we mostly stick to the Jamavar, whose team of chefs serve dishes from across India, not just Goa. Over the years I reckon I must have eaten over 50 meals at the Jamavar, so have developed a pretty good idea as to the strengths and weaknesses of the cooking. The strong suit is the tandoori cooking, which is in a league of its own in my experience. Dishes such as tandoori lobster, chicken tikka in both regular and malai styles, regular and tiger prawn tikka and fish tikka are genuinely superb, the careful marinades combined with very skilled timing combining to produce dishes of sometimes breathtaking quality. 
The tandoori dishes can hit 7/10 or even 8/10 level in the case of the remarkable tandoori lobster, the flesh scooped out of its shell, marinated then cooked on a skewer in the charcoal tandoor before being reassembled for presentation in the shell. Even top restaurants sometimes struggle to get lobster truly tender, but they do it here time after time. Breads are very good indeed here, and this year a chef change has brought a noticeable improvement in the naans, which are now particularly soft In texture, while my favourite romali roti is great here. 

It was also nice of them to make off-menu dishes on request, such as the tasty Goan festival dish sorpotel (essentially a sweet and sour pork curry).  With all these skills on show, it is a pity that some dishes are merely ordinary, such as most main course curries, and some merely decent halwa . The only duff dish I tried all week was the kashmiri morels with sweet corn, which ended up using finely chopped morels rather than keeping them whole, and so losing much of their distinctive flavour, while the creamy sweetcorn sauce they were cooked with utterly overwhelmed the morel flavours.  However if you stick to the dishes that they excel at, such as the fine black dhal, the breads and the magnificent tandoori dishes, then you can eat Indian food of a level that will amaze you. 

I can certainly recommend the Leela Palace as a place for a beach getaway.  It is spread over 75 acres, has about 180 rooms but 668 staff, a remarkable ratio for a hotel, and the service levels show.  Rooms are spacious and the palm-fringed beach is a lovely setting.

In other news, there is more detail on the Tom Aikens saga reported in the Evening Standard.