This week I try The Moti Mahal

Saturday, March 14th , 2009

Tucked away in a quiet part of Covent Garden is the Moti Mahal, whose chef aims well beyond the usual high street Indian fare. Presentation, rarely a strong point of Indian restaurants, is excellent here, and the unusual dishes have well-sourced ingredients, such as good scallops and wild bream. The meal itself was something of a roller coaster though, as my prettily plated scallop dish arrived with the scallops by then almost cold, while the sorpotel that turned up was badly dried out. To be fair, they replaced it and the version that returned was very good, so the kitchen can clearly deliver, but seems to suffer from inconsistency. Given the interesting menu it is worth a look, but they need to work more on a more even experience.
I had another interesting, if also uneven meal at Ambassade de l’Ile this week. A highlight was a superb soft and warm foie gras mousseline served in a soup bowl and covered with intensely flavoured lobster broth, topped with a tender langoustine. This dish was a triumph, each element excellent in its own right, the combination of tastes working together.  
Unfortunately grilled John Dory with cumin seeds, celeriac and artichoke, while prettily presented was significantly overcooked, an uncharacteristic slip of technique here. We were back on track with the pressed duck. This is a dish made famous at Tour d’Argent in Paris. The carcass of the duck is crushed in a specialist duck press, and the blood used in the sauce to accompany the duck breast. The Challans duck was lovely, carefully cooked and showing off its inherent flavour, while the rich sauce made from the duck press was a dark and delightful experience; providing some much needed balance to the dish were slices of sweet and sour turnips, the sherry vinegar of their dressing providing just the right amount of acidity to cut through the rich taste of the duck. A second serving of the duck was the leg, with a simple green salad with hazelnut dressing. A wonderful dish. 
Based on the last two meals here I am nudging the score down a point on the web site as I think 7/10 is a safer mark based purely on some inconsistency, but the best dishes here are truly top class. It remains one of my favourite London restaurants, since I would rather have a meal with at least one memorable dish, even if not everything is to that same standard, than a safe, even, but unexciting series of dishes.
Tangawizi continues to produce top-class Indian food in the unlikely setting of St Margarets, near the Richmond Bridge. The tandoori cooking is spot-on, with soft, delightful naan bread with a hint of charcoal and tender prawns this week. Main course curries are also a strong suit, with spicy methi chicken and rogan josh both excellent.
The recession was visible at Tom Aikens. Despite a very attractively priced menu of £29 for three courses (including amuse-bouche, ingredients such as turbot and quail, dessert and coffee) still only five tables were taken on a Friday lunch. This is a shame, as although the meal was rather uneven in places, there was plenty of serious cooking going on too, with bold, punchy flavours, exemplified by some excellent quail. Tom was apparently in residence but did not pop out today; perhaps he was concerned in case he met one of his previous suppliers. The menu today was decidedly modern but without excesses; no test tubes appeared at the table, though the combination of flavours in some dishes seemed less coherent than in others. From April the restaurant will bow to commercial reality and open on Saturday evenings, something Tom had previously spurned.
My monthly meal at Zafferano showed a restaurant humming along smoothly, and completely packed on a mid-week evening despite the recession.  As ever the ingredients are the star here, in this case being shown by a nibble of crab with a little garlic on toast, with excellent crab, then a very simple but excellent winter vegetable salad with anchovy dressing. The leaves were prettily presented and had great taste, such an apparently basic dish but one that showed genuine passion for ingredients. Risotto of sweet prawns with marjoram was made from scratch and had tender prawns, rice with just a hint of firmness having absorbed excellent stock. Service was as smooth as ever.
In other news, Heston Blumenthal re-opened the Fat Duck (pcitured) after the illness problems amongst some customers (whose numbers mysteriously mushroomed from 30 odd to 400 once the press reported a free meal was to be had). Heston has a clean bill of health from the many tests run so far; as I mentioned last week the problem was most likely a case of winter vomiting disease, which could easily affect any restaurant, however strict their hygiene procedures. It is remarkable just how high a media profile this brief closure has had, making it even to the foreign press.  Dutch radio reported that the affair is due to some kind of ill-defined sabotage by a rival restaurant – no conspiracy theorists in the Netherlands then; perhaps they should consider UFO involvement while they are at it.  I wish Heston well and hopefully this minor incident will soon recede into the non-news background it surely deserves.