Below are detailed notes from a meal in May 2003, shortly after it opened.
Atul Kochhar’s venture continues very much in the style of Tamarind i.e. aiming to be very refined, with an emphasis on presentation, involving some non-traditional ingredients in a classy setting. The setting is certainly elegant, though the low ceiling and tiny tables do make you feel as if you have stumbled into a “Land of the Giants” set. At ground floor level is an elegant lobby with marble floor, candles on the floor guiding you to a flight of steps. To the right of the lobby as you enter was a little rowing boat with further candles inside. I suppose this is a contorted reference to Benares in India, a city of pilgrimage where Hindus come to bathe each morning in the Ganges, but maybe the designer just thought: “hey, a boat would look nice there”.
As you reach the top of the stairs a lily pond hoves into view, in which float leaves of water lilies and gerbera flowers. There is an extensive bar area, all carefully lit and elegantly designed. The dining room itself is quite stark in style, with black leather bench seating and white textured walls, but otherwise little in the way of ornamentation. The floor is of grey tiles, the low ceiling also white, with extensive ceiling spots to illuminate the tables, which works well. Some fairly quiet modern instrumental music played in the background, attempting to be soothing. Chairs are low and modern, with beige upholstery. The tables are some of the smallest I have seen in any restaurant, scarcely able to accommodate two dinner plates. More on this anon. Each table had white linen tablecloths and napkins, and a single nightlight resting in a pile of yellow lentils encased in a silver coloured cube-shaped holder. Crockery was plain white French porcelain.
The menu was a mix of new and old, with traditional dishes like murgh tikka mixed in with things like John Dory with mint, which would be unlikely to grace a menu in the Oberoi in Delhi, where I have eaten and where Kochhar cooked prior to coming to the UK. The wine list is elaborate for an Indian restaurant, seven pages long and doing a fair job of skirting around the world, even including an Austrian wine as well as Chilean and more traditional French wines. Prices were tolerable by Mayfair standards e.g. Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at £32.50 and the Chardonnay at £39.50, Veuve Cliquot NV at £42 and Hildon mineral water at £3, a price that no longer looks outrageous any more, despite being more than four times retail (how we have become used to being ripped off for water in restaurants). There were a fair number of wines around £25 or so. There were a few dessert wines, but oddly no half bottles other than for dessert wines. Beer was either Cobra, Kingfisher, Becks or San Miguel, but here the extortion really kicks in. A small Cobra is £3.50 (about 6 times retail), but you do not get a half pint glass but instead something around a third less than this. Hence a half pint of beer works out at about £5 - £10 a pint, which seems egregious to me. You may as well go for champagne, which at least is only twice its retail price.
Making a reservation encountered the “oh we are soooo busy” attitude, with no tables at 19:30, but one at 19:00. Yet by 20:00 the restaurant was barely a quarter full. Service is classy, with waiters dressed in black trousers and black Nehru style shirts. The maitre d’ seemed misplaced, dressed in a dinner jacket which seems out of synch with the cool elegance of the waiters, and in style seems to have strayed in from a high street tandoori. He asked us whether we were ready to order almost as soon as we sat down, then came back and tried again moments later. At this point I was tempted to try a technique explained by travel writer Bill Bryson when in a similar situation. The reply is: “Sorry, I am a bit slow; you see I have just come out of prison”. When the waiter nervously asks what you were in prison for you reply “I murdered a waiter who hurried me”. I have never quite had the nerve to try this; one day, one day….
While our own waiter was exemplary, we had a couple of poor service experiences. When the main dishes arrived it was patently obvious there was no way of getting even a fraction of them onto our miniature table (a drama that must be played out each evening at every table). I suggested moving the empty table next door along to adjoin ours, but on checking a manager frostily informed us that the table next door was booked with people arriving in a few minutes. This was plainly nonsense, since there were at the time over a dozen tables free (and indeed there were still a dozen tables free when we finished our main course). The creative waiter moved an ornament and used some bench space instead for some of the dishes (we happened to be seated in the corner so this just about worked; otherwise we were presumably supposed to use our laps, or the floor). Then, when the bill arrived, it had a whole series of drinks on it that were nothing to do with us, and it took two attempts to correct this, with barely a hint of apology from the English restaurant manager. I am always bewildered as to how supposedly classy restaurants can manage to shrug off gross service errors (I’ll assume this was just incompetence rather than attempted larceny) without appearing remotely concerned, whereas in a down-market place like TGI Fridays a screw-up like this would have resulted in a free bottle of wine and the waiter offering to clean your car and quite possibly mow your lawn into the bargain. After a withering look the manager gracelessly took the coffee off the bill. I noticed on the next table that the starter arrived before a wine order was taken, so there are clearly some significant service teething troubles here given that they are aiming very up-market. There is also a little over-enthusiasm, with no less that three separate people asking us how are starters were.
Popadoms arrive as you are seated, a couple of large fried ones and a few of the mini disc variety used at Zaika and now much imitated. Three home-made chutneys were offered: tomato, which was reasonable, carrot, which oddly tasted more of sultanas than carrot, and green apple, which tasted of little, least of all apples. It is positive that they make the chutneys, but would be better if they were actually good (11/20). Similarly an amuse-bouche of “strawberry milkshake” tasted more like (and indeed had a texture more like) strawberry yoghurt. It was quite ordinary.
The best dish of the night was chicken tikka, four generous pieces of chicken marinated and still retaining the green colour of the marinade, cooked to a tender consistency in the tandoor. This was accompanied by a little salad of rocket with shredded onion and carrot. The chicken was of good quality and was meltingly tender (14/20). The only criticism is that the chicken was none too hot, a recurring theme in this upstairs dining room.
By contrast aloo tikki was a rather poor attempt to try to take the classic street dish and somehow make it posh. Here three potato cakes appeared, resting on some chickpeas and served with an inauthentic salad of lambs tongue lettuce and shredded beetroot. The chickpeas were reasonably tender but lacked the tamarind tang that a proper aloo tikki should have, while the potato cakes were cooked through but were just bland and rather greasy; supposedly they were “scented with ginger and coriander” but there was no evidence of this. My wife has a sense of smell like a bloodhound, and if she could not get a trace of this scent then you can be assured that 99.99% of the population would not either, which is taking subtlety of spicing to extremes (barely 11/20).
Here the variable technique again showed itself. A “kaali alir hafi mirch ka murgh” was a bit of a mouthful to say but sadly not much of one to eat. This dish is supposed to be marinated for several hours with ginger, garlic, turmeric, vinegar and pepper and then fried in oil, then fried and cooked through with the marinade. How then can this bland piece of chicken emerge, which on cutting into each piece was stringy and dried out inside? The ginger, coriander and fresh pepper that would supposedly enliven the chicken here had amalgamated into a vague “hot” flavour in which the individual spices could not be made out, suggesting no fresh grinding of spices. This was barely 11/20.
King prawns were cooked carefully through and were in no way chewy, but again were let down by a bland sauce of onion and tomato and little other discernable individual use of spices. Perhaps 12/20 for the high quality, tender prawns, but the sauce itself was very ordinary. Technique failure again manifested itself in okra with green mango, tomato and ginger. Okra very easily becomes slimy, and to avoid this you must cook it completely dry without adding liquid, or a mush results. The result here: mush, the okra overcooked and slimy (10/20). Mr Kochhar may have a Michelin star but he could do with a trip to Southall to learn how to cook okra. Better was a “adraki gobi gaajar”, a stir fry of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots with ginger, tomato and coriander. Here at least the ginger flavour came through well, but the vegetables were cooked a little too long and so this was still barely 12/20.
The best of the main courses was a dhal makhani that had a good, thick texture and lentils that were in the sweet spot, not too hard yet not mushy, just retaining their texture (13/20). Breads were also very good, both naan and a non-greasy layered paratha (a good 13/20 for the breads). On the menu was the elusive roomali roti, a wonderful Indian bread made from a very thin layer of dough that is heated for just seconds on a semi-hemispherical hot plate, then folded, tossed in the air and heated again, repeating until a little piece of folded bread appears. Normally you only see this in India, but tonight they claimed to have problems with their hot plate, so the roti was off. Haandi tried to produce this but supposedly had some problem with the health and safety people due to the hot plate being just too hot. I wonder whether it is just a bit difficult to make and so any excuse is brought out to not do it. Oh well, back to India for my next roomali roti. Rice, both plain and pilau, was fine, though the grains as rice were not as well-defined as in the best examples (11/20). Good hot towels were brought at the end of the main course. If only the main dishes could be made to arrive this hot.
Interestingly, for a place presumably aiming for the highest levels, their kulfi was bought in so I did not try that. Instead two tubular date pastries with cumin and kumquat juice featured rock hard pastry but a good cinnamon ice cream (also bought in rather than home made, which judging by the pastry was a good idea). Scarcely 11/20 for this. Better was a baked pudding of figs and yoghurt which tasted like a cheesecake mix, but had a good (bought in) blackberry sorbet on top. Blackberry sauce was artfully drawn to and fro across the plate (12/20, pushing 13/20). Two of the other three desserts featured star anise, which is not an ideal menu balance.
Espresso was reasonable, itself a rarity in Indian restaurants, but a little coarse (12/20). Darjeeling tea was served in a pot but was just a tea bag, and was somewhat stewed when served. These were served with some dismal petit fours: fennel seed in white chocolate that was to all intents and purposes welded to the plate, and which would have required a Black and Decker attachment to free, a Chinese gooseberry dipped in chocolate that was similarly stuck hard to the plate, a fig roll that was ordinary but at least mobile, and a few hazelnuts coated in chocolate stuck together (10/20 for the petit fours).