The restaurant, which opened in mid 2017, is named after a spice mix, a sort of French take on garam masala originating in Pondicherry on the south east coast of India. This area, was originally and briefly colonised by the Dutch, was transferred to France in 1699 and remained part of French India under 1954. The chef patron of Bistro Vadouvan, Durga Misra, was formerly a protege of Eric Chavot. He worked with him at The Capital Hotel, which at that time held two Michelin stars, for five years. He also worked as head chef at Kitchen by Joel Antunes and was recently head chef of Brasserie Chavot in Mayfair. The restaurant is located in Putney Wharf, a development by the river with several other restaurants and blocks of flats. There is a slightly confusing map of the various businesses here as you enter it, but if you plan to come here then the restaurant is located next to Carluccios. The décor was pleasant, with banquette seating and fairly comfortable chairs, though unfortunately the main heating had stopped working on this particularly cold night, so it was a chilly experience. The menu fuses French dishes with spices, though despite the Indian origins of the chef, the spices used are more Middle Eastern than Indian.
The wine list was, well, eccentric. It was unusually structured, with ten sparkling wines and champagnes compared to two rose wines, nine whites and eight reds. It also entirely lacked the listing of vintages, which is just lazy. The list started at £18.50 and included bottles such as Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux du Languedoc Domaine La Croix Gratiot at £27 for a bottle that you can find in a shop for £9, Chablis Domaine Marguerite Carillon at £40 compared to its retail price of about £23, and Louis Roederer NV Brut at £75 for a wine that will set you back £43 in a shop. The average markup to retail price was 2.5 times, and the average cash margin to retail price was £32. The median price of a bottle on the list was £32, with nothing over £42 except the champagnes. Markups are quite modest, but it is odd, and surely self-defeating, to have such a nice list of champagnes and then essentially nothing on offer for customers interested in more serious non-sparkling wines.
No bread was offered, even as a chargeable option, though some sourdough toast appeared with a snack of country style pate (£6) of pork and chicken liver that had been enlivened with smoked paprika. On the side was enjoyable chutney of apple and guindilla (a mild pepper popular in the Basque region) chilli. The pate had good flavour and the apple provided some useful acidity to cut through the richness, with the gentle spices adding an additional flavour note (14/20). Some fermented leeks on the side were less convincing.
My starter was Middle Eastern beef tartare (£9.50) with barbecued and smoked aubergine, with tahini dressing and flaked almonds. This was pleasant enough, a variant on a normal beef tartare that perhaps could have had more seasoning (13/20). A green vadouvan salad (£8) had stem broccoli, green beans and edamame beans, with a dressing of lime and vadouvan. This was decent, though the spices were subtle to the point of invisibility (12/20).
Sea bass (£18) came with celeriac hummus, spiced and diced cauliflower, micro leaves and parsley and lemon confit. This also had a rather off-putting ring of oil around the edge of the plate. The fish was cooked nicely enough and the earthy celeriac flavour came through well. The cauliflower was pleasant if under-spiced and perhaps fewer micro leaves would have been useful. However despite the pool of oil this was a decent enough dish (12/20).
Poached brill and prawn ravioli (£17.50) was the dish of the night. This had brill that had been poached in a broth of coconut with enoki and shiitaki mushrooms, topped with a spring onion and chilli salad. The brill had good flavour and was accurately cooked, the pasta was pleasant and I particularly liked the coconut broth, hinting at a southern Indian influence though without the level of spicing that implies (14/20). On the side, each at £4, was spiced cabbage slaw that lacked spice (12/20) and very good chips with rosemary and garlic (14/20).
Unfortunately things fell apart at the dessert stage. A cheesecake arrived somewhat eccentrically shaped, as if it had been in a drunken brawl with another dessert before being served. The main problem was the biscuit base, which was rock hard. I had real trouble breaking through this with a fork – a drill would have been a more suitable item of crockery. The filling was unremarkable but the base was inexcusable. This was topped with passion fruit cremeux, which was misspelt on the menu. Even the most basic supermarket cheesecake would knock spots off this (7/20). I sent this back and to be fair they removed it from the bill without being asked.
Chocolate and bitter orange dessert (£6.50) was better, though that is hardly setting the bar high. The chocolate ice cream was fine and the orange flavour is a pleasant one that generally goes well with chocolate, though in terms of texture the top pastry chefs of Lenotre in Paris will not be quaking in their boots. Still, this was harmless enough (11/20). As an aside, the chef seems unduly fond of orange as a flavour. It was perfectly sensible here, but it was odd to see it in two savoury dishes (as a dressing for the prawn and crab salad, and as a salad with the barbecued sea bream) as well.
Service was fine. Wine topping up was erratic, but since they left the bottle within reach this wasn’t a problem. The bill, with a bottle of my favourite Louis Roederer champagne and a couple of other glasses of wine, came to £100 a head. If you had three courses and coffee and shared a modest bottle of wine then a more typical cost per head might be around £65. This was a rather erratic meal. The idea of using spices in French food is an interesting one, and delivered with great skill by the now retired Olivier Roellinger in Cancale, who gained a well deserved three Michelin stars for his creations. Here the execution seemed rather tentative – if you are going to advertise spice then it really needs to turn up on the plate at levels that you can discern. However the savoury dishes were nonetheless fine, but the desserts were a shambles, and at this price point such slips should not be happening.