The Porte des Indes opened to some fanfare in 1996, its large premises near Marble Arch offering Indian food in a smart and large-scale setting. The place is huge, seating 380 diners at any one time over two expansive floors, which are decked out with numerous palm trees and even a waterfall. Those who are familiar with the Blue Elephant will be familiar with the formula (in that case for Thai food) and indeed Porte des Indes is owned by the same company. The menu is extensive, with all the familiar Indian dishes covered as well as some less usual fare, such as pork vindaloo. The “gateway to India” name and the menu makes a nod to the food of Pondicherry, which was a French colony on the south east coast of India right up until 1954, seven years after the British had departed. Hence in addition to chicken tikka masala (which is really just an English invention, paradoxically now available in India in a bizarre case of re-appropriation) there were dishes such as “poulet rouge” and “cassoulet de fruits de mer”.
For drinks, Cobra lager at £6 a pint turned out to be a relative bargain, as we shall see. There was a seven page wine list, starting at £28. Fattoria Mancini Sangiovese Colli Pesaresi Marche 2009 was £45 for a wine that you can find in the high street for around £12, Chateau Burgrave 2006 at £85 for a wine that retails at about £25, up to grander but no more kindly priced selections such as Ducru Beaucaillou 1995 at £415 for a wine that retails at £131.
There was a little amuse-bouche (perhaps appropriate given the attempt at a French connection in the menu) of pineapple and lentil soup, which actually tasted mostly like spicy lentil soup, and was harmless enough (11/20). A starter of crab Malabar (£10) was a mix of crabmeat and corn, spiced with turmeric, curry leaves and mustard, served in crab shell. This was very good, the spices nicely balanced, the crab flavour coming through, and there seeming to be a hint of coconut too (13/20). This was much better than Parsee fish (£11) which was lemon sole with mint and coriander chutney wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. This is a dish I sometimes make at home, and it can be delicious: here it was just tasteless lemon sole, slightly over-cooked, with nowhere near enough marinade, just a little green blob on each fish. Hence I essentially ended up with a plain, slightly overcooked, tasteless piece of steamed fish (10/20).
Tandoori prawns (£20) had four prawns served in their shell with a hint of spice, three of them cooked OK but one on the mushy side (11/20). I sampled the mixed grill (£25) of tandoori dishes: my prawn was distinctly mushy, my chicken was dried out, the salmon was a little dry but the lamb and kebab were acceptable (barely 11/20 average). Bhindi is a tough dish to get right, and although I have had worse okra than this, the bhindi was distinctly on the slimy side of good (11/20 if I am kind). Channa (£13!) was reasonable, the chickpeas having a quite rich spicy sauce, though they were a touch soft (12/20). Naan bread was fine, supple and good (13/20). Overall the food was inconsistent, with the odd good example, such as the crab, mixed in with the really poor, such as the parsee fish and occasional mushy prawn.
The bill was £72 a head for two courses, with just a pint of beer apiece. Apart from the price of the mineral water, to which I will return momentarily, a sweet lassi was £6. Now this drink consists of precisely three things: yoghurt, sugar and water, so just imagine the mark-up involved with selling a bit of sweet, watered-down yoghurt for £6. Service was fine and polite if rather too keen on up-selling. We ordered a side salad but the waitress omitted to mention that my main course came with a salad anyway. There were two mineral waters listed: Hildon at £4.60 a bottle and Voss at £6 – guess which one she brought when we asked for a bottle of still water? This sort of sharp practice is quite irritating.
I remember eating here soon after it opened and thinking: “nice décor, so-so food, wow what a big bill” and it seems that, over 15 years on, nothing has really changed. £72 a head is an absurd price for cooking at this level, when nearby there are good restaurants such as Roti Chai and Haandi, clearly better in quality yet half the price. I have no idea how a restaurant of this size can be sustained – how many tourists can there be?