Vaasu in Marlow opened in the March 2020, just a day before the first Covid pandemic lockdown began. It is owned by Atul Kochhar, who gained a Michelin star for Tamarind in 2001 when he was head chef there, and later did the same in 2007 when he was at Benares. Mr Kochhar also owns the nearby Sindhu. He also runs Hawkyns in Amersham and Indian Essence in Petts Wood. Vaasu is next to a pub in central Marlow, and has a dining room with well-spaced tables. If you come by car then there is a car park just behind the restaurant opposite the LIDL supermarket.
The menu is northern Indian but is more ambitious than local curry house fare: it offers dishes with scallops and venison for example, at a price point that reflects that higher level of ambition. The head chef here is Mr Achal Aggarwal, who had previously worked at, amongst other places, The Leela hotel group. Hilton hotels and the famous Okura hotel in Tokyo. The wine list had 150 labels and ranged in price from £32 to £450, with a median price of £55 and an average markup to retail price of 3.5 times, which would raise eyebrows in Mayfair, never mind Marlow. As ever, markups vary significantly, and at least there were some good producers listed. Sample references were the entirely drinkable Trimbach Riesling 2018 at £49 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £22, Domaine Rolly Gassmann Gewurtztaminer 2016 at £70 compared to its retail price of £28, and the excellent Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde de Guigal 2016 at £97 for a wine that will set you back £70 in the high street. For those with the means there was Tignanello Marchesi Antinori 2018 at £225 compared to its retail price of £161, and Clos De La Roche Grand Cru Jean-Claude Boisset Côte de Nuits 2015 at £285 for a wine whose current market value is exactly £285.
Popadoms came with delicate crispy kale and a choice of two condiments: mango with red berry chutney or a curry flavoured mayonnaise. A little canape was a square of steamed gram flour cake with tamarind and mint chutney. This had a light consistency, with the sweetness of the tamarind going nicely with the savoury gram flour (14/20).
An Orkney hand-dived scallop was attractively presented in its shell, served with crushed green peas, sauted asparagus and a guava chutney with summer truffle. The scallop itself had good natural sweetness and was lightly cooked, having very good texture. The peas went well but the guava chutney was quite sweet, and it seemed odd to me to have a sweet chutney paired with a naturally sweet shellfish – perhaps something acidic would have worked better to provide balance (13/20). A large lamb cutlet had been marinade with Kashmiri chilli amd then cooked in the tandoor. This was served with crisp fried lamb belly and mint chutney, as well as dressed salad leaves. This was a very good dish, the lamb nicely cooked and having absorbed its spicy marinade well, the lamb belly bringing a different texture and the sharpness of the salad dressing nicely cutting through the richness of the meat (easily 14/20).
For my main course, venison was New Forest muntjac, the meat cooked pink and served with accompaniments of spiced celeriac puree, grilled asparagus, aubergine “steak” and a rogan josh sauce thickened with a little chocolate. The venison itself was lovely, precisely cooked and having excellent flavour. The earthy celeriac was a nice contrast and the asparagus, although out of season, went well enough. I am not sure what the aubergine really added but the sauce was rich and enjoyable. To me there were just too many elements on the plate, and I would have actually scored this higher if the dish had consisted just of the deer, the sauce and the celeriac (14/20). On the side we had a very good black dhal that could have been just a little thicker in consistency for me but was nonetheless very good (14/20). Rajwadi aloo was a Rajasthani dish of double fried potato tossed in curry leaves and a sauce with tomato and ginger (14/20). Spinach and chasse kofta comprised a pair of dumplings made from baby spinach, cottage cheese and ricotta, served with a garnish of lotus seeds set in a Lababdar sauce, a term meaning roughly “highly desirable”. In this case it refers to a spicy sauce made with tomatoes, onions and mixed spices. The kofta had pleasant texture and the sauce was quite mild but well balanced (13/20). Naan bread was excellent, soft and supple and served hot and fresh (14/20). Pulao rice was also good.
Desserts were made from scratch in the kitchen here and we tried two. Alphonso mangos are particularly prized in India and appear from March to early summer. Since this was late January, I assume that the “Alphonso mango cheesecake” involved some preserved syrup of last season’s mangoes. The cheesecake was infused with cardamon and the mango, and had a base of crumble of nan khatai (a dish of chickpea flour, semolina and refined flour popular in Lahore) accompanied by marshmallow and mango brulee. The textures were good but I would rather have seen a seasonal fruit (13/20). Lemon tart actually had very good pastry and nicely balanced lemon curd filling, served with Italian meringue and, in another denial of the seasons, a few raspberries and slices of strawberry. The unseasonal fruit was completely superfluous and distracted from a genuinely classy lemon tart (14/20). Coffee was from a company called Makabria, which I have never come across before. It was offered with an attractively presented box of petit fours. Amongst these, passion fruit jelly was very good, a chocolate ganache was fine, a strawberry dipped in chocolate was unseasonal but pleasant, but sadly the little shortbread biscuits were stale.
Service was genuinely good, led by a manager who I first encountered at Chapter One in Kent a decade ago, and who has since worked at several multi-starred venues. The bill came to £116 per person with five small bottles of beer (Asahi at £6) between us, so Vaasu is not a cheap night out. Nonetheless the menu is interesting and the standard of cooking generally high. I would have liked to see a bit more concern for seasonality of ingredients but the dish presentation was frequently very attractive and the dishes were enjoyable. I would happily return if in the area.