April 18 2010
When French restaurants were born in the second half of the 18th century, their great novelty was choice. Previously offered only what was stewing in the pot or roasting on the spit, diners could now choose from a selection of entrées, mains and desserts. They could choose when to eat and how much, and knew what it would cost.
It was a revolution in dining out, strengthened by the democratic ideals of that other 18th-century French revolution, and its aims have persisted to this day, even if menus are somewhat shorter than they once were.
Long menus, however, do not necessarily equate to more choice. Take the typical curry-house menu, which might offer 40 or so curries and dozens of side dishes and starters. It is, sadly, only an illusion of choice as four people can order completely different dishes and end up with a depressingly similar dinner – meat and fish of dubious provenance languishing sullenly under a slick of orange oil.
This is because everything – curry sauce A, curry sauce B, meat, vegetables – is pre-cooked and assembled at the last minute, but the permutations this ingenious system permits are no guard against palate fatigue. Much better to choose from a short menu of freshly cooked, distinctive dishes.
Having eaten widely in India, I have come to the conclusion that the best Indian restaurants in the world are in London – some of the best Indian chefs work in them, the finest Indian ingredients make their way to them, and, thanks to a sizeable Indian population, some colonial baggage and our fondness for fish curries on Goan beaches, there is an appreciative, affluent clientele to populate them.
Like Anirudh Arora, chef at the opulent Moti Mahal in Covent Garden, most Indian chefs in London have cut their teeth in one of the major Indian hotel chains – the Taj, ITC-Welcomgroup or Oberoi. Arora was chef at the Oberoi’s Udaivilas in Udaipur and his mastery of Mughlai cuisine is given full expression in London. Arora’s skill with the tandoor is unrivalled, as his sublime Punjabi dish of murghi nazakat – three variations of chicken tikka – demonstrates.
While Moti Mahal specialises in northern Indian cuisine, Indian Zing, a chic (but not expensive) restaurant in Hammersmith, serves wonderful dishes from all over India. Chef/proprietor Manoj Vasaikar has a deft touch with spices and herbs. Try his mussels rasam, the sweetest of bivalves simmered in a tamarind-sour sauce, fragrant with curry leaf; Khyber Pass raan, lamb shank slow-cooked Northwest Frontier style; or duck Chettinad, a richly spiced dish from Tamil Nadu. Better still, order them all and share – life is much better with a variety of spice.