I know many people (myself included) had only learned about Atul Kochhar through his involvement in the BBC programme 'Great British Menu', where he wowed the judges with a sucession of exciting Indian-fusion dishes, spiced to perfection, then completely failed to win anything. I was surprised at this because I was under the impression that the Chicken Tikka Masala was our nation's favourite food, and being the only Indian chef in a competition largely consisting of French-trained chefs I thought he'd stand out, but no - when it came to the public vote he was beaten time and time again by people like Richard Corrigan and his great big boring slabs of boring salmon.
So in sympathy I vowed to visit Benares, his restaurant in Mayfair, and try first-hand the kind of things that had Matthew Fort et. al. in raptures. A mere 4 months later, and courtesy of an attractive looking Toptable deal (£29.95 for 3 courses and a drink), I sat down in the plush basement restaurant and made my choice of Chikken Tikka (starter), and a lamb curry for main. Now apologies for not getting the exact details of the dishes, but for some reason my picture of the menu didn't turn out and this is all largely from memory. Anyway, we started with mini poppadums as nibbles, which were nice enough and served with a set of four sauces and pickles including my favourite lime pickle.
The starter proper was an absolutely delicious couple of chunks of chicken tikka, maybe a tad on the dry side but - yes - spiced to perfection. No complaints here, so far so good.
The problem with what followed is that I suppose for a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant in Mayfair I was expecting something out of the ordinary - perhaps dishes that took the flavours and ingredients of Indian cooking and matched them with European presentation and techniques. But plonked down on our table was something dangerously close to a bog-standard local curry. My lamb thingy was nice enough, nothing special, and a few tastes around the table didn't reveal any other huge surprises. True, naans were properly cooked and a couple of the side dishes were very impressive (black lentil sauce is worth a mention - we all liked that) but this really wasn't starry food. In fact I'm going to go out on a limb and say that our local takeaway, Spice Fusion, has consistently produced food just as good as this and for about a third of the price.
The set dessert of Kulfi (some sort of Indian ice-cream) was tasty enough but failed to divert from the overriding sense of mediocrity from the mains.
I know we were on the Toptable offer, and perhaps didn't get to sample the very best the kitchen could produce, but I just can't understand what all the fuss was about. Our deal made sure that we did OK in terms of value for money but I would have been fairly annoyed had we paid any more for this. Service by the way was pretty good, and the lily ponds and black marble created a very luxurious environment, but I have long had a sneaking suspicion that many restaurants in this part of town seem to go for style over substance and was disappointed to find that Benares was one of them.
Later on that night we popped into Nobu Berkeley Square for a couple of cocktails before bedtime, and though the cocktails were superb it was the food menu that caught my eye - Nobu is justly famous for its food, and you can of course expect to pay a fortune for the very best ingredients (Wagyu beef, Black Cod, etc.). But if we'd known in advance what we were going to be served in Benares, we probably would have done. You get what you pay for, in Mayfair and elsewhere.
Monday, 13 August 2007
I last visited Trinity, the latest venture from the brains behind the much-missed Thyme and the not-so-much-missed branch in Covent Garden, some time last January, and had a reasonably enjoyable if not spectacularly accomplished Tasting Menu paired with wine. A return visit therefore would have been a good opportunity to try some of the larger main courses or more interesting offaly starters they do (pig's head, trotters), and see if the kitchen copes better when dealing with more substantial portions. However I don't know what went wrong because I found myself again ordering the tasting menu this week. Perhaps part of the reason was that it looked so appealing on paper, and secondly this is a rare opportunity to try a fine-dining tasting menu for a good deal less than most other restaurants in the city. The wine pairing option had gone up by £5 since January, but even at £60 this is quite a bargain for 5 1/2 courses and 5 glasses of wine. At least, it would have been had the food been any good.
One change I immediately noticed from January was that with the advent (finally) of some good summer weather the restaurant had gone all al-fresco, with the large windows completely opened onto the road. This is quite a pretty part of Clapham, and the restaurant itself isn't too shabby inside either, so all in all this was a good move. Service was cheery and helpful, although a little too much on the "matey" side for a misanthrope like myself (more on this later), and after a glass of champagne to get ourselves in the mood, the courses began to arrive.
After breaking our jaws on a couple of bread rolls which had clearly been being kept warm for hours, was "Mackerel Tartar with Cucumber Gazpacho and Horseradish". The Mackerel itself was tasty and had an interesting texture, mixed with chunks of cucumber flesh. However, sprayed theatrically on top (at the table) was a good half pint of salty cucumber foam which may have been acceptable as a half teaspoon but in this quantity was bordering on revolting. Having to wade through 6 inches of salty cucumber foam to get to the meat is not the makings of a good dish. Perhaps the serving staff think they're doing you a favour by squirting so much foam around - I made it clear they weren't.
Next up, a duck confit with fois gras which suffered from having too much confit and not enough fois gras for my liking. Now, although I freely admit no fois gras would ever be enough for me, I still would like to taste more than I did, and the confit was a bit short on flavour too. Not bad though.
The "Scallop-stuffed Courgette Flower with Champagne Veloute" sounded a lot better on paper than it actually was, which is a shame because with raw ingredients like this you wouldn't think you could go far wrong. The scallops, rather than being fried juicy and whole, were actually turned into some sort of wobbly scallop-flavoured mousse and stuffed inside a limp looking courgette flower. It didn't actually taste too bad, but the textures were all wrong and it looked weird, like some sort of alien appendage. The champagne veloute was gorgeous however, rich and creamy and wasted on this plate.
Veal Shin and Onion Cottage Pie was a good example of its kind - finally something to get my teeth into. It was tasty enough and filling, just what the doctor ordered at this stage, although again there was something missing in the execution - perhaps a richer stock or more seasoning, I don't know. I just think it could have been better and it left me slightly underwhelmed.
Next a little item not on the menu, a summer fruits jelly thingy in a little glass. This was actually superb - the aroma was heavenly and it tasted every bit as good as it looked. A hit, this one.
Finally for the dessert proper was a "Valrhona Hot Chocolate Pot with Honeycomb Crunch". Again, this tasted lovely, and the accompanying crunchy ice cream was perfect, although the chocolate itself inside the pot was very runny and a bit difficult to eat.
In conclusion then, I was a bit let down by this meal - I didn't expect some sort of 3-star experience for my £60 but at twice the price of the Food Room just down the road I'd expect something twice as good, and this was nowhere near. Two final gripes I have to get off my chest too - the "matey" service included telling us how lucky we were to be eating the next course, or which ones were the waiter's favourites. Well, thanks very much "matey" but I'd like to make my own mind up before you start telling me how much I should be enjoying it, and you're only going to make the disappointment greater. Secondly, although the wine pairings were very well chosen, they didn't always arrive at the same time as the food - sometimes before and sometimes halfway through - so it broke the flow of the meal a bit. I'm picking holes really, but you start to notice these things if your opinion isn't won over by the cooking.
I have a hard-won reservation at Chez Bruce next month so SW London cuisine has an opportunity to win some brownie points back. But I don't think I'll give Trinity another try for a little while.
Friday, 10 August 2007
I'm always rather wary of writing about "ethnic" foods - not being able to provide any particular insight into the style of cooking or a bunch of ingredients I've never heard of, I'm worried I might end up coming across as even more of an amateur than usual. I can bluff my way through French cooking, even Spanish or Italian on a good day, but when confronted with a curry all I can usually do is mutter "oh that's good" but have no idea why. The reason I'm breaking my own embargo for Tayyabs is because it's probably the best Indian meal I've had this year, and just because I have no idea why is not going to stop me writing about it.
Tucked away on an improbable anonymous backalley somewhere near Whitechapel, the place itself is notable first of all for the huge queue of people waiting to get in, this at 6:30 on a Thursday night. I've mentioned before that this is usually a good sign, so along with the healthy buzz of recommendation I'd been receiving over the past few months, my interest had certainly peaked. Inside, a throng of excitable diners tucked into some spectacularly noisy (due to the hot plates) dishes of bright reds and greens under claustrophobically low ceilings, surrounded by almost as many waiters in smart black & white outfits.
After a 10 minute wait or so (pretty good really considering we hadn't booked - in fact I'm not sure you can anyway) we sat down and a the whirlwind of activity began. Popadums were popped down with the requisite sauces and salad before we'd even caught our breath. Our order was taken about 30 seconds later. 30 seconds after that the food began arriving, and didn't stop until there wasn't a single spot of tablecloth left.
It was all delicious - the mixed grill of tandoori meats (lamb chops, chicken and kebab thingy) were cooked perfectly and spiced to perfection (as far as I know). Dry Meat, despite the offputting name, was actually a moist bowl of what I'm guessing is lamb with strips of tasty fried onion. Karahi King Prawn (the most extravagant item on the menu) was creamy and tomatoey, if a little bit chewy, and Sag Meat (why so shy about saying which meat? Maybe it depends on availability) also drew a chorus of approval. Even the popadums were unlike anything you'd get at your average takeaway - a lot drier, interestingly spiced and incredibly moreish.
We wolfed it all down in about 20 minutes, with the last of the empty plates being whipped out from under our noses even as the last forkful of rice was still airborne. The bill was slapped down almost immediately, we paid with cash and were back out on the streets of the East End about half an hour after we'd been queueing up to get in. Out of the corner of my eye as we strolled away I noticed a fresh serving of popadums appearing in front of the next set of stunned diners at our table. Service therefore was nothing if not efficient - but pulled off the impressive feat of being very friendly too, so you ended up with the impression that it was in fact your idea to get in and out of there so quickly, and not just a clever ruse to get more covers done in an evening.
On our way home we passed a mosque and a synagogue literally right next door to each other. Probably some town planner's idea of a joke, but it was nice to see, and with our bellies full and wallets only £15 lighter each, we wobbled off into the night.
P.S. I've been reliably informed Tayyabs is Pakistani. So now I know.