Monday, 1 November 2010
My history with what I shall call, for want of a better word, "posh" Indian restaurants has not been entirely happy. I remember being vaguely impressed with Cinnamon Club many years ago, but that was mainly the stunning room (Old Westminster Library) and the fact that every other table contained an MP or two to gawk at. The food at Tamarind was pretty dull and although the service and setting was plush enough it was all very pricey for the fairly standard ingredients, even taking into account the location in the heart of Mayfair. The real low point was Benares, where I paid the best part of £50 for a meal that could have come from almost any high street balti hut, right down to the naans, bowls of bog-standard curry and chicken tikka pieces. None of the above were ever anything less than tasty, but then this kind of thing rarely is anyway, and I'm not paying four times over the going rate for white tablecloths and Molton Brown in the loos if all I'm getting on my plate is another bowl of chicken dansak. So after a while, I gave up and decided that it really wasn't worth paying over £20 a head for Indian food. A massive, ill-researched generalisation perhaps, but that's what this blog is all about.
So despite recommendations, glowing reviews and the fact that I worked about ten steps away from it for the best part of two years, it's taken me this long to visit Quilon. And when I was invited to review the place on Sunday I expected, in all honesty, yet another Posh Indian experience - silver service, white tablecloths, nice toilets, expensive, boring food. But actually, I was only half right. The silver service, the white tablecloths, the little scrapy things which clear the table of crumbs, these were all present and correct. What didn't go to plan was the price, which at £23 for 3 courses was fairly reasonable, and the food, which was utterly delicious.
It was a slow start, though. Mini poppadums were cute I suppose but the supplied tomato and coconut chutneys were rather dull. Much better were the pickles that garnished every table, including some preserved garlic cloves with herbs, and a great red mixed pickle. I didn't really think they needed to bother with the fresh chutneys but then I suppose these fancier places have to cater to a wider range of chilli resistance levels. On a similar note, various items on the menu were starred as being 'spicy' but in fact would best be described as 'mild' compared to more authentic eateries. One such dish was...
...these wonderfully moist fillets of Dakshini pepper chicken which had a brilliantly subtle flavour of green peppercorns and tangy tikka yoghurt dressing underneath. I couldn't decide between these and the masala dosa for my starter so Quilon very kindly brought me half portions of both. The dosa was, in all honesty, not quite as nice as the one at Jaffna House the other night but was still very good, and it was great fun spooning the sauce over the top and making it look like an erupting volcano.
Before the main courses came a warm glass of spicy curried tomato soup of some kind, which I'm going to struggle to do justice to with my perfunctory knowledge of Indian spices but take it from me, it was fantastic. Warming, comforting, fresh and exciting, I think I also detected some earthy notes of potato in there, but I could be wrong.
My main course - "Non-vegetarian catamaran lunch" - was actually several main courses, a kind of a mini tasting menu of South Indian cuisine. There was a piece of tilapia roasted in plantain leaf, subtly spicy and if perhaps slightly overcooked then forgivable thanks to the wonderful flavours in the sauce; a bowl of spinach poriyal had a good mix of textures and fresh ingredients; something called pachadi was a bit like a raita containing crunchy pomegranate seeds and cumin; and a richly flavoured and creamy bowl of mango curry went very well mopped up with an interesting type of bread I'd never seen before - an appam - which looked like an edible bowl with a thick, fluffy centre. Best of all these though was a simply wonderful chicken dish (a masala? I couldn't find it anywhere else on the menu) containing superbly moist pieces of meat and the richest, densest, most addictively flavoured tomato curry sauce I have ever eaten in my life. If I go back to Quilon, and I'm almost certain I will, it will be for this dish above all others. Pretty much perfect.
Dessert came with the lunch menu and was pleasant if unspectacular. The bananas topping the banana pudding were a little flavourless although the rum and raisin ice cream was good. I probably should have just swapped this course out for another bowl of that chicken tomato curry thing.
With a very good sweet mango lassie to start, as well as a bowl of lemon rice and another interesting bread - a paratha - the bill would have still come to under £30 a head which is fantastic value for this range and quality of food. I left Quilon absolutely stuffed and deliriously happy, but more importantly the whole concept of posh Indian restaurants actually started to make sense. At Jaffna House, although the food was delicious and the place charming in its own rustic way, eating in a poky front room off plastic tablecloths and having to ask several times for your drink isn't for everyone. Sometimes it's nice to enjoy slightly grander surroundings, and to be waited on properly, with charming, smart staff who know what they're doing. And for these occasions, if you don't mind paying slightly more, somewhere like Quilon makes perfect sense. It's easy, comfortable, fun, and in its own way, very good value for money. And if it turns out it's the only posh Indian I ever really see the point of, well, I will still be eternally grateful for its existence.
I was invited to review Quilon