It’s a bit of an urban fallacy to think that all the best places are tucked away in the ethnic enclaves and fringes of a city. Of course, some fantastic dishes can be found out in the sticks, and often at a fraction of the damage of their Zone 1 counterparts. But like anywhere, you’re always going to come across a fair old amount of chaff. And conversely, not every curry house or noodle bar in the centre of town is automatically going to rip you off with some watered down approximation of the real thing.
Take “The Brilliant”. When Chris Pople and I braved an overland train to meet up in Southall we were both expecting great things. After all the Punjabi place with a Kenyan slant has been raved about and even made it through to the finals of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (whatever that indicates). Sadly, the food was all a bit pony. The worst offender was a saag paneer, bog like and bland with that horrible slimy metallic edge that comes from cheap canned leaves. The rest was all pretty average curry house fare. I liked the kulcha, but then it’s hard to go wrong with deep fried bread. An off menu butter chicken dish was the only highlight, but this wasn’t really enough to merit a return visit. As Chris quite rightly points out in his review, Tayyabs is so much better. The fact that I had travelled for an hour and a half (as opposed to 2 minutes from my front door) just meant that the £70 odd bill left an even nastier taste in my mouth.
Later that week I was invited to Moti Mahal, by those lovely people at Sauce. In the heart of Holborn, Moti Mahal is a far cry from the formica tables and terrible service option, but when it comes to flavour this place is definitely a contender. The food was superb. Titari (tandoori guinea fowl with chilli, cumin and garlic), crisp kararee bhyein (stir fried lotus stem) and steamed paturee parcels dense with crab and prawn were particularly good. Buttery rotis, slow-cooked makhani dahl and fenugreek infused chicken biryani were also spot on. North Indian chef Anirudh Arora’s wife is Bengali and a lot of his influences are drawn from his mother in law.
I particularly loved the fact that as a starter we were served a selection of salad vegetables with a pot of chaat masala powder to sprinkle over. Made with black salt (kala namak) and asafoedita powder, this was a brave move and not something you’d usually find on a posh Indian menu. I adore the stuff, especially on chilled watermelon, but for some the salty, sharp and almost foetid flavours are definitely an acquired taste.
The evening was a celebration of the India cookbook by the excellently named Pushpesh Pant. Pushpesh spent 20 years lovingly researching “India”, and this definitely comes across in the encyclopaedic nature of the tome. It includes an astonishing number of regional dishes, and unapologetically covers some of the more exotic indigenous vegetables that so many Indian cookbooks for a Western readership seem to shy away from. One criticism has been that the ingredients for some of the recipes are proportionally a little out of kilter. However, for me this just adds to the charm. It reminds me of scribbling down recipes when cooking with my mum, and her suggestions of adding a tablespoon of cumin powder as she throws in a pinch of what’s quite clearly less than a teaspoon, gawd bless her.