If you live in London, then it’s pretty certain that at some stage you have stumbled out of a pub and down Brick Lane for a late-night curry. Hell – it’s a London rite of passage and practically part of the Britishness test to decide whether you are worthy of citizenship! And on these hazy, spicy nights, you will have received the wisdom from friends and colleagues that the only drink to match with a curry is a beer – preferably Cobra (although I sometimes think this may be partly a function of the utterly dismal standard of wines served at the majority of Brick Lane establishments!). Either way, ask most people what drink to match with a curry and I can almost guarantee you that the answer will be beer. So I was rather surprised to find that Anirudh Arora, head chef of Covent Garden restaurant Moti Mahal, had teamed up with the founders of Caskstrength Creative, Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley, to dispel this notion. In fact, they were going to dispel not only the myth of the unbreakable beer-curry bond, but also the myth that whisky is purely a gentleman’s drink, to be enjoyed as an after dinner digestive. To achieve this, Anirudh, Joel and Neil have crafted a five-course pairing menu to demonstrate how whisky and whisky cocktails can be enjoyed by all as an accompaniment to Indian cuisine. Moti Mahal was established in 1959 in Delhi and, according to their PR, became world famous for commercialising the tandoor and allegedly inventing the Murg Makali (the forerunner of chicken Tika Masala). But it was to their Covent Garden outpost, opened in 2005, that I recently headed to sample the tasting menu.
A stone’s throw away from Covent Garden station and occupying both the ground floor and basement of their premises, the restaurant is a serene and elegant space – the polar opposite of what you’d expect if you are used to the Brick Lane Chic school of restaurant design. There are modern chandeliers, cream-coloured chairs and banquettes, and dazzling white table linen. The cocktail bar is backlit and attractive, and if you didn’t know better, you could be in a fine dining establishment serving any one of a dozen cuisines. But look opposite the bar and you will see a glass wall offering a view into a kitchen which looks like a somewhat more refined version of the kitchen at the Lahore Kebab House. We sat right by the window and were fascinated by the deft, practised movements of the parantha and naan cook, as well being able to see our venison being seared literally two feet from our table, but cut off from the noise and smell by a wall of glass. If you would like a peek into a commercial restaurant kitchen without feeling that you are underfoot, you are in for a treat. The menu is extensive and covers a variety of pan-Indian classics, but as Chef Arora later explained to us, most dishes are linked by the theme of the Great Trunk Road, one of the great Asian roads that runs from Bangladesh, through India to Peshwar in the north, and then on to Kabul in Afghanistan. In addition, there are also some dishes that originated further away from the great road, and these are designated as such in the a la carte menu.
But we were there specifically to try the whisky pairing menu, which started off with quite the most breathtakingly simple appetiser that I have ever come across. It is also the kind of plate that Nick puts together for himself as a snack at home – totally at odds with the fine dining amuse bouche that you might expect, but novel and delicious. It consisted of a wooden platter bearing a whole tomato, a red onion, lettuce leaves, a chunk of cucumber, radishes, fresh coriander, and a knife – a kind of DIY crudite platter. In addition, there was a bottle of delightful mustard oil and two little pestle & mortars, one containing seasoned salt, and the other garam masala. It was fascinating watching our fellow diners tackle this . Some looked truly mystified, nibbled on a radish or two, and left the rest of the platter well alone. The American gentleman dining alone opposite us lovingly carved his vegetables with the precision of a brain surgeon and arranged them on his plate like an abstract painting.; while Nick and I went for the deconstructed salad look. Simple as it looked, the flavours were superb – the tomato had real depth of flavour, and the condiments were fresh and hugely appealing. It’s an idea I fully intend to replicate at my own table this summer.
Next up was probably the least authentic dish and of the night, and also the oddest: naan baked in the tandoor oven and stuffed with vintage cheddar, then topped with Lucknowi gold leaf and shaved black Perigord truffle. Yes – you read correctly – black French truffles and gold leaf. I very much doubt these were ever served on naan bread or, indeed, anywhere near the Great Trunk Road… and yet I have to say that it was seriously delicious. The naan was fresh and puffy, while the cheese and truffles lent an earthy savouriness to the whole – a whole new take on fusion food, and ridiculously over the top. But tasty, particularly when paired with the Grand Trunk Road Sour (Cutty Sark Storm, spice-infused sugar syrup, lemon juice, Grand Trunk Road bitters and egg white). The blend of ingredients toned down the alcohol of the whisky which might otherwise have overpowered, and the crisp citrus notes saved it from being either too rich or too sweet. All in all, a delightful match.
The next dish was one of our favourites: roe deer tikka served with grape chutney and a mint parantha flatbread. The venison had been coated in dried spices and seared for quite literally seconds on each side – just enough to seal it and impart a slightly smoky flavour. The sweet-sour grape chutney made an unusual and perfectly matched accompaniment, adding texture as well as flavour; and the parantha was sublime: flaky, buttery and light. But the meat remained the star of the show – Nick described it as venison sushi, spicy, gamey and wonderful. The matching cocktail for this course was a Hart Peat (Lagavulin Distillers Edition, blood orange juice, cherry brandy, vermouth, juniper bitters and bruised mint). I am not often a fan of the hugely peaty Islay malts like Lagavullin, but pairing it with the other ingredients took the edge off the peatiness; and the robust flavours of the meat stood up well to it whereas a more subtle dish might have been lost. A great dish and a good match.
This was followed by a rich and spicy Indian style fish stew of West Country wild red mullet and Welsh mussels with roasted tomato, garlic masala, coriander leaf and fresh lemon, served with a coriander and coconut chutney. This deceptively simple dish was another hit with its fresh, bold and complex flavours. I loved that you could taste each element, while at the same time being able to appreciate the harmonious whole that they formed. I particularly loved the delightful fresh baby curry leaves in this dish and wish that they were much more widely available in mainstream supermarkets. The matching drink for this dish was a Sweet Valley Highball (Penderyn Welsh whisky, elderflower cordial, dry vermouth and tonic water). As a drink, I loved this – it’s rather like an alternative G&T. As a match for the food, it wasn’t bad, but I still would probably have preferred something like a Gewurztraminer.
The last savoury course was hands down one of the most delicious things I have had in a long time: wild mushroom briyani, warm game pickle, and a pomegranate & date raita. Everything worked, both as an individual element and as a wonderful whole. I loved the varied mushrooms in the briyani (mmm, shiitake!) and the perfectly seasoned rice. I did not know what to expect of the game pickle, but it turned out to be the Indian equivalent of pulled pork – cooked long and slow to fall-apart tenderness, in a spicy sauce heavily laced with vinegar for the “pickle” element. It was served in a covetable little mini serving dish, but I could happily have devoured a large portion. The raita was as thick as any yoghurt I have ever seen – delectable creamy and studded with tart pomegranate seeds and the sweetness of the dates – gastronomic heaven with the game pickle. The matching cocktail was a Cask-Aged-Old-Fashioned New-Yorker (Paul John single cask Indian whisky and an Old Fashionde barrel-aged whisky-steeped cherry). This was the only drink of the night that I did not think matched the food at all, possibly because of the fact that it was not as much a cocktail as neat whisky. The food just seemed to bring out the angular flavours of the alcohol in it, whereas on its own I suspect it would have been a far more enjoyable drink.
And from there, it was on to dessert: pistachio and macerated rose petal kulfi popsicles; and cardamom & saffron bread pudding. The two-tone conical kulfi popsicles also came with teensy atomisers of Laphroaig 10 year old, and Nikka Coffey Grain with kulfi – atomised Laphroaig 10yo and Nikka Coffey grain whiskey, together with instructions from the waiter to spray a different whisky on each flavour of kulfi. It did seem like a needless flourish, but I played along as I do love me a bit of tableside theatre, and I have to say that the flavour of the whisky together with its slight melting effect worked very well with the kulfi. But the star of the dessert show was definitely the bread pudding – rich, creamy and alive with the flavour of saffron and cardamom. To accompany it, there was a chilled shot of Clynelish single malt, served gorgeously in its own little flask on a glass of crushed ice, to be cut with cardamom-infused water. I just adored this match. The sweetness of the pudding was kept in check by the fairly strident whisky, and the cardamom-infused water referenced and gently enhanced the flavour of the dessert. It was a marvellous ending to the meal, both visually and taste-wise.
After we had finished, Chef Arora also came out to chat to us, telling us about his philosophy and answering any questions we had about the dishes. Throughout the meal, though, staff had been solicitous and had been happy to answer any questions we had – one waiter even brought us some of the uncooked baby curry leaves to try after we asked about them. Everybody seems earnestly enthusiastic about the food and your experience. This, combined with the superb quality of all the food made this one of my favourite Indian meals, possibly ever. The careful thought that goes into constructing the flavour profile of each dish, as well as into sourcing outstanding ingredients, is evident in the final product which is full of fresh and distinctive flavours. No two dishes tasted the same in terms of spicing and I loved the parantha so much I wanted to go and hug the baker. Does whisky really work with Indian food? well, the jury is still out on that. I think the best answer is “sometimes, when mixed into an appropriate cocktail”. I’m not sure whisky will unseat beer as the curry-eater’s tipple of choice, but I would certainly order most of the cocktails we had on their own.
The five-course pairing menu costs £120 per person for food and matching whisky. Alternatively, dishes can be enjoyed individually off the a la carte menu with prices ranging from £11 to £25. The pairing menu will change seasonally.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Moti Mahal, but received no remuneration other than the meal itself and all opinions are my own.
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