As every schoolboy knows, the only drink that should correctly be served with curry is beer. Right? Well, sort of. It is true that beer does complement spicy food rather well and that you would struggle to go wrong if you ordered a beer with a curry. And this is no random assertion: the spices in many curries will negatively affect a wine by both anaesthetising the tastebuds and accentuating the tannins and alcohol in the wine, making the wine feel as if it is almost burning your mouth. So to avoid disappointment, most of us revert to our fall-back position of beer when ordering spicy food. But there is another way, and it seems that Covent Garden restaurant Moti Mahal is intent on showing is this alternative way. I had previously attended a wonderful whisky and spice matching dinner there and more recently my friend Denise attended a sake and spice dinner. So when the opportunity arose to have another of the restaurant’s spectacular meals paired with Champagne Gosset , I did not have to be asked twice.
The meal was crafted by Moti Mahal head chef Anirudh Arora and pastry chef Nirupama, and the menu broadly adhered to the philosophy of Moti Mahal which is to showcase foods from various places along the Great Trunk Road which traverses the north of India. Our hosts for the evening were Barry McCaughley (Moti Mahal’s drinks consultant) and Peter McKinley of McKinley vintners who are the main agents for Champagne Gosset in the UK. Gosset is actually the oldest Champagne house, established by Pierre Gosset in 1584, and today they manufacture a range of eight wines, many of which we would taste during our meal. Peter explained that at Gosset, malolactic fermentation is avoided in the wine-making process, leaving the wines with more natural freshness and fruitiness – possibly a reason why they could match spicy food? We were about to find out.
The prelude to the meal was the familiar basket of poppadoms ans 4 types of chutney – but the poppadoms were pretty far removed from the bland and slightly greasy specimens you usually find in Brick Lane restaurants. These were made with lentil flour and were beautifully cream-coloured and astonishingly oil-free – a wonderful base for the selection of chutneys which included a raita, a spicy fruit chutney and a very moreish slow-cooked venison chutney. Our first course proper was kumro phool bhaja from Calcutta, which comprised a deep-fried stuffed courgette flower filled with masala shrimp, tomato, and jaggery chutney. This was a wonderful dish – my experience of stuffed courgette flowers thus far has been limited to some sort of cheesey stuffing. This stuffing of delicately spiced minced shrimp together with the sweetness of the jaggery chutney was a revelation. This was matched with a class of Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs NV (100% Chardonnay), a pale gold colour and a nose that reminded me intriguingly of a Speyside whisky! I loved the delicate mousse and fresh, litchi flavours on the palate which was not overwhelmed by the food.
Up next was a mystery parcel prettily wrapped up in a banana leaf, which was later revealed to be polichathu from Kerala: red mullet baked with masala crab meat in a fragrant banana leaf parcel. This consisted of a fish fillet which had been topped with a generous slice of red onion and lemon, as well as a little tamarind for sweetness. Once again we were all amazed at the complexity of flavour in such a simple dish, and at how successful the tamarind was as an addition. This was paired with a glass of Gosset Grand Millesime 2004 (a traditional blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir). This (unsurprisingly!) had a far deeper gold colour that the Blanc de Blanc and a wonderful palate of vanilla-laced fruit salad. Once again, the spicy food did not emphasise any harsh notes in the wine and the delicate mousse did a wonderful job of cleansing the palate between mouthfuls.
The next dish was one I remembered from my previous visit: murgh nazakat from Punjab: a trio kebab of tandoori grilled chicken, chicken keema naan and a jackfruit pickle (divine!). The chicken pieces had each been marinated in a different spice and had been cooked so as to preserve their juiciness – not always easy with chicken. I remembered the breads being particularly good at Moti Mahal and the fluffy keema naan did not disappoint. But my favourite was the sweetly tangy jackfruit pickle! This was served wtih Gosset Grande Reserve NV (a blend of 3 vintages of 7 to 8 year old champagnes and made up of 43% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir and 15% Pinot Meurnier). This was my favourite wine of the night, with a nose as appealing as hot buttered toast; an exceptionalyl fine mousse and a palate balanced perfectly between biscuity and smooth strawberry/apple notes. Once again, it was unlikely pairing with spicy food but the wine stood up astonishingly well to the spice. Our last savoury dish was one I enjoyed so much that I forgot to photograph it (!): gosht biriyani from Lucknow (lamb leg biriyani served with Salan curry and a date and mint raita). Biriyani is one of the classic rice dishes of the world in which rice is cooked together with spices, meat (or chicken or fish) and vegetables to produce a satisfying dish in which all the flavours have properly melded. This was no exception, with the lamb being particularly tender and flavoursome and the rice being positively perfumed with spice . Salan (basically a chilli curry sauce) provided a bright spark of heat, and the exceptional date and mint raita provided some balancing mildness. This was served with a glass of the Gosset Grand Rosé NV (40% Chardonnay, 10 % Pinot Meunier, 40 % Pinot Noir and another 10% Pinot Noir added as red wine), instantly identifiable by its fabulous salmon colour. With its appealing red berry palate, impressive structure and long finish, this is the ultimate wine to convince sparkling rosé naysayers.
The final flourish of the evening came in the form of a dessert plate comprising three mini desserts: chocolate hazelnut ganache slice; a little tower of caramelised banana and berries; and a scoop of dark chocolate and coconut ice-cream. I didn’t have the banana tower as I think bananas are the devil’s own fruit (!) but the chocolate slice was delicious – rich and nutty. But the winner of the desserts for me was the chocolate coconut ice cream, packed with toasty coconut flavour. Served with our desserts, we had a glass of Frapin VS Cognac, a particularly smooth and fruity cognac which provided a surprisingly perfect foil for the nutty toasted coconut flavours of the ice-cream. Quite possibly the best match of the night!
Once again, Moti Mahal had succeeded in providing an evening of unexpectedly wonderful food and drink pairings. The food was outstanding – each dish a perfect balance of spicy, savoury and sweet notes, and no two dishes tasting the same (as is so often the case with curry restaurants). I had fully expected the spicy food to overwhelm the delicate Gosset Champagnes, but I was pleasantly surprised time and again at how well they matched. Champagne may not overtake beer as the curry thirst-quencher of choice any time soon but it’s certainly good to discover that there is more than Cobra to choose from the next time we go out for a curry. Keep an eye on the restaurant’s website for future food and drink matching dinners.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Moti Mahal, but received no further remuneration. I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions are my own.
45 Great Queen Street
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