GRAZING WITH AN INDIAN STAR AT 'TAMARIND' IN LONDON
20 Queen Street, Mayfair, London W1J 5PR
Nearest Tube (Underground Station): Green Park
From Green Park underground station exit onto Piccadilly, turn right towards Hyde Park Corner, take the 4th right into Half Moon Street, walk to the end (Curzon Street), turn left. First right is Queen Street.
This Michelin-star restaurant was mentioned in passing in a previous 'Grazing' report on this forum.
'Tamarind' has received many industry accolades including 'Michelin Star' (2001-2006), 'British Curry Awards 2005 - Most Innovative Restaurant', 'Best in Britain Awards for the top 10 restaurants in UK' (1995-2005), Restaurateurs Indian Restaurant of the Year Award (2003-2004). In 2001, with acclaimed chef Atul Kochhar cooking at the time, 'Tamarind' was one of two Indian restaurants to be the earliest recipients of a coveted star in Michelin's Guide Rouge's 103-year old history. In truth, they both received their stars in 2001 but alphabetically, 'Tamarind' comes before 'Zaika'.
Executive-Operations, Rajesh Suri and Executive Chef Alfred Prasad have helped retain the Michelin star for the past six consecutive years. Alfred Prasad joined Tamarind in 2001 as Sous Chef, and graduated to Executive Chef the following year after Mr Atul Kochhar left to run his own 'Benares' restaurant. Chef Prasad was the youngest Indian chef (29 years old) to receive a Michelin star and he has held it for 5 years.
When you get pass the reception staff, you are led downstairs, pass some interesting light fixtures and decoration, to the dining room (94 covers) in the basement. I am also happy to report that the toilets were checked as per Michelin standards!
As a lone diner, I was led to a small table near the bar. I chose to sit facing the bar rather than gazing across the dining room towards the kitchens. That allowed me to study the centre of operations at front-of-house, manned by Assistant Manager Anil Devgan. Therein lies the secret of a Michelin star, or three. The staff should look busy but supremely in control. I liken it to a regal swan cruising upriver; serene and majestic above the waterline but paddling fervently below! Observe an efficient team and you notice that nobody from the manager down to the bus-boy ever has empty hands. They are either serving something to a table or ferrying something back to their stations. It is like a ballet. Their cultivated 'casual' gazes are always taking in the environment, anticipating a need rather than correcting a fault.
Nikhil and Pradeep with Assistant Manager, Anil Devgan (centre)
Part of the cast who paddled serenely like swans. Note that Mr Devgan is still keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the house...
The superior wine list, with a great selection from around the world, is managed by Sommelier Ilirio Terranova.
Tamarinds menu is derived from traditional Moghul cuisine, based around the Tandoor oven. My first task was to give my ignorance free rein, so that a passing waiter could suggest a good wine to go with my dinner. I set a generous budget but restricted it to one bottle of red wine for all courses of my Tasting Menu. I could not manage a white and a red wine by myself. This may not be as easy as it sounds with sweet, sour, spicy, cold and hot dishes.
Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 1998, Domaine Henri Clerc & Fils, Bourgogne, France
Medium to dark ruby-colour with over-ripe summer fruit aromas of cherry and blackberry. Medium-to-full body in the mouth and chewy mid-palate that gains intensity with toasted oak, liquorice and chocolate notes. Increasing tannic finish with each glass. The wine is plumper and spicier than Domaine de La Romanée-Conti Grands Échézeaux, another grand cru Burgundy reviewed in a previous Grazing report:
Clos de Vougeot's robust fruitiness and complexity gave it the versatility to match the different dishes.
Label appearance changes with the light
The Domaine Henri Clerc et Fils estate is centred in Puligny-Montrachet and is more known for its grand cru whites but it also has access to grapes from Clos de Vougeot, as evidenced here. Since Bernard Clerc retired in 2002, Vincent Girardin has been in charge of the vineyards and winemaking. Girardin and his team handpick the grapes to ensure the healthiest fruit. The Clerc label was modernised in 2001, with simpler graphics, but I must admit to liking the traditional label better.
The vineyard of Clos de Vougeot is shared between 65 - 82 owners, depending on who is counting. This uncertainty demonstrates the legal wrangles of ownership in France with inheritance law that distributes property to all survivors of each generation. It also creates problems for wine tasters as the average production per owner is not far from 1,000 bottles and there may be 40 different tasting wines from one location. It is not surprising that many of those wines do not deserve the grand cru classification but all are legally entitled to it.
Cistercian monks first planted vine in Clos de Vougeot in 1110 A.D. and as they received donations of land, parcel by parcel, they added to the vineyard until enclosing the whole estate with a wall in 1330 A.D. The 12.5 acres (50 hectares) within a half-mile long wall is the largest grand cru area in Burgundy and the first experimental vineyard known to man. The scientific monks studied microclimate, grape variety and soil types. Clos de Vougeot is 'blessed' with the terror of terrior; every few yards the ground changes in depth, ratio of limestone-to-clay, dampness etc. The generalisation is that the best soils are at the top of the slope where the high limestone content but shallow soil force the grapes into extra vigour, whereas the lower sections near the highway being wet and loamy are less desirable. It is amusing that most owners seem to have plots "near the top section" when asked, such that nobody seems to own any of the land in the larger lower sections! Even generalisation is confounded by rich veins of chalk, running haphazardly in all sections, and the consummate skill of individual winemakers. Of course, the blended production of the single vineyard under the monks would have avoided patchiness in quality, after the research samples were taken.
'SHAHI DAWAT' TASTING MENU
Poppadum and trio of chutney
Supreme of chicken marinated with mint, coriander, green chillies and pomegranate seeds
Tender lamb cutlet marinated with raw papaya, garlic and star anise
Tiger prawn flavoured with ginger, paprika and ground spices
The flavours of each meat and flavourings were individually distinguishable and yet integrated. The trio of air, land and sea food were excellent. Without a doubt, the lamb was the star of the trio, meltingly tender and exploding flavour on the tongue. I was genuinely panting for more despite lamb/mutton being my least favourite meat.
Lentil dumplings, gram flour crisps and spiced chickpeas topped with mint chutney, sweetened yoghurt and tamarind chutney
This light interlude was an unusual mélange of warm, savoury, crunchy chips and soft chickpeas with cool, sour yoghurt and sweet chutneys. Very fresh and palate cleansing for the main courses to follow.
Braised rice with cumin and saffron
Each grain was separate and the slightest aroma of spice was perfect to not overpower the other dishes.
Butter Naan / Layered whole-wheat bread with mint / Date & Almond Naan
Fresh from the tandoor, these delicious breads were wasted on me because I could only take a small bite of each; there was so much food.
Kingfish and green peppers tossed with onions, tomato, green chillies and ground spices.
Tiger prawns tossed with onions, tomato, green chillies and pickling spices.
Slow cooked black lentils, a specialty of North Western India.
Aubergine and baby potato with cashew nuts, onions, tomato and pickling spices.
Seasonal vegetables tossed with cumin, red onions and crushed black pepper.
Tandoori Chicken cooked in a sauce of creamed fresh tomato with ginger and honey.
Boneless lamb with onions, ginger, garlic, green chillies, whole spices and yoghurt.
Even though the flavouring ingredients seemed similar from reading the menu, no two dishes tasted the same. I would be happy to choose any one as my main course in a full sized portion but if I had to rank them on the night, the kingfish and prawns would have been my last choices. The chicken and vegetable dishes were better than any other example from other Indian restaurants in the UK but my top choice was (surprising for me) the lamb again. That dish alone almost justifies the Michelin star!
The black lentils deserves a special mention as my choice of 'last spoonful' when I could eat nothing more! There appeared to be no limit to this degustation course because I was repeatedly offered refills of my choice of main course. I was sorely tempted for more lamb but with 5 pieces of bread, half a bowl of rice and many of my main dishes unfinished, I felt that would have been socially and morally uncouth......sigh.
This was an appreciated touch and certainly refreshed my 'degustation sweats'.
I managed to scrape a tiny spoonful into my mouth, in the interest of WFED honour, to find a smooth crystal-free ice cream with real mango.
Tea and Petit fours
I was hesitant to draw any conclusions because 'experts' on Indian cuisine are everywhere. Apart from the 1.1 billion Indians in their native country and the millions of expatriates and emigrants, the British and their ex-colonies have substantial interest in the cuisine. It is the most popular cuisine with the restaurant-going public in the UK.
I was brought up in a multi-ethnic environment and learnt to cook my first dish, a curry, from our Indian cook. At university in Britain, I joined the ranks of 'vindaloo votaries after 14 pints of beer' quite regularly. That, in itself, does not bode well for my discriminative aptitude. However, when epicurean tendencies became apparent, I had moved to Leicester, England, a city with more than 25% of its population of Indian/Pakistan/Bangladesh descent and the 2nd largest Hindu city in the world, outside India.
There are so many good Indian restaurants in Leicester that you could visit a different one almost every week for a year, but among the most up-market are 'The Curry Pot', 'The Rise Of The Raj' and 'The Curry House'. 'The Laguna Tandoori' is highly recommended in 'The Good Curry Guide' and rated 2nd-best in Britain by 'The Sun' newspaper. I don't know what to make of that last accolade because that's the paper famous for its 'Page 3 Stunner', a photo of a topless lass on page 3 every day. Anyway, the current Mrs MTF and I ate an Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi meal at least once a week for 8 years. We continue to scout the Indian restaurants on 3 continents.....
So, after all that, 'Tamarind' is the best Indian restaurant that I have tried in the UK, so far. The lamb dishes were the best I have ever had.
The extra touches, wine list and "cast of hundreds" probably justifies its Michelin star; 2-thumbs up and an appreciative WFED lick.
Photos & Text Copyright Melvyn Teillol-Foo, 2006.