Delhi may not be universally popular with my colleagues who go there on a regular basis. Bureaucracy, traffic, pollution, noise, heat and more bureaucracy all take their toll but if you can somehow find your way through that then the dining options can be superb. I’ve already written about Indian Accent which has become one of my favourite restaurants on our network and is clearly Michelin standard, but there are many other Delhi restaurants that provide, if not quite Michelin standard, excellent food that can be enjoyed at great prices.
One of those restaurants is the Taj Palace’s Masala Art, serving traditional North Indian fare with a little bit of ingenuity. The food is good, the staff friendly and the prices are reasonable considering its location. However, it was time to try something new and so we booked into the new flagship restaurant at the Taj Palace’s sister hotel, Varq at the Taj Mahal.
Decorated in dark reds, burgundy walls, crimson lampshades and a textured geometric feature wall with Indian friezes and trinkets in an attempt to create an intimate boudoir experience. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work. The room is too boxy, there’s not enough soft furnishings which allows sound to echo around the room and the tables are just too far apart. The lack of clientele on a Monday evening didn’t exactly help either.
Service was perfunctory with little real engagement from the staff who seemed almost reticent to talk, banter or attempt to ensure you were made welcome.
The wine list seemed intent on ensuring that very little wine was drunk in the restaurant with what looked to be fierce mark ups. Meerlust Rubicon? £90 a mere snip. Indeed looking around the place I only saw a bottle of wine on 2 out of 8 occupied tables, everybody else was on Kingfisher or water.
All of this could have been forgiven if the food matched up to the prices but that proved to be a disappointment too.
Varqui Crab starter
Layers of crab meat with tandoori prawn on filo sheets. Not too bad to start with, a good crab and savoury coconut flavour. Filo pastry was well done but this dish quickly became cloying. Just too rich with an excess of butter.
Gimmicky presentation with dry ice which didn’t add anything to the dish. Very tasty sorbet though with just enough salt to keep it on the savoury side. Very good palate cleanser.
Duck 4 Ways
Presentation was OK but again it seemed more like the chef was trying too hard and not concentrating on the harmony of the dish. Each component didn’t need to be in individual dishes and the fried duck egg would have been much better poached and not stuck to the bottom of the pan. Spice level was ideal for me and there was enough interest in the other 3 parts to make it worthwhile but I was left wondering what, if anything, pulled this course together. A very accomplished dhal accompanied the entree.
Rum Chocolate Dessert
Visually entertaining right up to the point where they poured a jug of Baileys over the top, resulting in a squelchy unappealing mess that tasted exactly like it looked! Very disappointing and seemed to be indicative of the whole meal, trying too hard but not quite getting it.
Service throughout was disappointing and compounded by not a single member of staff thanking us after paying the bill, or wishing us a good evening on the way out.
Vark needs to take a good look at what it is trying to achieve with its food. If they are looking for how to bring Indian food and service up to Michelin standard then they could do worse than pay a visit to Indian Accent to see how both of those are done properly. Until then, I’d give Varq a wide berth.
The Mullineux wines just keep on getting better. This new release of the White Blend is the best I’ve tasted from them so far, and previous vintages have been no slouches either which include the Platter’s 5 star wine of 2010.
There’s a bit more Chenin Blanc in the blend this year, now comprising 76% with the balance made up from Clairette and Viognier still. What is immediately apparent is the pure, delineated fruit balance of this wine and the less overtly oxidative character that was a supporting component previously. There’s a deft winemaker’s touch, lightly fragrant and subtle with honeyed apple, citrus and peach aromas.
Crushed stone, piercing minerality and linear acidity define and frame the palate with elegant and refined fruit flavours lightly edged with the merest hint of oak. Tremendous persistence and clarity on the finish. This is a joy to drink now but it’s going to be fascinating to watch its evolution over the next few years.
Available from Vincisive – £16.50
Austrian wine continues to intrigue me. We all know about their steely Rieslings, piercing Gruner Veltliners and wonderfully luscious noble sweet wines. Slightly less well known are the reds which have been making steady progress and this collaboration between Dorli Muhr and Dirk van der Niepoort has a South African connection with the winemaker, Craig Hawkins of Lammershoek, coming over to make the wine.
Carnuntum, which stretches from Vienna to the eastern border with the Slovak Republic, is known for Zweigelt but Dorli Muhr has chosen to concentrate instead on Blaufrankisch. With the fierce heat of the Pannonian summer moderated by the Danube and the nearby Neusiedlersee, Blaufrankisch is able to fully ripen but still retain the freshness that is so evident in this wine. There is a premium wine made from a single vineyard, Spitzerberg, which has 60 – 80 year old vines, but the Carnuntum is made from younger vines and is considerably cheaper.
The first thing that strikes you about this wine is it’s wonderful freshness. 2009 was a warm year in Austria and up to 60% whole bunch fermentation with stems ensures a superbly crisp crunch to the precise plum and blackcurrant fruit. There’s such a clear definition to this wine that it’s a delight to continue sipping but I’m determined to save some overnight and see how it develops.
That proved to be an excellent decision – which isn’t always the case! – and I was rewarded with a slightly softer edge to the wine with elegant lines, clear minerality and a rich depth to the fruit and light herbal notes, finishing with a sprinkling of spice and pepper. The more I tasted, the more complex this wine became, liquorice started to emerge as did cherries and thyme, concentration appeared to increase and new depths became evident. There’s plenty of structure in the form of rounded, minerally tannin and lively acidity, suggesting there’s still plenty more to give.
If you’ve tried any of Craig’s Lammershoek wines then you’ll spot some similarities, freshness for one. Craig’s Swartland Syrahs exhibit that same clarity, with ripe fruit around a clean, refreshing core seasoned with herbs. Craig likes to push boundaries with his minimalist style and this wine is no exception. Aged and fermented for the first 7 months without sulphur before a minimal dose during racking. After spending a total of 15 months in 3000L foudres the wine is then bottled, without fining or filtration. It’s risky winemaking, but I’m delighted to see winemakers of Craig’s calibre taking those risks – especially when we’re rewarded with something that excites and intrigues in equal measure.
One of the benefits of being connected to the wine trade in the UK is access to a wealth of trade tastings in London. These range from small and intimate, single merchant / importer tastings to the more generic large tastings organised by trade bodies. The Definitive Italian Wine Tasting held yesterday at Lord’s is the largest Italian wine tasting in the UK and is an opportunity to discover or re-acquaint yourself with some of Italy’s diverse indigenous grape varieties.
There are the usual suspects of Sangiovese, Verdicchio, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Pinot Grigio and Dolcetto but then we get down to Cataratto, Greco, Frappato, Vespolina, Nerello Mascalese and the truly obsure Ortrugo. You could spend the day never tasting the same grape variety twice! But the star of yesterday’s tasting was from a grape variety that I had heard of but given scant attention to previously – Lacrima Di Morro d’Alba, which was rescued from virtual extinction in 1985 according to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes.
Made from 100% Lacrima di Morro d’Alba grapes the wine is delicious right from the beginning with crunchy fruit, herb and spice pouring out of the glass and demanding an immediate respect. The palate is pure cherry with layers of spice, cinnamon, strawberry and wild thyme supported by light, velvety tannins and racy acidity. Each sip brings a different character to the fore, one sip is more herbal, the next floral followed by a kick of strawberry and finally a trace of incense on the long finish. This is a fabulous wine and if you want something just a little unusual from Italy this is well worth seeking out. 93/100
Imported by Amici-di-Bacco whose website I would recommend if you want to discover more of Italy’s lesser known wines.
On a recent spur of the moment trip to Cape Town I had the opportunity to meet up with David Sadie in the delightful Swartland town of Riebeek Kasteel. David has been making wine for Lemberg but has also been working on his own venture producing tiny quantities of exceptional wines and is now reducing his commitment at Lemberg to concentrate on the new venture. Lunch gave us the opportunity to sample all of David’s wines with food rather than in a sterile tasting room or cellar, which of course is how most people actually enjoy their wines.
Chenin Blanc 2012
Bottled in January 2013 only 2 barrels of this wine are made with fruit from Paardeberg and Malmesbury. Vines are up to 50 years old and dry farmed bushes.
This had a very fine apple nose with light oak influence and had clearly spent time on the lees. There was a pure mineral streak giving plenty of focus to the precise, clean and fresh palate. Tight still – the wine is very young so not surprising – but there’s good balance to this wine along with piercing acidity. Bottled unfined and unfiltered. 91/100
The 2011 vintage of this wine earned David 5 Platter stars and judging by this tasting I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that repeated. 50% Chenin Blanc with the rest made up from 20% each of Viognier and Clairette Blanche with Chardonnay contributing the remaining 10%. 4 barrels produced, 11 months in old oak.
Another very fine nose with peach and apple but the palate has a richer texture than the straight Chenin Blanc. Bruised apple and honey with ripe nectarine and a floral touch, lightly herbal on the finish. Excellent poise and balance. This is a classy, restrained and serious wine from David. 93/100
With a tiny production of only 2 barrels David has crafted a wonderful wine from 90% Grenache with 10% of additional Syrah. Using 40% whole bunch fermentation with gentle punchdowns for light extraction.
The nose is a beautifully subtle cocktail of strawberry and raspberry while the palate is remarkable for it’s sheer elegance and pure linear fruit. Raspberry, strawberry, plums, with savoury tannins adding support along with the juicy acidity. Lightly spicy on the finish with the merest hint of vanilla and fynbos. Elegant, supple, refined, this is a wine that demands contemplation and is one of the most accomplished I’ve ever tasted from South Africa. 94/100
David introduced this as a new wine in 2011 and it’s a very well crafted blend of Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Cinsault reflecting the Swartland’s affinity with Rhone varieties. The Syrah comes from the Riebeek Mountain’s shale soils, Carignan and Grenache noir from Paardeberg Mountain’s granite soils and Cinsault from Sand on top of clay based hills on the Western Hills of the Swartland.
Where David’s Grenache is immediately appealing, this blend has a brooding meaty complexity to it that will need more time to reveal its locked in secrets. Supremely integrated tannins frame the refined blackcurrant and mulberry fruit, fynbos and subtle vanilla. This is a wine to watch. 94/100
All of these wines will be arriving in the UK mid-July and will be available from Vincisive Wines.
I’m shocked to see that I haven’t posted a blog article or tasting note for months. I can blame all manner of things, work pressures, multiple tax returns, busy family life etc etc but the truth is probably procrastination and laziness. Time to get a grip!
Let’s start with one of the best wines I had on a holiday to New Zealand earlier this year (I told you I’d been busy!) It was a family holiday so there wasn’t a lot of time for serious wine visits but I did squeeze a couple of serious wines in. This was one of them.
Situated on the beautiful island of Waiheke just off Auckland, Man O’ War is located on the Eastern side of the island on exposed volcanic hilltops. This is their regular Chardonnay which receives a light oak touch with 2/3 of the wine fermented in stainless steel but this is enough to give it a tight flinty structure. Generously proportioned melon and grapefruit is threaded with a subtle floral note and leads to a stony mineral finish. 90/100
Bought for NZ$25 or about £13 this was the bargain of the holiday and the photo above was taken on Palm Beach in Waiheke were we spent a fabulous few days with friends with a fair quantity of this wine contributing to the experience!
I haven’t seen this vintage in the UK yet but Wine-Searcher shows 2009 at about £18.
This is a wine that I’ve consistently enjoyed over the last few years since first meeting Bevan Newton Johnson at the Bibendum annual tasting in 2010. I just happened to be visiting South Africa a couple of weeks later and Bevan kindly invited me over to see the winery. Set in the rugged beauty of the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, the drive out from Cape Town is worthwhile for the scenery alone, but the opportunity to taste some of South Africa’s finest Pinot Noir is the real reason for oenophiles to visit.
Kept relatively cool by the Cape Doctor, Pinot Noir has found its South African home in this valley and in the hands of husband and wife winemakers, Gordon & Nadia Newton Johnson, is beginning to find its own expression. Keeping their approach as natural as possible is the aim at Newton Johnson – hand picking and sorting, no chemical additions, natural yeast, gravity used instead of mechanical pumping, soft extraction (pigeage) by hand. The use of Stéphane Chassin oak barrels completes this Burgundian approach but the results take on their own South African form.
Of course there are general stylistics similarities, the generosity of fruit of Chambertin, the elegance of Chambolle and the silkiness of Volnay but the essence of Pinot Noir is its ability to transmit that most French of concepts, terroir. In the hands of a skilled winemaker Pinot Noir shouldn’t be used to just copy another region but to express and represent the land where it is grown. Gordon and Nadia understand this and have the confidence to allow their unique terroir to shine through.
And what a delight it is. Time in the bottle has added some flesh and weight to the wine but the Newton Johnson hallmark elegant and complex perfume is still the immediately engaging aspect. Cranberries and strawberry are noticeable straightaway but then the floral notes emerge, violets and roses with a spicy perfume. The tannins are almost imperceptible and incredibly smooth but they lend authority to the wine and give it a silky structure that frames the sinewy body and lively acidity. The oak treatment is harmonious and the toasted notes wrap around the strawberry, juniper and cherry flavours with a little vanilla fleshing out now. This wine is seamless, flowing elegantly from the perfumed start to the long full finish. 93/100
5 stars from Platter for the past 4 vintages, 2008 – 2011, are an indication of how good and consistent the Family Pinot Noir is from Newton Johnson. Not the obvious choice for South Africa but with committed and talented winemakers like the team at Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir would appear to have a promising future there.
Classic Clare Valley Riesling. A big hit of lime initially surfing on a wave of cut throat acidity but this quickly settles down to a more gentle minerally wine with grapefruit and a sinew of kerosene. This is delicious to drink now but the depth of flavour, zesty acidity and generous length suggest that another 5 years in the cellar would be well rewarded. 89/100
Utterly beguiling, this 40 year old Port was easily the star of New Year’s Eve. Still vibrant in hue with plenty of colour, the aroma whilst decanting was a delicious teaser of what was to come and I couldn’t resist a sip. Given a few hours in the decanter this developed layer upon layer upon layer of flavour. Still remarkably fruity with a seductive spiciness and velvety tannins that enveloped the palate. The feel of this wine was the most surprising aspect, time has transformed it into something really rather sensuous that glides through the mouth. You just want to savour this Port, take your time, feel it just a little longer, roll it around, almost dance with it, and then it’s gone. But it isn’t, the finish lingers and captivates. It stays with you, playfully haunting, and you cannot help but go back for another sip. Wonderful wine. 98/100
A last minute change to my roster saw me in a cool and foggy Delhi last week rather than heading off to Dubai for some summer sun. A plea for help in finding a new restaurant to visit via Twitter had me booking a table at Indian Accent, an oasis of calm in the Friends Colony suburb in South Delhi. The Chef, Manish Mehrotra, was recently awarded Chef of The Year by Vir Sanghvi, one of India’s best known food and travel journalists. In a city where I am constantly impressed by the quality of the food being served in its many restaurants, this is high praise indeed so I took a taxi through Delhi’s horribly busy traffic in good spirit.
Just 11 km from my hotel, the journey was a bruising one, even by Delhi standards. 5 lanes of traffic were trying to battle down the 3 lane highway, every driver constantly weaving and shifting lanes while trying to force his nose in front of everyone else. The indiscriminate use of horns amounted to a crashing cacophony of stentorian proportions. Spending over an hour in this bedlam wasn’t the best preparation for an afternoon of fine dining but any stresses I had disappeared when I entered the restaurant and was greeted by candles, soft light and a warm welcome from the smiling receptionist.
Ushered through to the dining room, I was taken to my table by a charming front of house lady, Palki, who took the time to carefully explain the menu and options. I’m usually acutely undecided when faced with a new menu, never wanting to restrict myself to a poor choice. In fact, one of my pleasures is simply asking the restaurant to feed me what they think is good, which places a lot of faith in the kitchen but also allows them to show off a little. This is where the tasting menu comes into its own. These are the chef’s signatures, this is what he does best and this is how he wants to show off. It gives an insight in to the way he thinks and his style of cooking. Has he considered the individual components, is it just a jumble of random dishes thrown together or is there a theme, do the dishes compliment each other and is there a progression throughout the meal?
There are 2 tasting menus at Indian Accent, non-vegetarian and of course, vegetarian. I’m an ardent meat eater and am usually condescending about vegetarian food, mostly being unidentifiable mush that all tastes the same. The exception is when I’m in India where the range of lentils, beans, vegetables, paneer, spices and fruit can be combined to produce a myriad of fascinating and satisfying dishes. The vegetarian menu did indeed look very tempting but alongside the non-vegetarian option it didn’t stand a chance!
First up came the obligatory amuse bouches. The danish blue cheese naan was a tiny morsel that exploded with flavour. This was an immediate wake up call that heightened the senses and was a precursor of the bold flavours to come. We’ve all had mushroom soup before and this was a fine example but the sprinkling of garam masala gave it a delicious piquancy that I hadn’t expected.
Bouche firmly amused we moved straight on to the first of 4 starters, a potato sphere chaat with white pea ragda.
In Hindi chaat means ‘to lick’ and is commonly used to describe savoury snacks served as street food. It’s easy to see how these crispy potato balls would be popular and easy to make on the streets of Delhi. I suspect they probably wouldn’t be as delicately flavoured or fine as this one from Manish. Breaking open the sphere revealed a nest of crunchy, light strands of potato that melt in the mouth but not before offering a striking contrast to the velvety white pea ragda. The ragda is gently spiced and this adds a wonderful balance to the dish that suffuses a soft heat at the end.
Hot on the heels of the potato chaat came another version of popular North Indian street food, this time from Punjab. Makkai pepper flat bread, sarson saag drizzle, chicken tikka and feta crumbs. This crispy bread made from corn wass quite firm and supported an array of savoury flavours in contrast to the relative sweetness of the previous dish. The mustard leaf (saag) spiciness bites through and although the feta helps calm down the heat, the temperature is ratcheting up.
Even though the restaurant was reasonably busy and more diners were coming in all the time, Manish made a point of coming to chat with his guests at periodic intervals. I spent a minute or 2 discussing the menu with him and how much I had enjoyed the meal so far. I would have liked to chat further but of course he had work to do and disappeared back to the kitchen. I was then delighted to see that he had sent out an additional dish that wasn’t on the tasting menu but had caught my eye from the a la carte menu – foie gras stuffed galawat.
Galawat kebabs are apparently made for the village elders, the ones whose teeth have all fallen out! They still like to eat meat but they can’t chew. The answer is a meltingly tender minced patty. The richness of the foie gras was almost secondary to the depth of flavour in the galawat. Both parts of the dish offered a silkiness that fused the 2 together. The accompanying sweet strawberry and green pepper chutney added further interest while balancing the savoury meat flavour and offering just enough heat from the chilli. Very good indeed.
The tweezers are for picking up the small pieces of coconut! Tender crab with a crunchy and spicy coating but the coconut is a little lost. The tomato chutney is a playful reminder of a marie rose prawn cocktail, but better, obviously. Not my favourite dish today and while the crab was well cooked, I was left looking for more flavour.
Tender meat just slides off the bone to reveal a moist, flavourful mouthful. There is just enough of a finely judged and delicate crunch on the outside and the kolonji seeds infuse a toastiness. Very well executed rib.
After finishing with the starters and before the main course, came a sorbet served in a mini cooker on a lollipop stick. I was expecting this to be fairly sweet but was surprised to find the sorbet had been seasoned with rock salt. The guava fruit came through clearly and the salt / sweet combination cleared the palate nicely.
There were lots of components to this dish and I could see why this had made its way on to the winter tasting menu. Richly flavoured lamb keema with its softly baked egg was winter soul food. Perfect to warm the heart and heighten the senses after a day spent in the cool, foggy conditions of a northern India winter. Served with the toasted pao, this was another nod to classic Indian street food.
A deliciously flavoured dal moradabadi side dish looks like becoming one of my favourite dals! Light and delicate, this smooth dal made from moong beans topped with tomato chutney was fresh, elegant and an exquisite foil to the richness of the keema.
A couple of kulchas stuffed with bacon rounded off this course, finding the corners of my belly that weren’t already full! It seemed rude not to try the chilli hoisin duck kulcha that was also offered and while this was very tasty, the chilli was perhaps a bit too much and I couldn’t figure out how a Chinese style side dish should fit in to the overall meal.
Old Monk is the largest selling dark rum in the world. Produced in Utar Pradesh since 1855, its reputation is significantly better than the mass produced cheap ‘Indian Rums’ that bear no resemblance to real rum. Combined with Valhrona chocolate, it gives a smooth, dark chocolate ball laced with the sweetness of the rum but still retains a bitter edge. This is as appealing on the palate is it is to the eye. Superb.
The coconut brûlée was perfection. Crisp palm sugar topping, not too thin, not too thick, covered the just set smooth créme infused with a light coconut essence.
The berry chaat was less successful with the winter strawberries lacking flavour and the salty marinade just a touch abrasive.
I suspect these sweets to finish with will have more resonance amongst those who grew up in India than they did with me. The 2 jaggery based sweets, one with rose petals and the other with sesame seeds, were both far more delicious than the tamarind based sweets.
The food was certainly memorable, it was well cooked and presented, challenging the palate at times but also comforting it when necessary. But it’s not just the food that marks out a good restaurant. The service was attentive and the staff always smiling, ready to discuss the food with you. The restaurant itself is relatively simple but comfortable and offers an oasis of peace and refinement away from the all-enveloping noise, crowds and hubbub outside.
The restaurant was reasonably busy, particularly for a Thursday lunchtime, with a cross section of diners including businessmen, ladies who lunch and families with children. At no time was service compromised and as mentioned earlier, Manish made time to visit all his diners. This aspect of service is often lacking in India’s restaurant, they can serve great food but they can’t always do it with great service. Indian Accent definitely seemed to understand this.
I was unable to sample the accompanying wine tasting menu but it seemed to offer relative value, for India, and I was delighted to see South Africa represented by L’Avenir Chenin Blanc 2010, paired with the only option I didn’t have, the main course garlic khada masala chicken.
India is also represented by Sula Dindori Shiraz 2010 to accompany the baked egg keema ghotala. Having tasted this wine earlier in the year at Sula’s vineyard in Nashik (see blog post) I can certainly recommend it.
Indian Accent and chef Manish Mehrotra are doing a superb job of smartening up Indian fine dining. As far as I know, Michelin inspectors don’t go to India but if they did then I’m sure Indian Accent would be a place they would most certainly visit. As should you!
You can find their website here Indian Accent