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
“ONE TWO ONE SIX FIVE….(unintelligible rambling)……MUMBAI TO VARANASI DEPARTS FROM PLATFORM 1 AT 0520” shrieks the high pitched female announcer on PA system. She repeats rapidly 15 times, pauses for breath and starts again.
Mumbai’s Lokmanyatilak station is very much alive and bustling at 5 in the morning. Crowds are moving in all directions, getting on trains, getting off trains, waving goodbye to family and friends. I’ve only had 1 hour of sleep after flying from Hong Kong to Mumbai but the raucous energy and adrenaline of the surging masses around me is infectious. Throw in the fact that this is the first time I’ve been brave enough to use the notorious Indian rail system, and my sense of adventure is starting to build, but please turn down the PA volume!
(Apologies for the poor quality of photos in this post. I only had my iPhone with me which doesn’t cope well in low light.)
I’m off to visit Sula Vineyards to the west of Nashik which is a medium sized town some 170km north-east of Mumbai. The train is packed and I was fortunate to buy the last ticket in AC-2 car, the highest class of carriage on this particular train. It is remarkably comfortable and a world away from the shockingly crowded images that we have all seen of people on roofs and hanging on to the outside of trains. I have to walk past a dozen ‘Sleeper’ class carriages – don’t even think of travelling this way, ‘sleeper’ isn’t really an accurate description! – and find my carriage about 1/2 a mile down the platform. I’m pleasantly surprised to find a bed berth complete with a package containing clean sheets and a blanket. It’s 3 1/2 hours to Nashik and I need some sleep.
The ticket cost me 478 Rupees, or about £6, which seems like a bargain especially as the train left on time to the second. It’s easy to scoff at many things in India from our ‘civilised’ perspective but they do seem to get some things right. Although, as will become clear, this system seems to hang on a knife edge and chaos is never really that far away.
India is not exactly well known for its wines of course but Sula is one of the leading producers in the state of Maharashtra and they have a well established tasting room and winery tour. Sula launched their first wines in 2000, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. This has been followed by with Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Grenache and even Riesling.
The general climate in India is not ideally suited for the production of high quality grapes. At 200N latitude it is well outside the traditionally accepted wine growing zone of 300 – 500 and suffers from too much heat, too much rain and too much summer! The growing season is reversed, following the southern hemisphere timings avoiding the monsoon season of June to September and the torrential thunderstorms the SW monsoon brings. Harvest normally takes place between February and April.
Despite these climatic problems, there is a steadily growing and thriving wine industry that is paying attention to quality issues and to producing commercially successful wines. High taxes on imported wines have allowed the industry to establish itself and grow without facing the cut-throat reality of competition from international brands. Fine wines are prohibitively expensive in India but a growing interest in wine from an increasingly affluent middle class is likely to increase pressure for some of these taxes to be reduced. Large multinationals such as Diageo are also lobbying aggressively to gain entry in to the market and it’s only a matter of time before home grown wines will have to adapt and compete on a more level playing field.
The current approach seems to be conservative and the wines reflect this having a distinct ‘middle of the road’ feel to them, designed to appeal to a mass market rather than wines of character. I didn’t come across any wines that were ambitious, idiosyncratic or genuinely exciting. Many of the wines could be described as commercial and had a touch of residual sugar to them. While this may help pair them better with some spicy Indian dishes, once the local consumer begins to see good quality wines being imported this sweetness can quickly seem confected.
The 3 1/2 hours on the train passed quickly, mostly in a doze, and we arrived on time at Nashik. After the usual haggling with a taxi driver I was on my way to the vineyards, some 25km away. It seemed a bit incongruous passing vineyards with palm trees around them but these were mostly Thompson seedless table grapes and the Sula vineyards were a bit further on. The taxi pulled up at the gate and inside were well tended vineyards. There was a sense of order and calm that is difficult to find in Mumbai and immediate impressions were positive.
The vineyard at the Sula winery is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. However, most of the grapes are actually grown at Dindori which is about 35km further north. All the vines that I could see were trained quadrilaterally using the lyre system. This helps to control the vigour of the vines and gives better exposure of the fruit and foliage due to less shading. This system is not suitable for mechanical harvesting or pruning but there is no shortage of labour in India so mechanical harvesting and pruning is not used. Labour is cheap here and 15 years after planting the first vines the workforce is now well trained and experienced.
Despite the high rainfall, the vines are irrigated by drip hoses. The Chenin Blanc block was being irrigated during my visit. Incidentally, this block seemed to have very high yields and this was confirmed by the winemaker, Santosh Nijai, who said that this block produced grapes for their sparkling wine where high yields were desirable.
My tasting notes are given at the end of the blog but I spent a very pleasant afternoon sitting in the sunshine on the outside deck of the tasting room. I tasted all the wines that were currently available and chatted to the tasting room staff who were all extremely friendly and efficient but unfortunately unable to answer any questions that weren’t entirely superficial. To be fair, their training is probably aimed at the hordes of local tourists that descend on the vineyards every day. while I sat enjoying a few glasses of different wines, reading Benjamin Lewis’ latest book all about Pinot Noir, I must have counted at least 7 or 8 coaches spilling 30 or 40 passengers at a time through the winery’s doors. Sula is clearly a popular attraction which can only be good news for the nascent wine industry.
There followed a short tour around the winery which looked like nearly every other winery I’ve been to – stainless steel fermentation tanks, pneumatic presses, destemmers and a barrel room. The oak used is a mixture of US and French.
Eventually it was time to leave and take my cab back to the train station at Nishak and this was when ‘Incredible India’ struck with a vengeance. I was greeted by a chaotic and crowded scene at the station and I saw that a number of trains had been cancelled, including mine. While the train system works well as long as there are no problems, the system is plunged in to chaos as soon as something disrupts the timetable and today there had been accident somewhere along the line. Train tickets in India are valid only for a specific train, and only for a specific seat. You cannot change anything and neither is the ticket transferable, if your train is cancelled then so is your ticket. Naturally, I was becoming concerned and had no idea how to get back to Mumbai. I can’t speak Marathai or Hindi but found a friendly station manager who spoke enough English to help me buy a standby ticket. I then had to find a train that was going to Mumbai and hope that there was going to be a space on it somewhere, hopefully not in the sleeper class mentioned earlier but I would have to take it if nothing else was available.
Fortunately I didn’t have long to wait and the ticket inspector on the next train found me a seat in AC-3 class which wasn’t quite as comfortable as the journey up to Nashik but was nevertheless not bad and better than many British trains I’ve had the misfortune to travel on. At least I had a seat (again, unlike British trains that often only have standing room) and was on the way to Mumbai. This turned into a 7 hour epic journey as we stopped every few kilometers while trains were shuffled around the system. I arrived back in Mumbai at midnight, having been on the go for over 20 hours but I had made some new friends on the journey and had experienced a side of India that I rarely get to glimpse from the luxury of the Taj hotel.
Sula Brut NV
This is a méthode traditionnelle wine that spends 16-18 months on the lees. 60% Chenin Blanc and 40% Thompson seedless.
Full mousse that dies down quickly to give a gentle flow of bubbles. Pleasant apple and ripe pear nose. The palate is heavier but still has apple notes with some bitterness and even a touch of smoke. A simple sparkling wine with a short finish.
Dindori Reserve Viognier 2011
Light golden green colour with an assertive nose of clean stone fruits – apricot and peach with a floral punch. Pronounced palate with a similar profile to the aroma but with a touch of bitterness and chalk on the finish. The winemaker confirmed that this had been acidified but it’s a good effort at Viognier and should go well with spicy food.
Zinfandel Blush 2011
Looks like a Californian Zinfandel blush and smells like a Californian Zinfandel blush but is less overtly a Californian Zinfandel blush on the palate. There’s just a touch of sweetness and there’s bags of red cherry fruit with a light tannic touch and just a hint of smoke on the medium finish. There’s just enough refreshing acidity and this is a lot more enjoyable than many Californian examples.
Sula Mosaic NV
This is a blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Shiraz. It has a muted nose of red fruits, predominantly cherries but is quite confected. There are some supple tannins and the oak influence is obvious – vanilla and smoke from wood chips and staves. Simple wine that isn’t aiming to excite but is certainly quaffable.
Dindori Reserve Shiraz 2010
A blend of 80% Shiraz and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon aged in oak barriques for up to 1 year, 25-30% of which are new. The Dindori soil is iron rich gravel that gives good drainage.
This wine has a delicious nose of restrained dark fruits, plum, leather and spice. Firm, well integrated tannins, balanced acidity, medium acidity and an intriguing flavour profile of plums, blackcurrants, spice, oak, vanilla and smoke. There’s a long finish that carries the fruit without any of the bitterness that is evident in the previous wines. Most enjoyable wine of the day.
Sula Rosé Brut Sparkling
97% Chenin Blanc and 3% Zinfandel. Méthode traditionnelle with 18 months lees ageing.
Vivid pink, most definitely not salmon coloured! There is a gentle release of fine persistent bubbles. The nose is tight but there are apples, strawberries and apricots. The palate is a let down with a confected strawberry flavour. It’s off dry and has a bitter edge. There are no discernible autolytic or lees notes but they may be masked by an unpleasant ash fire aspect to the finish. There’s very little to like about this wine.
Sula Riesling 2011
Pale lemon green colour. An overtly fruit driven nose of apples and apricots, The palate is thin and disappointing, there’s fruit and even some florality but it lacks any body or energy. Acidity is virtually non-existent and the flabbiness of the wine is matched only by the disappointment of the incredibly short finish.
Sula Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Crisp nettle nose, pleasantly herbaceous with a touch of tropical fruit and grapefruit. There’s a very decent palate, herbaceous without being overly so and there’s even a streak of minerality. Fine acidity, guava fruit on the finish. Fully deserving of its Decanter Silver award.
Sula Zinfandel 2011
Dark red, not quite opaque. Dark cherry nose and the palate carries this through with a wave of vanilla, gentle tannins and a hint of residual sugar. This is gentle Zinfandel, not at all jammy or baked but there’s still that whiff of smoke that has been prevalent in many of the wines – is this oak, winemaking or terroir?