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