Words, wise or otherwise, about wine

Posts tagged “restaurant

Varq – Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi

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

Vark-1

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.

Mango Sorbet

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

Vark-3

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

Vark-6

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.

Vark-7

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.


Indian Accent Restaurant – Delhi

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.

Indian Accent entrance

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!

Danish Blue Cheese Naan & Mushroom Soup

Danish Blue Cheese Naan & Mushroom Soup

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.

Potato Sphere Chaat, White Pea Ragda

Potato Sphere Chaat, 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.

Makkai Pepper Flat Bread

Makkai Pepper Flat Bread

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.

Foie Gras stuffed Galawat

Foie Gras stuffed Galawat

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.

Soft Shell Crab, Flame Roast Coconut, Tomato Pickle Chutney

Soft Shell Crab, Flame Roast Coconut, Tomato Pickle Chutney

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.

Meetha Achaar Chilean Spare Rib

Meetha Achaar Chilean Spare Rib

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.

Guava Kulfi Sorbet

Guava Kulfi Sorbet

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.

Baked Egg Keema Ghotala, Batata Fry, Butter Broon Pao

Baked Egg Keema Ghotala, Batata Fry, Butter Broon Pao

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 Rum Ball

Old Monk Rum Ball

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.

Coconut Brûlée, Berry Chaat, Old Monk Rum Ball

Coconut Brûlée, Berry Chaat, Old Monk Rum Ball

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.

Charpoy of School Memories

Charpoy of School Memories

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 

Many thanks to Pooja Vir for recommending Indian Accent (you can read her excellent blog here) and also to Asma Said Khan of  Darjeeling Express for reigniting my love of Indian food.

Chef Manish Mehrotra

Chef Manish Mehrotra