Saturday, 28 August 2010

Tamarind restaurant review

Tamarind was the first Indian restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star. Now in its 16th year, head chef Alfred Prasad clawed back the coveted star in January, after losing it last year, so it's business as usual at the golden-hued the Mayfair haunt.

Located in a basement on Queen street in Green Park, the cosy space is paved with gold, from the suede columns to the gold spattered etched glass. Middle Eastern filigree panels abound, creating an ambiance of luxurious exoticism.

I've been to Tamarind once before, as an over-enthusiastic student journalist on one of my first interview assignments. My subject? Fellow journalist Toby Young, a restaurant critic for the Evening Standard at the time. His paperback How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was riding high in the book charts, and he revealed in the interview that the book was going to be made into a film, with Simon Pegg playing the lead. Young had brought along Jerry Springer's lawyer in the hope of him landing him a slot on Oprah. It never happened.

This time around I brought my mum for company. We began with a glass of ice cold Taittinger Brut Champagne, an ideal apéritif, which we drank whilst nibbling on paper thin poppadoms served with a trio of dips: date, tomato and black currant.

Tamarind's food is rooted in tradition, but allows space for innovation. The food, like the room, is punchy and memorable without being overpowering. Derived from traditional Mogul cuisine, the bread, meat, fish and game are all cooked on a North West Indian tandoor oven, imbuing them with their signature smoky finish.

The à la carte menu is incredibly simple and pared down at a mere two pages. We began with a trio of starters: their signature grilled scallops with fennel and star-anise, ground lamb cakes with lentils and cinnamon served on mint chutney and spiced potato cakes filled with spinach and drizzled with tamarind. The scallops were mouthwateringly tender and exquisitely cooked – I could have eaten a shoal of them, while the lamb cake was full of flavour and had a lovely crumbly, melt-in-the-mouth texture. The potato cake was the least impressive, overpowered slightly by the potent tamarind.

Our wine pairing for the starter was the impressive, almost comic sounding 3 Amigos, made from a blend of Marsanne, Rousanne and Chardonnay from Margaret River in Western Australia. It had a lovely golden hue and a distinctly Burgundian nose, due to the area's cooler climate. Rounded, creamy and mellow, it was surprisingly elegant.

Next up we were presented with a fish duo: a jumbo tiger prawn marinated with ginger, yoghurt, ground spices and paprika, and kingfish marinated with yoghurt, lime-leaf, green chili and saffron. I was seriously impressed - the kingfish was tender and aromatic, and yet full bodied and meaty, while the juicy prawn had a lovely smoky quality from the tandoor, and was both flavoursome and elegant. We were also served the moreish channa chaat, a popular Indian snack composed of spicy chickpeas and wheat crisps drizzled with sweetened yoghurt and blueberries.

During a brief interlude in which to somehow try and find space in my tummy for more, we munched on delicious date, coconut and poppy seed naan. Unfortunately, by this point I was a little too full to fully appreciate the main event. The curries were served in quaint copper pots, adding to the authentic Indian feel. We tried a creamy chicken tikka flavoured with crushed fenugreek leaves and a lamb masala with puréed spinach, garlic and cumin, served alongside tadka dal and dal makni – black lentils from the Northwest frontier.

Both curries were delicately spiced, which suits me, as I was born to to mild. The lamb masala got a bit lost in the sea of spinach, and it was hard to tell what animal I was eating, but the chicken tikka was deliciously rich and creamy. It's incredibly difficult to successfully match wine with Indian food, but we opted for a half bottle of Boyd-Cantenac 2000 from the Left Bank in Bordeaux. Black currant and mint dominant, it was elegant, youthful for its years, and, according to my mum, 'like drinking silk'.

Pudding (yes, I found space), came in the form of the odd sounding but delicious tasting carrot fudge topped with pistachios and rich, milky vanilla ice cream. Tamarind is a place that divides critics and loyalties alike. Some say it's overpriced, others that the food is underwhelming. I disagree. I can see why it won its Michelin star back this year.

While the food may be priced highly, it is exemplary Indian cuisine as close as you can get in London to the real thing. Ingredients are expertly used, spices are subtle and flavours are aromatic and elegant rather than knock-out hot. Like the menu says, it has changed my perception of Indian dining, which is a million miles from a fiery vindaloo. Authentic Indian cuisine is as elegant and refined as anything in Europe, and we could learn a lot from it. Britain's love affair with Indian food is far from over.

Monday, 23 August 2010

English wine tasting

We all know about the merits of English sparkling wine – Ridgeview Estate's Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 recently won the UK Sparkling Over £10 Regional Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards, making it a contender for the Sparkling Over £10 International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards ceremony dinner on 1 September, where it will be competing on a level playing field with heavyweight vintage Champagnes.

Sparkling wines aside, when my flatmate Jimmy Smith, who runs the West London Wine School in Fulham, mentioned he was hosting a Best of British wine tasting, I was the first to sign up, excited about trying the still wines on offer.

A modest and manageable eight wines were on show – four whites, one red and three sparklers. We seem to be experiencing something of a wine boom in England – planting is at an all time high. The 2009 figures show 1,215 hectares under vine, with Champagne grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay being the most widely planted, followed by trendy grape Bacchus, named, of course, after the Roman god of wine.

A whopping 75% of England's vineyards are in the south, clustered around Sussex, Surrey and Kent. Although winemaking in England dates back to AD43, when the Romans brought vines to Britain, it's only over the past 20 years that we've started to be taken seriously as a quality wine producing country. And things are on the up, with both foreign and local investment, a surge of skilled winemakers coming up through the ranks, and the effects of Global Warming, England is emerging as a serious player in the wine world.

There are currently 381 vineyards in England, stretching as far north as Yorkshire, and 116 wineries producing around 2.2m bottles a year, and a record 3.2m in 2009. Jimmy's tasting began with Stanlake Park Regatta White 2007, a blend of Ortega (named after the Spanish liberal philosopher José Ortega), Madeleine Angevine and Schonburger. The stunning, sprawling Stanlake Park manor house wouldn't look out of place on the Left Bank. The wine however, failed to impress. It had some attractive green fruit and crisp acidity, but was too light bodied to get me excited.

On to wine 2; Denbies Flint Valley NV from the Surrey-based winery boasting the biggest single vineyard in the UK. I have to admit to being both proud and nostalgic about tasting this wine. I was born ten minutes from the vineyard in Godstone a year before it was founded in 1984. There is something wonderful about trying a wine from where you were born. I felt the same pride (albeit disproportional) as natives of Bordeaux and Champagne do about their wines. A blend of Reichensteiner, Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay, it had a slightly oily texture, with a flinty, mineral core and sharp green apple and citrus notes.

Two Chapel Down wines were on show – Bacchus 2009 and Brut Sparkling NV. With 19 vineyards scattered across Kent, Chapel Down has won a slew of awards over the past few years. Along with Ortega, Bacchus is making a name for itself as an exciting variety to watch. The pronounced nose showed passionfruit, nettle and lime, while the sharp palate was filled with puckering lime and gooseberry - we just might have found England's answer to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

The only red of the night, Bolney Estate Dark Harvest 2008, came from Bookers in Sussex. Made from the early ripening Rondo grape, with a small amount of inky Dornfelder thrown in, it was liquid proof of how far we've got to go with our reds. It tasted like a church – dusty and musty, but there were faint, pleasurable hints of Pinot Noir through its smoke, spice and soft red fruit.

We ended with a trio of sparklers – Chapel Down (as previously mentioned), Somborne Valley Rosé 2006 and, for the grand finale, Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2005. Sharing Champagne's clement climate and limestone and chalk soils, England has the perfect terroir for sparkling wine – production is set to double in 2010, from 3m to 7m bottles a year. The Somborne had an odd, almost cheesy nose, but a wonderfully elegant palate of apples, strawberries and raspberries, with a creamy, lemony mousse. But the Nyetimber 2005 stood out like a diamond in the dirt. A rich golden hue, if I were to get this in a blind tasting, it would be almost impossible not to place it in Champagne. The nose sang of rich autolytic notes - biscuit, toasted almonds and brioche. The palate was rich and creamy, like a plate of hot buttered croissants.

The tasting has given me a lot to think about. Not only are we now making sparkling wines that can hold their own against the best vintage Champagnes, we seem to have found our own homegrown version of super seller Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in Bacchus, and a rising star in Ortega. There is so much to celebrate in English wine right now - the future's bright.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Leiths Meat Bible

The Leiths Meat Bible by Max Clark and Susan Spaull launched last month. Inside is a chapter dedicated to exotic meats, with recipes for crocodile wantons, bison burgers, llama stew and python nuggets.

Clark says she expects to see these protein rich, low fat meats making their way onto restaurant menus and into shopping baskets over the next decade. With the increased availability of these rare and exciting meats, London restaurants are incorporating them into their menus, giving an exotic twist to their standard fare.

The night of the launch Clark was on hand at Leiths cooking a number of the wild things. I tried antelope and zebra. Both were surprisingly tender, and while the antelope was very beef-like, the Zebra had a distinct venison edge. I felt slightly guilty about eating a zoo animal, something so wild and beautiful, but it was delicious.

London diners are in constant search of new culinary thrills. A chicken breast won’t cut it anymore – we want our food to have been (ethically) sourced from the Australian Outback.

South African restaurant Vivat Bacchus in Farringdon was one of the first in on the trend – their crocodile tail spring rolls are ludicrously popular. Archipelago in Whitfield Street pushes the envelope even further, offering Bushtucker Trial style locust salad and chocolate covered scorpions, which, incidentally, have been fling off the shelves at Fortnum & Mason, along with oven-baked tarantulas and Thai curried crickets.

Across town, The Commander in Noting Hill serves the safer sounding springbok carpaccio, while newly-opened South African haunt Shaka Zulu – a subtle as a vuvuzela Zulu kingdom in the bowls of Gilgamesh in Camden, plates up springbok, kudu and ostrich terrine. London’s restaurants have heard the call of the wild.