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.

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