Saturday, 27 November 2010

Whisky and Indian food matching at Quilon

I seem to have written a lot on the subject of Indian food and drink pairing of late. A notoriously hard cuisine to match with wine and sprits, earlier this year I attended a dinner at Moti Mahal in Holborn matching Indian food with saké, which worked strangely well.

More recently, I returned to the restaurant to see how Indian wines fared with their native cuisine, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines made from international varieties coming out of Grover Vineyards, in the Nandi Hills near Bangalore.

For the hat-trick, this month I attended a dinner at the Michelin-starred Quilon in St James's, to see whether whisky and Indian cuisine make good bedfellows. I don't pretend to be whisky fan – I can appreciate its complex array of aromas, but find the burn on the palate hard to swallow. The evening was hosted by self-confessed whisky nut Dominic Roskrow, who has recently published a 300-page tome on the subject: The World's Best Whiskies (£30). Quilon, which specialises in south west coastal Indian cuisine, has a 50-strong whisky list, so served as the ideal venue to put the pairings to the test.

The unassuming Roskrow is keen to divorce himself from any snobbery associated with whisky, which he views as 'a farmers drink' made in poor areas for people to celebrate and commiserate with. Roskrow touched on the need for whisky brands to reach out and communicate with the new generation of writers and bloggers coming through.

After his impassioned speech, mouthes were parched, and we were all keen to get our heads in a glass. First up we tried an Indian whisky: Amrut Double Cask, which had a young, intoxicating nose of barley, peat, cedar and spice - almost like Old Spice aftershave. The palate was smooth and creamy, with notes of vanilla and an aniseed finish. Next we imbibed a 1982 Karuizawa (pictured) from Japan, weighing in at a eye-watering 56% abv. The nose had lovely aromas of sea salt caramel, held up by an intensely peaty backbone. The charred, smokey notes made it taste like a liquid bonfire.

Third in line was my personal favourite: Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon – by far the smoothest of the quartet. An attractive deep amber colour, it smelt like a sweet Oloroso, full of vanilla, caramel and toffee notes, along with walnut, varnish and maple. The American oak leant it an approachable banoffee pie character. Smooth, round and long, it was the only whisky I didn't add water to. Finally, we were presented with a serious Scotch: Glenkeir Macallan 17 Year Old Cask Strength, which showed great elegance, with citrus and orange peel aromas, along with the customary peat, wood and spice.

But how did these alcoholic giants fare with the delicate Indian food? They take their spices so seriously at Quilon they have three full-time chefs working soley on sourcing them, and import more spices than any other London restaurant. Head chef Sriram Aylur is a purist, known for championing subtle flavours and not using any butter of cream in his dishes – something I was disappointed to hear, as I'm into rich, heart-curdling food.

The food may have been lacking in fat, but it was far from lacking in flavour. It's easy for a chef to slather his dishes in butter for instant customer gratification, but it takes real skill to create big flavours from subtle ingredients. Standout dishes included exquisitely moist, soft and juciy Dakshini pepper chicken, a powdery soya bean chop with plum sauce, Okra Pachadi – fried okras mixed with yoghurt, ground coconut and cumin seeds (I ate the entire bowl intended for four), and curious pepper ice cream, which perfectly navigated the playful divide between sweet and savoury.

I can't come to any prolific conclusions about the suitability of whisky as a drink pairing for Indian food, as I switched to wine as soon as the food arrived. But perhaps that says it all: some drinks are best enjoyed on their own, and the alcoholic burn from whisky wouldn't work with dishes with any degree of spice in them. But the fun is in the experimentation, and I'm happy to be proved wrong.

The next whisky dinner hosted by Dominic Roskrow at Quilon takes place on 1 February 2011. Tickets are priced at £59.50 per person. To book, call Quilon reservations on: 020 7821 1899.

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