Restaurants in Theatreland fight a constant battle against show times disrupting the naturally evolving evening. On top of this, the weekends are plagued by day-trippers looking for a quick bite to eat before filling the stiletto-stabbed floors of central London clubs. Though this fast paced environment is great if you’re involved, the huge fluctuations in atmosphere can cause a distraction to your dining experience. There are fortunately a few places that prevail – the restaurants that do not owe success to convenience or location, but quality. Luckily Moti Mahal tilted more towards the latter.
At first glance, Moti Mahal is more like a French brasserie than an Indian restaurant. White linen tablecloths smother round tables populated by large wine glasses, neatly folded napkins, heavy set cutlery and dainty candles; waist-coated cocktail bartenders guard an impressive collection of spirits; new entrants are greeted by friendly receptionists; menus and wine lists are leather-bound and the open kitchen not only allows diners to see chefs in action but adds another edge to the atmosphere. There is additional seating underground that comprises of both banquet-accessorised booths and a larger table for groups. The atmosphere is more tranquil down below and though the larger table provides the perfect setting for a party, the booths can encourage intimacy for the more romantically focussed dinners.
Variety is always the order of play at Indian restaurants and this was even evident in the clientele. Fortunately, Moti Mahal seemed immune from the plague of Londoners that loudly blast through Covent Garden with their palpable booze-filled libidos and Sambuca-scented chins. Instead, the crowd is more relaxed and the length of time they seemed to spend at the restaurant suggested Moti Mahal was the centrepiece of their night and not an afterthought or opening act to a main event. Food-wise, we were set to explore the variety at Moti Mahal in the most comprehensive way possible with the taster menu.
In a twist to most taster menus that can seem more conceptual, the taster menu at Moti Mahal was smaller versions of pre-existing dishes. This consisted of three dishes for a starter and five for the main (there is also the option to have a paired wine or beer with each course). Having kicked off proceedings with the complimentary DIY salad board the first round of dishes arrived. Tandoor glazed homemade fennel paneer – delicate and subtle flavours but the texture of this unique cheese may not be for everyone – and tandoor grilled guinea fowl with jiggery and chilli glaze (hats off for saluting the game season), which was one of the best dishes of the night, succulent and tender meat with the rich and unmistakeable char of tandoor cooked meat. The final component of the starting trio was seared scallops with coriander and tamarind, served on crushed limes and cumin peas. Scallops are one of my favourite things but their beauty is in the natural flavour and all of the ‘withs’ and ‘ons’ are nice additions but take away focus from the already present flavours of scallops.
This was paired with a 2012 Soul Tree, Sauvignon Blanc, Nashik Valley, India – sharing a latitude with France results in Indian wine being much better than you would have thought, this was a well chosen pairing that didn’t distract from the variety of flavours the starter had on offer.
The main course was a more recognisable affair – spicy lamb curry, sea bass In coconut and curry leaf sauce, black lentils, seasonal vegetables, green salad, cucumber and yogurt, all served with tandoor baked breads and saffron baked rice. The winners of this course were undoubtedly the lamb and sea bass – two contrasting flavours that complemented one another greatly. The rice and did not distract from the flavours of the main dishes and the portions did not leave you wanting.
Though the UK’s love of Indian food has led to some features that have taken too much a west-friendly guise, there are some great examples of the seemingly boundless variety of Indian cuisine and Moti Mahal is an excellent place to find this. To me, Indian restaurants are like cousins – I never go out of my way to pay them a visit, but always have a great time when I do.
45 Great Queen Street
London, WC2B 5AA