A dirty vodka martini with a twist on the classic, by way of a brine ice cube that melts as you work your way through it. I’m a devoted dirty and dry martini drinker and can never decide which way to go, but here it’s best of both, the elixir turning dirtier as you sip and the brine melts. A martini is only good when it’s colder than cold, and I enjoy the novelty. As far as riffing on a classic, this is as far as I like it to go. I was recently persuaded to try a porcini martini which, although an impressive feat of mixology (and incredibly refined for a mushroom-tinged drink), reminded me that when you have a craving for a martini it’s always the clean, crisp original you’re hankering after – a hit to the tastebuds and temples with that delicious, stress-melting force. The ice cube is [email protected] stamp on the off-menu order and it’s completed with a cream cheese and parmesan stuffed olive, bringing the umami to the salt-booze party. I’m here for it.
The cocktail list is divided into seven ‘macrobiomes’: mountain, forest, grassland, polar, desert, marine, urban. Each page and biome includes a fact – snow in the Sahara, the mycelium of fungi, snow leopards in the Himalayas – and a bar bite that loosely relates (lamb rolls for grassland, smoked salmon for polar). Aside from a quick cheers to the natural world with a good cocktail, the theme is forgotten. Its real theme is a dark, private, sophisticated hotel bar – the kind you want to be sipping a martini at.
[email protected] is part of the five-star Taj Hotel chain, here at Buckingham Gate in Westminster. Its central, illustrious address makes it perfect for a hotel but I’ve never really considered this small section of London for food and drinks, an oddly quiet, calm and secretive place. It sits in a listed courtyard in its Victorian setting, an English garden filled with artwork and a beautiful fountain. The design of the restaurant brings the outside in, carrying a light and airy feel throughout, with large floor-to-ceiling windows. The dining room has wood cladding and a soft colour palette, creating a relaxing environment – soundtracked this evening by a guitarist and singer covering pop songs – and an open kitchen with a chef’s table.
As we sit down, our waiter tells us about the menu with an even bigger scope than the natural world and its biomes: ‘global fusion’. Moroccan Poke, Paneer Wellington and Hoisin Duck Italia feature; I can’t wait to see how these are done. Only in a hotel restaurant can you take on such a massive and eclectic theme. I love a hotel restaurant.
We start with burrata chaat, the highlight of the evening. It sounds a lot, and so it is, but my word I will be craving this again and soon. The chaat is savoury and crunchy, the tamarind chutney adds sweetness and tang, the mint and onion-tomato salsa adding a little bit of fresh with the burrata, a creamy, heavy crowning extra. It’s £11 and is hands down the best value, and tasting, dish.
Mini naans of chicken tikka masala with mango yoghurt should have been a favourite but didn’t quite hit the spot – rather too sweet and perhaps overshadowed by the chaat. Paneer Wellington had a golden, light puff pastry, a rich, spiced masala sauce and was beautifully served. Double fish and chips was almost mandatory to order – a dish that combines classic battered haddock and spiced fried chickpea haddock with mint chutney and tartare sauce. A more traditional Indian-British fusion, we try Coronation Malai Chicken – tender chunks of chicken thigh and breast with a creamy, intense sauce with almonds and raisins, served with naan. At £22 it’s a slightly pricer main but is completely delicious and comes a close second to the chaat. An accidental order of spiced chips proves that [email protected] can make them perfectly.
Not allowed to leave without dessert, our waiter brings out the lightest from the menu that includes apple mousse and masala tea crème brûlée. A trio of mini magnums tops the meal: rose and strawberry, orange and cardamom, white chocolate and yuzu. Service is impeccable at [email protected] and it’s a novelty to be in this grand space so close to the centre of town. I certainly won’t forget the Taj is here, when needing somewhere for a good cocktail and a mouth watering chaat in central again.
51 Buckingham Gate