Last year The Times of India reported that a British MP tabled a motion in Parliament to have Glasgow granted European Union “Protected Designation of Origin” status for chicken tikka masala. Apparently, the dish was created there in an Indian restaurant in the early 1970s. But chefs in Delhi retorted that the dish was already established under the last great Mughal and their version doesn’t glow in the dark with tartrazine. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook declared chicken tikka masala a true British national dish, “because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”. Indeed; the chef had added a tin of Campbell’s soup.
India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire for 200 years. Bengali lascars were the first to set up Indian restaurants in Britain, where there are now more than 6 000. Until the 1970s, Bangladeshis ran most of these, accounting for the homogeneity of British Indian menus (vindaloo, rogan jos), whereas the diversity of cuisine on the subcontinent is mind-boggling.
A new approach to Indian gastronomy is overtaking these curry houses, making fine dining out of Indian culinary art. A leading exponent is the Taj Group’s executive chef, Hemant Oberoi. His training was classically French; only late in his career did he turn to researching Indian food.
The Bombay Brasserie in London is elegant if a little bland (in that hotel sort of way), with plush carpets, muted leather, sitar music and historical photos of Indian personages on the walls.
Much of the enjoyment of Indian food comes from the intense colours. From a silver pot, the waiter pours yellow spicy corn soup (£7), surprisingly robust for a vegetable stock base, over a sprinkling of popcorn. The slow-cooked lamb shank on the bone (£19) is plunged into a tomato-based saffron curry, with an elusive richness given by cashew nuts. Dessert is a magical blend of hot and cold, sweet and tart, smooth and crumbly. The final surprise arrives in an egg cup. What looks like a white aspirin, at the touch of hot water, magically erects itself into a towelette.
Oberoi has now opened in Cape Town the first Bombay Brasserie outside London.
He is a soft-spoken man who carries his enormous duties gracefully. He happened to be in the Taj Hotel during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Seven of his chefs were gunned down. His brave kitchen staff risked their lives hiding guests from the roving gunmen. Questioning him about the ordeal, I see from his eyes that he is exerting a lot of self-control.
I change the topic to local produce. He has been trying out an ostrich tikka, but the meat doesn’t readily absorb the Indian spices. Asked if he has a signature dish, he simply replies: “We are famous for our food.”
Executive chef Harpreet Longani was not on duty the night I snuck in to test how the establishment has settled. It’s dangerous to review too early. A scoop on Maze last year proved (ironically) prematurely positive. Descending into the wood-panelled sunken dining room, the first impression is of warmth and comfort — parquet floors, chandeliers, luxurious fabrics and opulent peacock motifs. At 42 seats, it is a pleasantly contained space. Two high tables, ideal if ordering the chef’s menu, have a view into the show kitchen, though most of the action happens backstage.
With Indian food of this subtlety, there is no question that wine is a better companion than beer. Manager Francois happily pairs a flight of wines with the eight courses on the chef’s “instant sketch menu” (R550; ordered à la carte, R645).
Garnished with a curry leaf, the amuse-gueule is a cake made from gram flour (ground chickpeas). Stripes of red chilli sauce and green coriander complete this savoury taster.
It may not be poured from a silver pot, but the corn soup (paired with a Klein Constantia riesling) is even better here than in London and so is the lamb shank (R60). On the chef’s menu soup is followed by a chicken tikka Doodhia kebab (R75), made from the thigh meat, which is tastier than breast.
Served on a small disc of saffron paratha, the Galouti lamb kebab (R80) is a pièce de résistance. The story goes that the ruler of Lucknow lost his teeth and asked his chefs to prepare the softest possible kebab. Its 35 spices pack a punch to which a Teddyhall chenin reserve stands up.
The next course is a generous portion of tandoori Norwegian salmon (R95) with bishop’s weed, partnered with a Creation sémillon.
A mango sorbet refreshes the palate before the aloo Katliyan (R60), wafer-thin potato slices; dal Makhani (R75), black lentils and kidney beans simmered overnight; prawns in a spicy onion chutney; two kinds of naan breads. Two wines complement the medley, a Paul Cluver weisser riesling and an Idiom sangiovese. Each time I think I can eat no more, the pure pleasure of the tastes eggs me on.
Next is the Allepey fish (R135): halibut in a light coconut curry. The fish is cooked in the sauce, so it’s full of the flavour. An Eagle’s Nest viognier prolongs the pleasure.
For dessert there is Khaas malpua (R55), carrot crêpe rolls filled with soft cotta cheese. The sweetness is toned down and not cloyingly authentic. The Malai kulfi (R55), a cardamom ice cream, is authentic, the milk cooked for hours to give the right thickness and caramelised flavours.
The miracle of this dinner is that, well before bedtime, it has magically dissolved. It’s a sensational meal you think about for days afterwards.
Bombay Brasserie, Courtfield Road, London. Tel: 020 737 04040. Bombay Brasserie, Taj Hotel, Wale Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 819 2066