London’s Brick Lane, aka Curry Mile, is the most famous street in the city for cheap and cheerful Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants. But if you want sophistication and a fine dining experience, look no further than Moti Mahal on Great Queen Street, just next door to the Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden.
Meaning ‘pearl palace’ in Urdu, the first Moti Mahal restaurant was established in 1959 in Delhi and prides itself on inventing chicken tikka masala’s predecessor, murgh makhani. It was also the first to start using a tandoor in the commercial kitchen.
Moti Mahal opened in London in 2005. Its head-chef, Delhi-born Anirudh Arora, was one of the first to start cooking on a Thatee grill, traditionally used in rural India. Aged 25, chef Ani was already cooking for India’s then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He later worked at the Udaimahal restaurant at Oberoi-owned Udaivilas hotel in Udaipur and Benares in Berkeley Square in London.
The son of an Indian army officer, Anirudh lived in regions as diverse as Kashmir, Ladakh, Lucknow and Calcutta. At Moti Mahal he introduced the Grand Trunk Road Menu, named after the ancient route that has linked the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent from Bengal to Pakistan and Afghanistan since the 16th century.
A few years ago chef Ani revisited the places he had travelled with his father along India’s most significant and oldest road, chose the best rural recipes and wove them into an elegant dining experience available in the centre of London.
Moti Mahal’s interior is beautiful and elegant, adorned with cream colours, white napery and chandeliers. It has a well-stocked bar with a creative cocktail list and a large selection of the most exclusive Whiskeys (it has been awarded the Silver Medal by the Scotch Whiskey Society).
My friend Simona and I started our journey through India’s states with the help of our Italian waiter Antonio (“Yes, being Italian I LOVE food,” he says, claiming his passion extends far beyond his mum’s home cooking) with lentil dumplings with yoghurt, tamarind and mint chutney from the streets of Old Delhi, called Bhalla Papdi Chaat.
After munching on delicious, soft and light dumplings, off we went away from the Grand Trunk Road to Hyderabad in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Antonio recommended we try one of their best-sellers – Gosht – the butterflied leg of lamb, seasoned with coriander, garlic and green chillies.
The lamb was cooked on the Thatee grill, which chef Ani had to make himself with the help of an 82-year old expert, because this traditional process of grilling has vanished from modern cooking in India when the meat is sandwiched between two clamps on the grill. It must be a favourite for devotees of a low-carb diet, because the meat is lean, light and is served with whole vegetables such as cucumbers, onions, radishes and tomatoes that you have to chop yourself at the table.
From Andhra Pradesh we travelled all the way west to the Arabian Sea and Goa, and sampled a Goan King fish curry with coconut, chillies and tamarind – Mashali Kadi. We accompanied this delightful dish with amazing black lentils from Delhi, Dal Makhani, and warm and soft Naan bread, which at first we tried to refuse on the basis of the calorie count, but couldn’t stop eating after the first bite.
My friend Simona claimed the lentils that were cooked overnight on the charcoal were the best she had tasted in her life and so we tried to ask for the recipe. “It’s a secret!” exclaimed one of the chefs, but later we found out that you have to soak the lentils for four hours, add ginger, green chillies, cream and butter and cook overnight in the tandoori oven… (Try that a home…!)
We couldn’t say no to the dessert and once again our willpower failed us when confronted with Antonio’s delicious recommendations. We finished every last bite of the Annanas Ka Meetha – stewed pineapples and molasses with pistachio rice pudding and jaggery cream.
It has been a long time since I was so excited about going back to an Indian restaurant. I can’t wait to dine at Mohi Mahal again and to travel through the culinary landscape of this huge and exciting country.
The Tasting menu of 9 dishes costs £49.00 per person and £69.00 with wine. The vegetarian menu is £43.00 per person and £63.00 with wines (100ml serving per glass of wine). You can buy the Food of the Grand Trunk Road recipe book here.
The Concierge’s Tip: Moti Mahal is great for food, but its bar and the selection of drinks is equally impressive. Try Moti Royal – Benedictine D.O.M liqueur shaken with freshly pressed pink grapefruit, Angostura bitters, elderflower cordial and topped with champagne.
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