La Porte des Indes.
If you’ve been to one of those management courses they run at the adjacent hotel, you might have seen this. I’m not sure what made me turn left when I came out of the car park, rather than turning right, straight to my regular haunt, Roti Chai, but we all make mistakes.
Unusually for me, I didn’t have a look at any reviews before I went in, but I wasn’t expecting anything groundbreaking, just solid cooking; a straightforward Indian meal before dashing off home. There are times when only a curry and a beer will hit the spot. You know how it is.
I’d been many years earlier, as a guest and had no real recollection of it other than the somewhat over-the-top décor and a lot of palm trees. It hasn’t changed. Franco-Indian-colonial is the look they’re channelling here and it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The comparatively understated exterior gives you no indication as to what lies within and you walk through a small entrance straight into a two-storey, domed, palm-strewn extravaganza. I wasn’t expecting to find this oversized conservatory behind Marble Arch and it was a surprise. Apparently, it was converted from an old Edwardian ballroom. According to its website, it boasts lots of antique artefacts and a 40ft waterfall. Perhaps I was too engrossed in conversation (it has been known), but I didn’t actually notice the waterfall. No matter, there was plenty to occupy me on the menu.
And the menu is quite long and recognisable to anyone who eats in Indian restaurants but there is a clear USP, what they describe as “French/Indian colonial cooking”. Much is made of the fact that the chef spent several months in Pondicherry, researching French-Creole recipes, which as well as partly French and Creole are partly Tamil. Apparently he persuaded what their website describes as “grande dames” to part with their secret recipes.
And the ambitious menu does indeed contain a number of very attractive-sounding and unusual dishes, so it’s a real shame that what sounds from their description like it is going to be a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary Indian dining experience, turns out to be one which is extremely disappointing, not to mention rather expensive.
Open the menu and there are three really tacky photocopied pictures of non-alcoholic coconut drinks stuck to the inside. The text extols the many and various health benefits of these drinks with such vigour you might think you’ve walked into a section of Holland and Barrett by accident.
And then, turning the page, you get sticker shock as you check out the cocktails and wines. Cocktails mostly around £12. Hildon water at £4.85. Voss water, £6.
An urge to check prices of water on the internet , whilst looking at a menu, is never a good sign.
Given the prices, we decided to skip the appetisers and have a few popadoms whilst we waited. £1 each popadom and pickles for an extra £2 – each. And of course I’m sure they made those pickles themselves, but really, they tasted just like those you get out of a jar.
I was a bit concerned that the overambitious pricing was just that and my gut told me to stick to something simple. So we ordered the mixed grill. £25. This contained a mushy slab of salmon, a small sorry-looking and dry lamb chop, a small tough chicken leg, and adequate lamb kebab and the most overcooked prawn I recall tasting in some considerable time. The tandoori paste appear to have been slapped on, was unevenly spread and appeared to be partially uncooked. The naan bread which accompanied it was fine.
Xacuti al Galhina (£19), one of the more exotic-sounding dishes on the menu was described as chicken with roasted coconut curry sauce cooked with fiery spices. They must have forgotten to add them to this dish, because it had no heat at all. Half a dozen or so dry pieces of chicken, in a small earthenware pot. The sauce can best be described as a dark brown sludge and there was, to me, no discernible taste of coconut.
And, tarkha dahl, that classic side dish, a bowl of stewed lentils. Here, £8. For a bowl of lentils, which were just adequate. Round the corner at Roti Chai, you can get the same dish at less than half the price and more than twice as good. And another side dish, pomegranate raita, which is yoghurt-based and works well with hot curries, like the one I was expecting, but didn’t actually get.
Call me demanding, and many do, but for £8, I was expecting something more than a bowl of plain yogurt with a few pomegranate seeds thrown in. The chef could do with a little walk down to you know where, to see how it’s done properly and for a fraction of the price.
The contrast between the expectation engendered by the interesting and well-written menu and what actually appeared on the table was stark. I think they need to spend less time on the website and more time looking at what is happening in the kitchen.
We were in and out in 45 minutes. That was a good thing. The man who took our payment automatically gave the bill to my male companion, even though I had done the ordering and didn’t bother to ask whether we enjoyed the meal. Maybe it was my body language, or the fact that I had already put on my coat. I wish I’d done that as soon as I’d opened the menu.