Lotus Restaurant on Charing Cross Road has set itself the mission of bringing fine Indian dining to the West End. Taking his inspiration from the huge diversity and vastly varied culinary heritage of the Indian subcontinent, Chef Bhaskar Banerjee (the Chef and Manager of the restaurant) wants to create a fresh and luxurious experience for the diner.
|Chef Bhaskar Banerjee, who guided me through the dishes|
Diners must dismiss all notions of the standard chicken tikka masala, or the other typical “curry house” dishes and get ready to embrace something more adventurous, authentic and rewarding. When presented with the menu, there were so many things I wanted to try; from home style dishes like your auntie might make for you as a child to sumptuous food fit for a Maharajah. From simple Indian street vendor dishes to time consuming, aromatic biryanis cooked in a sealed pot. Faced with a severe case of indecision, we opted for the five course taster classic menu (£59.75 each without wine, £109.50 with a paired glass of wine with each course).
Amuse bouche; Mulligatawany
This dish is primarily known in the UK as an Anglo-Indian soup which is thick and heavy, and flavoured with curry powder. By contrast, this was a light, fragrant broth, gently spiced with turmeric and coriander. Because no chilli has been used, the flavours are “spicy”, but without heat. This allows the lentils and coconut to deliver their warming and soothing flavours. To me, the soup tasted like a gentle blended sambar, and built up my anticipation for the dishes to come.
Most pappadums are made from lentil flour, hence their creamy, off-white colour. These pappadums are made in house which is uncommon, given how difficult and time consuming the process of making the dried discs ready for frying, but they are also made from rice flour, potato flour and finger millet flour. As you can see, the rice and potato pappadums are completely white and are wafer thin, crispy and exceptionally light. The finger millet is crunchy, with a satisfying texture and a discernible flavour of its own. The pappadums were served with three chutneys all made in house. The sweet mango chutney had a lovely balance of sweet and sour. The mint, chilli and green tomato chutney packed a delightful punch of heat and herby flavours. The sweet apricot whilst delivering sugar, had a touch of masala in amongst the fruit.
Pre –starter: Potato chaat
Potato (or aloo) chaat is an Indian street food dish which deserves to be better known in the UK. “Chaat” is a word which is often used generically to describe savoury snack foods, particularly sold by street vendors. The idea behind the dishes is that they are inexpensive, insubstantial (made of simple, light ingredients) but packed with a veritable riot of flavours; sour, salty, sweet, spicy and tangy. Often with a little dash of heat.
Here we were treated to a superb mix of textures, ingredients and flavours; al dente chick peas, boiled potato slices, tart and tangy tamarind chutney, hot chilli, fresh coriander leaf, crunchy sev (fried lentil noodles) with a dash of strained yoghurt to cool and bring everything together. A perfect little pre-starter.
Pre –starter: Gol gappa
Small fried unleavened dough discs are fried, causing them to puff up into a brittle, crunchy little shell, making the “gol” (little balls) for this dish, also known as Puris. Gol gappa (also known as either Pani puri or Phuchka) is another street food classic, which is all about the clash of contrasting textures…and a flavour explosion which occurs in your mouth!
The very top of the Puri is tapped out, filled here with corn niblets in chaat masala (a spicy, salty spice mix) with chopped coriander leaf and very finely diced onion. (More usually the filling is cooked chick peas and boiled potato cubes). The filled shell is then topped up with Jal jeera (spicy, sour, cumin flavoured water) and the whole parcel must be immediately put into your mouth, whole. Making sure your mouth really is CLOSED, you bite down and there you have it – the big flavour explosion as the sour, tart, spicy water gives way to crispy crunchy Puri, and as you keep chewing, the corn brings sweetness and its own texture. This is then followed by a warming but humane chilli heat. An original spin on a dish which is not well known in the UK, but loved by curry aficionados.
Starter: Rabbit keema with green peppercorns and Missi roti
A fiery little curry made of rabbit mincemeat served with a small, buttery, rich hand bread. The soft mince is contrasted by the bite in the bread. The green peppercorn and chilis combine to create both a deep and a surface heat, felt in different areas of the mouth and tongue. This dish disappeared quickly, we were enjoying it so much.
Starter: Cod cheeks, bream and tuna
A trio of fish, battered in semolina and fried, served with curry and coriander dip. The tuna is the most spiced, as the dense flesh can take the extra flavours the most. The bream is mild to allow the fish to be savoured. My favourite was the cod cheek which was light, delicately spiced and fluffy. These cute little fish morsels are ungreasy with a good balance of batter to fish. The curry and coriander dip is a great herby foil for the bhajis.
Starter: Duck sheekh kebab
Very meaty and generous, these kebabs were made from fiery duck meat, flavoured with ample red chilli, hot but appropriate. The rich, fatty duck can handle heat very well. Served up with a sweet and fruity sauce to mellow out the chilli heat. The side serving of delicately home pickled onion slices has a just-sour flavour which is no too vinegary. As a result, the combination of contrasting flavours and acidities gives a balanced overall effect which makes this a highly effective kebab dish, designed to be a precursor course to the mains.
Kebabs: Lamb chops and rump
Marinaded, grilled lamb chops and rump, served with garlic pickle, Indian onion and chilli salad. Two different cuts of lamb, to give a very different experience of bite, texture and flavour. Forget cutlery, the chop just has to be picked up and nibbled to fully enjoy it. The rump is softer and more delicate. The spicy yoghurt based marinade has a robust heat which pleased my taste buds but didn’t leave me with a warm glow over my face. The onion and garlic was exceptionally gently pickled, nothing like our English pickled onions (which I love), pickled enough to lose the raw harshness, but not so much that the lamb is overpowered by sour flavours.
Lamb shank with raw papaya pickle
I think that slow cooked whole lamb shank gilded with real gold leaf is going to become the “must have” dish at Lotus. It is a true show-stopper. Inspired by the legend of the kitchens cooking for the Raja (King) of Ranpur in Odisha, Eastern India. The Ranpur Palace was, in its heyday, the epitome of Indian opulence. Now it is a damp and dilapidated shadow of its former self. But in its day, food for the Raja, his family and guests were made using real gold leaf. The principles of Ayurvedic medicine say that use of gold is to make the warriors, kings and princes strong and battle ready. Don’t worry, gold is inert, so it won’t do anything strange to your insides.
The lamb is melt in the mouth tender, cooked in a warming but mild curry sauce. The house made raw papaya pickle gives a touch of sourness to cut through the richness and to assist digestion. Ridiculously extravagant, but completely delicious, this was a true highlight of the meal.
Lobster and Queenie with ginger, curry leaf and coconut curry
“Queenies” are scallops sourced from the Isle of Man. Chef Bhaskar is keen to use ingredients from India where needed for authenticity of flavour, but great British ingredients are used wherever possible.
This lobster and scallop curry is strongly influenced by the seafood cookery of South India, where coconut milk, cream and oil are used liberally to bring a taste of the sunshine and tropics to the fruit of the sea. Ginger has always been an apt flavour partner to seafood, lobster in particular. This is a classy and restrained dish, full of subtlety.
Vegetable side dishes:
It is often overlooked, but Indian vegetable and vegetarian cooking is one the best in the world, being full of variety and vibrant tastes. As part of the classic tasting menu, the vegetable dishes are served up as “sides”, but they are cracking little dishes which would make fabulous main courses for vegetarian diners. This is the closest to Indian home cooking that you are going to get without a kindly epicurean auntie inviting you to her house for dinner!
The lentils are slow cooked, for over 12 hours. They are rich, creamy black lentils with just a hint of bite, flavoured with tomatoes.
The Paneer pudina, a dish of paneer cooked with spinach and mint is stir fried, spiced spinach with soft paneer creating silky, indulgent textures.
Aubergine with cashew nuts; roasted aubergine, cooked with curry leaves until smooth and yielding, then mashed up into a paste. Perfect with traditional hand breads.
Green chick pea balls, like curried falafel; grainy on the outside and both smooth and a little flaky on the inside, small dense and flavourful in a mild yellow, sophisticated gravy with delicate flavours and gentle well observed spicing.
Classic potato cubes cooked in tomato, spiced with black mustard and kalo jeera (onion seed) garnish for a little added bite. These dishes would have been a good meal in themselves, in truth, but I was getting a little full and wanted to sample the desserts.
Kheer is a traditional Indian rice pudding. It is one of the tastes of my childhood. When I say it on the menu, it simply had to be ordered to see how it compares to my memories. It should be very sweet, sweetened with jaggery (a natural, unrefined sugar product used in Indian food) and can be flavoured with a variety of wonderful things; saffron, almonds, raisins, cardamom, cashews or pistachios. This kheer was not as indecently and cloyingly sweet as some Indian desserts can be, so it is suited to a Western palate. Aromatic with saffron, sweetened with an almond date jaggery, the exotic flavours are infused into the milk and rice. The chocolate, made with parsnip, milk and jaggery is a highly original touch.
Rassomalai when described, doesn’t sound like it should work, small balls of homemade fresh unaged cheese, initially cooked in hot sugar syrup and later in flavoured condensed milk. Food madness to the unitiated; dessert heaven to those in the know. These were sophisticated little sweet dumplings served in the “malai” (condensed milk flavoured with saffron and pistachio) which were airy and fluffy. Sometimes things can go wrong, but in these safe hands we were in no danger of thick, syrupy rassomalai, a classic of East Indian cooking. The pineapple raisin chutney was another original touch; some fruity sour tastes to balance out the sweet; well observed and executed for Western diners who commonly find Indian desserts too sweet. A great end to a magnificent meal.
The 5 course classic tasting menu left us feeling extremely full, happy and satisfied. You get excellent value for money. I will definitely be coming back to Lotus and would want to have this excellent and highly varied menu again.
The wine flight is generous with a 125ml glass of wine with each course, paired with skill to match either the key ingredient or level of spice of the dish. The Head Sommelier at Lotus is Debbie Henriques, who was previously at Claridges and Hotel du Vin. She has done a fabulous job with the pairings. Wine and curry can be tricky to pair, particularly with the dishes packing heat. Why not push the boat out on a special occasion?
I want to say something about the a la carte menu for the sceptic. This menu will appear to be more expensive than your local Indian restaurant. However, that is not the proper comparison to make. Here, the dishes are original, authentically flavoured, made freshly with premium ingredients. Were you to compare with one of London’s high end Indian restaurants, you would find that the five course classic tasting menu represents very good value for money. This is food which takes skill to prepare and cook and takes time. There is a theatre menu, which I would suggest makes this a great place to have a great quality meal in conjunction with a show, rather than going to one of the cheap chain or tourist trap restaurants in and around Leicester Square.
I am looking forward to returning to Lotus, which deserves to be recognised as one of the top 10 best Indian restaurants in London.
Snigdha and her dining partner dined as guests of Lotus. Snigdha has not received any form of incentive, financial or otherwise for posting this review. This review represents Snigdha’s honest impressions of the restaurant.