According to the top ten lists of the top ten things that come out every year, without fail, every Christmas, curry is up there as one of Britain’s favourite foods, along with good old fish and chips, and the Sunday roast. Indian food is not firmly a part of our National identity; a cuisine embedded into our culture that is enjoyed all over Britain. But we Islanders are also creatures of habit and whilst we’ve come a long way in terms of what we choose to eat, we are still pretty conservative on the whole. The main-stay of the Anglo-Indian experience still consists of roughly the same twenty dishes and if you ask a curry fan what they enjoy, chances are you’ll get “Chicken biriani,” “Lamb Rogan Josh” or one of the other usual suspects that make up the standard high street Indian meal. Largely, our Indian food is North Indian in background – an amalgamation of dishes suited to British tastes, and very often cooked by Pakistani or Bangladeshi chefs. Why is it then that Southern Indian food rarely gets a look in?
A couple of years ago my brother travelled to India and spent six months exploring the subcontinent, much of which was spent eating. Like me he loves trying new food, and I had regular reports extolling the virtues of Southern Indian gastronomics – its freshness and the exciting range of fish, seafood, fruit and other ingredients used in their cooking that we Brits never get to see in our domestic Indian cooking, so we were both looking forward to eating at La Porte Des Indes.
The cooking here hails from Pondicherry, traditionally one of the few French colonial cities in India (the rest were nabbed by the British, Portugese and Dutch) and blends the two together. On the menu you will see a wide range of ingredients that do not usually appear on a tradition Indian menu; scallops, Guinea fowl, Sea bass and Barbary duck so it was interesting to see how this Indo-Gallic melting pot worked.
La Porte des Indes is obviously doing something right, it’s been running since 1996 and has a sister restaurant in Brussels and was reasonably busy on the Monday night we ate. The building itself is large and colourful with a traditional colonial feel without being too garish, and the staff were courteous and enthusiastic – a good start.
With a lot to choose from on the menu we placed ourselves in the hands of our waiter who informed us that our best bet was to go for a mixed starter and try a little of everything – always a good direction to take with the Asian food. Following a cute amuse bouche of pickled prawn cracker, our first course arrived. We had king scallops, served in their shells, with a saffron sauce, small fillets of sole wrapped delicately in a banana leaf, tandoori chicken pieces, and traditional vegetable cakes. Standout from these were the scallops, cooked perfectly and presented on the shell, with the saffron sauce adding a fragrant edge. The sole was, we both agreed, the winner here, cooked in mint and coriander, which was excellent and certainly did not mask the flavor of the sole, which was very well cooked indeed.
The restaurant also boasts a pretty decent wine list, we selected a robust bottle of Californian Cabernet to go with our main course – Thalis – one a more traditional selection of curries, tandoor, dhal and rice, and the other a more southern style of seafood based dishes. Both were superb; colourful and well presented. In contrast to the bulk of Indian cooking one comes across (which can often prove a little muddled in taste) the flavours are bright and fresh with spice combinations that worked well do deliver tasty contrasts and textures. Standouts for us both were the spinach paneer, aubergine puree, masala prawns, red chicken, spiced lamb chops.
One of the main problems with mainstream Indian cooking is the tendency to over fill you – traditionally it’s designed to make one full, but La Porte des Indes has got the portions just right here I think. The emphasis was on flavour and none of the cooking felt heavy, which was a refreshing change. So, having both agreed there was room for a little more, we felt it was our duty to try another couple of courses. Brains are somewhat of an Indian delicacy, and with these on the menu, and my general inability to turn down anything I haven’t tried before, we ordered the brain curry. This had more of the traditional North Indian flavour that you come to expect from a curry, hotter and little spicier with a thicker darker sauce, but it was the texture that made the dish – without going into too much detail for the squeamish, it was a little like the texture of well cooked sweetbreads, but softer. We both enjoyed it and it’s certainly worth trying if you’re feeling adventurous, although I doubt very much it will find its way on to many peoples regular list of curry favourites.
Dessert was a trio of Dion yogurt and fruit, red rice pudding and dense chocolate mousse. All good, but it was only really the red rice pudding which stood out as something special and was well worth trying to add a sweet finish to the meal.
I really enjoyed La Porte des Indes. Whilst the French influence is perhaps quite low key in the mix, it certainly gives the food a direction that makes it worth exploring. To be honest I felt like I had just scratched the surface of what was clearly a substantial menu of excellent Southern Indian dishes but the courses we tried smacked of confidence in both their ingredients and style, a healthy respect for traditional heritage, and a creativity that proves that if you’re prepared to head away from the high street then regional, modern Indian cooking can be an extremely tasty and rewarding dining experience.