“The empire on which the sun never sets” was an expression commonly used to describe the British Empire thanks to its vast expanse across the globe, which meant in at least one of its territories, at one point, the sun was always shining. In 1947 however, the sun began to set on British rule in the British Raj, aka India.
Fast forward 67 years and we avid foodies can attest that gastro-links between the two nations remain as strong as ever. The London curry scene in particular has a number of venues paying homage to the era, with The Empress of India and The Viceroy two notable favourites of ours. However, it was with excitement, an empty stomach and tough critic alongside me that I darkened the doors (for the first time in three years) of Marble Arch’s aptly named La Porte Des Indes (Gateway to India).
Upon entering the former Edwardian ballroom, the colonial theme is evident immediately. With the prerequisite tiger murals on the walls and marble staircase on view, we decided on ordering a quick and refreshing Mango Daiquiri and Black Pearl cocktail in the bar area downstairs in order to set the tone for the main event.
As we were led up the afore-mentioned marble steps, it was a shame to notice the nine metre high waterfall was ‘out of order’ but still, we were pleasantly surprised to find a bustling and full restaurant up on the first floor and half expected to be offered a plate of Ferrero Rocher from the ambassador as we were seated in the grand and stately dining room. (Although as nice as an array of tropical plants is, perhaps one not literally in the face of my dining partner would have been better).
Shrubbery invasion aside, a brief introduction from the restaurant manager later and we were on our way with a ‘shot’ of tomato soup and an amuse bouche in the form of a potato, tamarind and yogurt canape. You see, this is no ordinary ‘curry house’ to pop in to after a night on the town. It’s more of a destination venue with a range of fabulous foodie fare on offer. In fact, we were in the mood for a little voyage of discovery of our own, so plumped for the ‘Menu Maison’, (£42) a neat little concept where you’re able to sample ‘a little of everything’.
And so the journey began.
If you like a little theater with your food and don’t mind sharing, the two-tiered starter is more than enough (possibly bordering on the too much) and includes the Murgh Malai Kebab which comes in the form of succulent chicken tikkas marinated with cream cheese, mace and fresh green peppercorns, all grilled in the tandoor. Alongside this came the Chard Pakoras, crunchy green and red chard and water chestnut pakoras with Bengal gram-flour, green chillies, coriander, turmeric and caraway seeds. But for me, the highlight of the first course were the tender and juicy fillets of sole encased in a mint and coriander chutney and lightly steamed in banana leaves. Also known as the Parsee Fish. And what kind of starter would it be without the lamb? As an extra we ordered the Roasted Chilli Seekh Kebab, a delicious lamb kebab complete with smoked chilli, sun-dried tomatoes and herbs, complemented nicely by a tangy fruit chutney.
After such an admirable set of appetizers, we suddenly developed a thirst and after the first round of imperative pints of Kingfisher had been polished off, we left ourselves in the capable hands of our waiter who duly obliged with a couple of light and refreshing glasses of 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from the Grover Vineyards in the Nandi Hills in Bangalore no less.
Then came round two. And talk about covering all bases.
The lamb theme continued with the Barra Lamb Chops, which were the best of British lamb marinated with caramelised onions and garam masala, served with mint chutney. The Poulet Rouge was a supremely tender chicken marinated in yoghurt and red spices, grilled and served in a creamy sauce. For you veggies out there the Saag Paneer spinach and cottage cheese sautéed in butter with green chillies and ginger was sublime whereas my surprise standout was the Rougail d’Aubergine, a house speciality of smoked crushed aubergine, chilli, ginger and green lime. Bringing up the rear was a mean Kerala Meen Curry. Fleshy monkfish simmered in a rich spicy curry of coconut, chillies, coriander, roasted spices and smoked tamarind.
A banquet sized feast, yet incredibly, there was room for dessert. Well, we are British after all. The Walnuts and Raisins encased with Belgian chocolate in a crisp samosa served with salty caramel ice cream (£9) was an unusual yet satisfying choice yet it did not outdo the fabulous Belgian Dark Chocolate Mousse served in a traditional leaf cup (£8.50).
The waddle down the marble staircase and a last glance back at the dining room before we ventured out into the chilly, February London air, served as a reminder that if you want to experience some opulent, old school colonial action in the heart of the capital, forget Brick Lane and Brixton and get yourself over to La Portes des Indes for a taste of the Indian subcontinent on our own doorstep.