Best for: portals to a faraway world; escaping London’s dreariness; chucking peanut shells on to the floor of the bar.
Great: 40 foot indoor waterfall; aubergine curry; trio of desserts.
It’s raining. Of course it’s raining, this is London, in July. My friend and I scurry out of Marble Arch tube station, trying to prise our brollies open without jabbing an Oxford Street shopper in the eye.
Googlemaps tells me I am just a few minutes away from getting into the dry, and having my rumbling belly filled. The restaurant is opposite the Thistle Marble Arch Hotel and we spy tourists dressed to the nines getting into taxis for their nights on the town, while other hotel guests are wearily flopping into the big revolving door laden with shopping.
We crash through a deep puddle as we cross the road and bundle into the small, cute-looking La Porte des Indes restaurant. The staff are impeccably dressed and, looking around, we realise this is actually quite a smart restaurant. I try unsuccessfully to flatten my frizzy hair with a wet paw. We follow the waiter into the restaurant, trailing raindrops and dirt behind us.
Earlier on the Central Line, my friend and I had a brief chat about what the restaurant would be like. French? Indian? Or both? We weren’t sure how French and Indian could be fused together. Frogs’ legs curry? Samosas with foie gras? Blue steak topped with paneer and mango chutney? We surmised that we would be dining at either a quaint French bistro or a curryhouse with ideas of grandeur.
The entrance doesn’t give much away. A discrete corner location and an efficient front of house service greets you at the door. But then, oh then! Turning the corner, the soggy weather is forgotten, Oxford Street is forgotten, England is forgotten. Before us exotic plants and flowers fill the large, airy interior, antique Indian artefacts adorn the restaurant, the white wicker furniture oozes colonial charm, and a white marble staircase and waterfall gleam in the light. Smiling waiters wander around dressed in authentic Indian robes. Maybe the grey rain and chaotic pavements outside addled our brains, but it was such an unexpected scene and was as if we’d been – very pleasantly – transported to a different time, and country.
I murmur my delight to my friend and we settle in to read the vast menu. I learn that the restaurant’s name means The Gateway to India. The interior design and food are actually modelled on Pondicherry on India’s south-eastern coast, which is where the French arrived and settled in 1670.
We opt for the set menu, lean back and survey our stunning surroundings again. It’s a tropical enclave that has been carefully extracted from India and stealthily, with night as its cover, opened as a restaurant in an old dilapidated London building, to the joy of in-the-know London diners. I discover later that we are sitting in a former Edwardian ballroom and it took two years and £2.5million pounds to transform. Also, in another exotic twist, the story of La Porte des Indes did not begin in Britain’s capital. It was actually born in a tall, turn-of-the-century house on the Avenue Louise in Brussels in 1996, and now the Brussels and London restaurants are sisters.
I explore downstairs and stumble across the ‘Jungle Bar’, strewn with tiger skin rugs, more palm trees and rattan wall coverings. A gurgle from my belly reminds me why I’m here: for dinner!
Luckily, the food does not disappoint. The starters can be summed up as soft and subtle; my friend is amazed by the tender scallops; the chicken tikka is pale and juicy; and the chard cake a green package of deep flavours.
The mains are a triumph too, a delicate and medium-spiced selection of curries. A chicken dish with a creamy, tangy tomato and almond sauce has undertones of marzipan to make you swoon.
We knock back some more Sancerre (obviously we had to choose a French or Indian wine to complete the Pondicherry experience) and prepare for dessert. Puddings are always the best bit for me (they don’t call me Sweet-tooth Ruth for nothing; well, actually, they don’t, but they could) and the trio we’re served is nothing short of spectacular. When not scoffing or swooning, I’m penning a few notes, which simply read: ‘delicate, subtle, lots of flavours and textures, not overfilling, right amount, spot on, amazing’.
Alas, the enchanting voyage to Pondicherry has to end. We come clattering back down to reality when, after departing with a La Porte des Indes cookbook in hand (there’s a small gift shop in the entrance), I am ambushed by a puddle as we cross the road. As I attempt to retrieve said cookbook from the puddle, a black cab delivers another unnecessary soaking. Welcome back to London.