I like to imagine La Porte des Indes as the restaurant Hassan from The Hundred Foot Journey would have ended up running in France, having finally realised his dream of a venue serving evolved Indo-French cuisine which knows just when to whisper and when to sing.
The London restaurant’s praises are perhaps not sung highly enough these days, although loyal patrons pile in at a rate of 350 a night. Despite the institution occupying a grand former Edwardian ballroom for the past 19 years, it remains a bit of a hidden gem; surprising and delighting whoever you lead down its stylish staircase.
So why does mention of the restaurant’s name commonly cause a curious question as to where, what, and how? Perhaps it’s because those in the know want to keep La Porte their personal safe port in a storm of substandard restaurants. Perhaps you should go, if you don’t already know it. I’m putting my foot down and speaking out, for I think the secret should no longer be so.
The interior may say colonial-era India, with the marble and pink stone for the wonderful waterfall that gently splashes and crashes in the middle of the restaurant both imported from Jaipur, luscious tropical foliage everywhere you look, and a glass dome that floods the mezzazine with natural light; but the precise mis en place in evidence in the kitchen has a clear French accent.
As does the food. Many of good-humoured head chef Mehernosh Mody’s dishes are based on original recipes he and wife Sherin Alexander (who just so happens to be La Porte des Indes’ GM) gathered from folks in India’s former French colonies, including Pondicherry, making the menu a marvellous mashup of French, Tamil and Creole influences.
The dining experience, too, blends the best of both cultures – a French attention to sharp service, delivered with a very Indian warmth. Sherin and Mehernosh will happily accommodate anyone and everyone. Except, perhaps, Le Snob, for which there is simply no room. Were this unpleasant mentality an individual, I imagine he would be politely yet firmly refused entry.
Or, more likely, welcomed with the same grace that is afforded to everyone else – that trait which divines truly elegant hospitality from the obsequious-yet-condescending service that too many venues seem to feel is de rigueur these days. It’s a rare restaurant that offers formality entirely sans French froideur.
Alors! Enough: we are here, and we are welcome. To the table, then, but not before we witness chef Frances folding fish fillets into neat banana leaf parcels and take in the tandoor skills of the chef who turns out over 300 naans a night. Mehernosh is making us chard and watercress pakoras; delectably, unexpectedly meaty morsels we munch with Mandala wine from the Nashik Valley.
You might feel the greatest example of Indo-French fusion is choosing a wine that’s fine with a curry, and to an extent you’d be right. Certain French wines can stand up to spice, but you don’t need to enter the Eurozone to find fine examples. India has its very own; with companies like Mandala, Soul Tree, Sula and Ritu all producing French-style wines with grapes grown on subcontinental soil.
We sip sauvignon blanc as we pop the pakoras, and cabernet sauvignon with rougail d’aubergine – a Southern-spiced, coconut-creamy smoked brinjal crush that’s similar in style to the North Indian bharta yet shares its name with a dish from the cuisine of similarly-French accented Mauritius. Delicious, this; every slick licked up from each and every plate.
Pondicherry-style cassoulet de fruits de mer is not new to me; chef Ashish Bhatia wrote me a recipe for his version of the dish to relish with rose d’Anjou. But as ever, Indian dishes from cook to cook never look quite the same, and, as ever, clever diners enjoy every avatar. In this incarnation, a shoal of salmon, squid, mussels, prawns, crab and scallops swim in an ocean of fragrant coconut gravy.
A key feature of Indian hospitality is abundance in all things – conversation, affection, and, first and foremost, food. French women may not get fat but that merely means they’d no doubt miss out on the lavish lunch we are yet to be served. Reserve is put aside as we dig in, no doubt resembling the Kadam family feasting in a French home following their car crash in The Hundred Foot Journey.
Our journey starts with not a single step, but multiple starters; a Bori-style samosa, a scallop whose shell runneth over with silky-smooth saffron cream sauce, and the finest fusion of all – tandoori fois gras. If it sounds gimmicky, stop thinking and let the taste do the talking. The liver’s smoky seared shell yields to creamy, sweet meat in the middle; heavenly with honey naan and imli-khajoor chutney.
The march of mains keeps up quality. A banana leaf parcel of policha meen features a soft steamed sea bass fillet spread with a herbal green pepper paste that packs a punch. Guinea fowl is more than fair – cooked Chettinad-style in a dark, dry-roasted masala that clings to the meat and lingers in the mouth and memory.
Golf ball – nay, more aptly and accurately, cricket ball – sized venison kofte each enclose a quail’s egg; napped in a creamy tomato gravy that’s all earthy from fenugreek. The moral to take from a dish of spinach cooked with gucchi is that those Indian morels add a truly triumphant truffle taste. ‘Maison Mumbai’ dal is a potage I could put away by the potful.
If you listen carefully, you’ll detect a different European accent in the lunch we’re munching. Pat Chapman (yes, he of his eponymous Curry Club) can’t resist his perennial favourite – pork vindalho. Introduced to India by the Portuguese, the dish developed into a fiery, feisty Goan speciality. There’s a further fusion at La Porte – the use of sumptuous hunks of brilliantly British Gloucester Old Spot.
Forks fill faces till bellies might burst. We might have been cursing our own fullness, but when dessert appears, appetites announce themselves afresh. To the greedy gourmand, an assiette is French cuisine’s greatest asset; allowing one to savour the flavours of multiple menu items on a single salver. Or banana leaf, as here; as Indo-French fusion asserts itself once again.
A crisp samosa crammed with khoya, walnuts and fine French chocolate from Valrhona; creamy, cool mango kulfi; a tiny tart tartlet filled with homemade strained yogurt; and pistachio kheer that’s both pretty tasty and pretty in pastel, and sadly we are done here. Forget a Hundred-Foot Journey; no-one is willing to move a muscle.
But, after a cup of Mumbai chai, we try. Indo-French fusion is not new; nor does it need to be forced. The finest examples stem from a natural and organic evolution as ideas, skills, and people themselves cross-pollinated. What’s more, those very examples of fine Indo-French cuisine have been available in London for almost 20 years. Don’t you think it’s time to learn its language?