I’ll be fairly straight with you – I’m not great with spice. Chilis concern me and vindaloo leaves me blazing. Its prawn korma every time for me, and even then, it’s not unheard of for me to say ‘mild’. It was with trepidation, therefore, that I approached Les Portes Des Indes to survey its curry fare in the run up to National Curry Week. It’s had rave reviews, but I’m not your average curry eater, so I’d brought a spiceophile along with me. She’d tackle the ‘robust native spices’ while I contemplated the coconut rice.
What fears I had remaining with regards the unknown were assuaged immediately by the extensive menu. The heat of each dish was spelt out by little chilli symbols and a reassuring number of dishes had just one chilli, or none at all. The interior, too, was reassuring: warm, friendly, with cane furniture and a fountain over which hung a forest of palm trees.
The opulence is impressive, not oppressive – the Indian artefacts are genuine, and gold and gilt understated. Based in a former Edwardian ballroom, the space has inherent elegance which any grand embellishment would sabotage with kitsch. A white, glistening marble staircase, for example, needs no elaborating.. The owners of Porte des Indes, Mehernosh and Sherin Mody spent months in the region of Pondicherry, upon which they’ve based the restaurant, and it shows as much in their choice of décor as it does in their menu’s scope.
A former French colony in India dating back to the 19th Century, Pondicherry’s cuisine is unique, inspired by Gallic, Tamil and Indian flavours. These meld inextricably into meals like thalis with poulet, tandoori foie gras and rice spiked with fresh green lime. A typical dish might be Magret de Canard Pulivaar – a favourite of Pondicherry resident Mme Lourde Swamy, in which Barbary duck breast fillets are served pink with a spicy tamarind sauce characteristic of the region. It’s one of many old recipes gleaned by Mehernosh during his time there, from women whose knowledge is inherited from their ancestors – and who are known locally as ‘grande dames’.
So what did we eat? Overwhelmed by the choice, we followed our waitress’s advice and plumped for a set menu. There, the unpronounceable mixed with just enough of the familiar to entice and intrigue. Large juicy grilled king scallops with a hint of garlic in a mild saffron sauce were my favourite by default, but their succulence and aromatic taste settled he mater decisively. Chard pakoras meanwhile, were a mini adventure of myriad aromas, textures, feelings and taste.
I’m a big fan of aubergine. Served well cooked and seasoned, they rarely fail to please, and Rougail d’ Aubergine was no exception. Warm, deep and generous in flavour it did everything that an aubergine, particular a smoked aubergine, should. The Achari Salmon was the highlight: pink, pink salmon steaks rolled in mustard, fennel, chillies, and aniseed, it was both satisfying and compelling – even with my top button undone and my stomach bulging I had to finish it.
The tadkha dahl was like every other good quality tadkha dahl – but the saag paneer was even better. The spinach and cheese lay like entwined lovers in a bed of buttery ginger where, normally, it feels they have barely been introduced.
As you can imagine against this satiating backdrop, the multani Naan was redundant, though what little we did have of the tandoori baked bread with onion seeds, melon seeds and sesame was delightful. I’d caution against over ordering, but that would go against the most first and most fundamental tenet of British-Indian cuisine.
Do order desserts though. It’s a controversial move I know, but you won’t regret it – not after you’ve had rose & cardamom infused milk with poached fresh cheese (Rasmallai) pistachio kernels crushed with Basmati rice ((Pista Phirnee) and Alphonso Mango Kulgi, Indian’s answer to ice cream. To get the best of it all, ask for the chef’s ‘L’Assiette’ of his favourite desserts.
National Curry Week runs from 13th to 19th October, during which Les Porte des Indes will be serving a special selection of their finest curries.