Many moons ago I cut my teeth in journalism at a local newspaper in Hertfordshire where I was taken under the wing of a roving reporter by the name of Steve Ward. Steve – also known as the Wardinator – is a legend in journalism circles. Having plied his craft in both local and national press, ten years ago he decided to put the notebook away and teach others how to investigate, write and report instead.
It was time for a catch up meal with Steve, who is, unfortunately, a vegetarian. And we all know that it’s hard to find a restaurant in this day and age to satisfy both veggies and hardcore carnivores alike. With Lawrence “I’ll have the calf’s head” White joining us for the meal, I had a significant challenge finding a venue that would slake all culinary leanings. I eventually settled upon Moti Mahal in Covent Garden as a suitable location for this luncheon. Indian cuisine is usually veggie-friendly, and Steve happens to be of Indian ancestry so I was hoping that he could deliver his verdict on the authenticity of the cuisine, which I could use in the review. Having perused the menu online, I was pleased – for Steve’s sake – to see a wealth of vegetarian dishes on offer; and not just as an afterthought as in so many restaurants, but as significant main courses. They even have a vegetarian tasting menu.
I arrived on time but Steve was already there surveying the premises, sniffing out titbits of interest for my review. He had already emailed me a week prior with the snippet of information that Moti Mahal means ‘pearl palace’. The man is thorough.
The restaurant is slick and modern, with an attractive copper-plated kitchen area and a big viewing window so that diners can watch the chefs preparing mouth-watering marinated meats and other delicious treats, mingling with the aromas of the tandoor ovens and the rich, exotic sauces. The menu here is based around a theme of the Grand Trunk Road, encompassing several regions in and around the Indian subcontinent. As such, this restaurant can be considered pan-Indian, and the diner will be pleasantly surprised by the unique variety of dishes on offer. Make no mistake, this is not your average high street Indian restaurant; this is something special.
Having struggled with what to order (we wanted everything on the menu), we finally settled on a large array of dishes to sate our greedy gobs. But not before Steve proved that you can take a hack out of Fleet Street but you can’t take Fleet Street out of a hack: “Do any celebrities dine here?” he asked the dapper maître d’. “Actors, perhaps? You’re in Covent Garden, you must get the odd theatre stalwart in here?” The maître d’ was taken aback by Steve’s svelte journalistic prodding. “Yes,” he replied cautiously, “Griff Rhys Jones used to eat here quite a lot.” Steve’s eyes blazed with excitement. “Oh,” he said, planning his next leading question. “I suppose he got a little rowdy now and then? Drank a bit too much? Caused a fuss?” The maître d’ became defensive. “No,” he began tentatively, “he was always very polite. The perfect customer.” Steve looked disappointed and popped a shard of poppadom into his mouth in protest.
Suffice it to say that everything we ate was utterly superb and met Steve’s caveats for authenticity too. A Bhalla Papdi Chaat – crispy fried pastry and chick peas with yoghurt, tamarind and mint chutney – was one of the most delicious vegetarian dishes I have ever eaten, and the Kadhai Paneer was pretty impressive too. Our main course of Thatee Ka Gosht– a butterflied leg of lamb, marinated overnight and seasoned with chillies, bay leaves and cinnamon before being delicately charcoal-grilled – was so mouth-wateringly, tongue-teasingly delicious that Larry and I fought over the large plate like a pair of alpha lions gorging on a kill. The lamb dissolved on one’s tongue. It was quite incredible.
One surprise of the meal, aside from the gloriously diverse food, was the Indian wine called Sula, a 2008 Shiraz. “I didn’t know they made wine in India!” proclaimed Steve. We expected it to be substandard, as one does with wines from unfamiliar regions, but it was as good as anything I’ve tasted from the New World and I would certainly order it again.
Come the end of the meal, we were ready to collapse with the contentedness of a stuffed belly and the seared, aromatic scents that were still wafting over from the kitchen. This is one of those restaurants where not only do you want to order everything on the menu, you also don’t want to leave. I’m not surprised Griff dined here so much. It really is that good. And for the record, he was the perfect customer.