In 2001 Atul Kochhar made waves across the food industry when he became the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star at Tamarind in Mayfair, where he was then Head Chef. Later opening his own establishment, Benares, on Berkeley Square, he received a further star in 2007, securing his title as a pioneer of contemporary fine dining Indian cuisine, something which had strangely eluded me until recently. This was partly due to being sceptical about the concept of fashioning a typically rustic style of cookery into a pretentious affair, complete with dainty presentation that might find me collecting a takeaway from my local curry house on the way home. How wrong I was.
It’s a few years since Kochhar opened Sindhu, (another name for the Indus river), at the Macdonald Compleat Angler in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and the title reflects it’s glorious riverside location. The restaurant is certainly in good company, for Marlow also boasts The Vanilla Pod and Tom Kerridge’s two Michelin-starred pub, The Hand and Flowers, with locals prepared (and willing) to wait for up to three months for a dinner reservation. In fact Sindhu’s handsome 65 cover dining room replaced the former outpost of the famous Chelsea restaurant, Aubergine.
Having reviewed Aubergine at the Compleat Angler four years ago I was intrigued to see the difference in the space, and although I’m a traditionalist at heart, I was immediately impressed by the transformation; table linens having been banished in favour of wooden tables and a smart, modern décor with just a hint of India in the fabrics and colourful canvases. Meanwhile, the strong front of house are attentive yet incredibly friendly from the outset, and their charm feels genuine too. It’s a vital element in Sindhu’s very unique style of Indian hospitality.
Ganapati Prabhu joined Sindhu in December last year, having spent the past 16 years working on P&O Cruises, and already appears to be in the rhythm of heading up a restaurant of this reputation. After bite-size poppadoms with a selection of colourful chutneys and an amuse bouche of intensely flavoured lentil soup, we commenced our revelatory seven course tasting menu with Aloo and Samosa Chaat; crispy fried potatoes (including the purple variety), samosa, tamarind and pomegranate, a highly textural, fruity and mildly spiced opening which succeeded in awakening the taste buds and made me keen to see what was up next, not to mention fascinated to try to work out the many different ingredients and spices ingeniously disguised within each element.
Jal Tarang featured a wonderfully caramelised, soft centred, hand caught scallop with parsnip crisps and a satin smooth parsnip purée, the sweetness of which mirrored the natural flavour of the scallop. Another fish course followed and after one taste it was clear to see why Meen Moilee is one of Sindhu’s signature dishes; stone bass served with beetroot potato mash and a sweet, thick, creamy coconut sauce featuring curry leaves, tumeric, garlic and mild green chillies; the crisp charred skin of the bass adding just enough texture and bitterness to contrast the sweetness and richness of the dish.
A delicious lime sorbet was the perfect palate cleanser ahead of the meat courses. The first a Murgh Makhanwala; tandoori chicken supreme with cumin pulao (rice) and paneer with spinach, followed by what proved the star dish of the evening, Erachi Chettinaad; a Romney Marsh lamb cutlet, served perfectly pink and doused with a dark and heady sauce featuring 21 spices. The colour of sticky gingerbread but far more exotic, the fact that you could still taste the beautiful lamb amidst such a complex array of ingredients shows how skilful this kind of cookery really is. Accompanied by a plain yet buttery polenta cake and kachumbar, a finely chopped salad, and a side of well spiced black lentil dahl, it was a dish you didn’t want to end.
The tasting menu at Sindhu is as generous as I imagine an Indian wedding banquet, and however much I thought I couldn’t manage dessert, the trio of mini temptations proved too much to resist; from the fragrant rose yoghurt Bhapa Doi, a traditional Indian baked yoghurt similar to a cheesecake, (only a lot more interesting), to the decadent chocolate & passionfruit delice, and a refreshing mango kulfi with a vibrant mango sauce.
It was unlike any meal I’d ever experienced, and proved a wonderful introduction to Indian fine dining. I expected Sindhu to be a world away from my local curry house, I just wasn’t entirely sure that I would be won over. Now I realise that they were never competing with one another. Sindhu takes and elevates the best of Indian cuisine, undoubtedly one of the most exciting in the world, to gastronomic heights that even the most avid curry lover could hardly fail to appreciate. Go on, revolutionise your Friday night.
Sindhu at the Macdonald Compleat Angler Hotel, Marlow Bridge Lane, Bisham, Marlow SL7 1RG. Tasting menu £65 or £120 with paired wines. For more information and to make a reservation please visit the website.