You could hardly guess the culinary roller-coaster that awaits you on first seeing the rather unappealing black-glass-fronted Longmead Gospel Hall in which Bath’s only fine dining restaurant, The Mint Room is located. It also takes a little more effort to get to if you’re staying in the city centre, and it’s therefore far likelier that you might opt for one of the many national award-winning curry houses. Firstly, some awards are more fairly judged than others, and secondly, if you only have one Indian meal in Bath then you might as well make it different from that which you can find on practically every high street in Britain.
The restaurant first opened in 2012 and is co-owned by brothers Moe and Luthfur Rahman, who divide their time between Bath, their Bristol branch of The Mint Room, and several other Indian restaurants across Somerset and Devon. Moe is a charming and knowledgeable host, who keeps ahead of the fine dining game by eating out in London regularly, while the rest of the crew provide a friendly and attentive service that’s an important part of how The Mint Room elevates itself from the local curry house. Although any décor would pail into insignificance with food as colourful as this meal proved, the low lighting, cream upholstered booths and glitzy Alain Ducasse-style fringe curtain put me in mind of a London nightclub; an ambiance which rather amusingly seems to attract couples and a steady flow of lone diners, presumably due to the the Holiday Inn Express across the road. Lucky business people! I suspect some are arranging meetings simply in order to dine here.
Whilst you can get some recognisable dishes at The Mint Room, I urge you to ditch your favourite and tap into your adventurous side for the ‘Tour of India’ tasting menu (£55), particularly if your knowledge of Indian cuisine is limited to a few poppadoms, a chicken tikka masala and a Cobra on a Saturday night – you know who you are. Each course of this cleverly designed menu highlights different regions of India in order to showcase how each uses ingredients and spicing to create their own unique flavours.
Commencing with ‘Street Food’, a selection of highly flavoured nibbles awake the palate and encourage you to pick up the food just as you would in the streets of Bombay; pani puri being a small, crispy open ball of fine pastry stuffed with a spicy mix of chickpeas, diced potatoes and pomegranate, with a mint tamarind sauce to finish which the waiter encouraged us to pour into the pastry cup before eating in one bite; a fiery explosion of flavour ensuing. Bhel puri is a fresh, modern take on the famous Bombay mix, while aloo papadi chaat is a textural salad featuring crushed pastry balls, potatoes and chickpeas, finished with tamarind and mint chutney and encompassing hot, sweet and sour. Each of the trio, far more refined than the snacks you would eat with your fingers back in India, was an utterly surprising way to kick off a meal which promised many more such delights.
The second course, intriguingly entitled ‘On the Journey’, is inspired by a traditional roadside café or ‘dhaba’ serving authentic Northern Indian bites; one of which was a highlight of the entire meal, a supremely tender grilled chop marinated in Punjabi spices and served with a cooling mint chutney and an aloo tikki, a classic Indian version of a Scotch egg, only this one had a twist and featured crushed cashew nuts, spices, potato and an oozing centre of brie. I didn’t expect the brie and the lamb to work together all that harmoniously, but somehow the cheese, rather like the use of paneer, offered an important texture and richness to the dish.
‘The Main Event’ was a banquet-style array of Indian dishes, some of which I had tasted before, (although not nearly as good) and some being a revelation to me; Keralan seabass moilee; a delicate, exotic dish of perfectly cooked pan-fried fish doused in a luscious, mildly spiced creamy coconut sauce featuring mustard seeds and chilli. It takes great skill to balance the ultra sweet coconut with the right amount of spicing, and while my first experience verged on the sickly after a few mouthfuls this was never so and rather had an addictive sweet/savoury marriage which I particularly enjoyed alongside the contrast of the chilli naan bread. As one of India’s most famous dishes, originating from Hyderabad and inspired by the Munghal empire, the lamb biryani was very familiar to me, although the flavours of the Mint Room’s version were a whole world away; featuring wonderfully tender Somerset lamb and fragrant spiced basmati rice which had retained its moisture and heat thanks to the pastry lid, broken for us theatrically by the waiter.
Once again, Dehli or butter chicken was a dish I knew, or thought I did, however, the flavour of this curry, featuring soft Tandoor-cooked Somerset chicken, was much more flavourful; a blend of tomato and fenugreek simmered gently with cream. Meanwhile, Bengali tawa duck took us to the East of the continent where the spicing focuses on fennel, cumin, cardamom, mustard and onion seeds; the Creedy Carver duck having been marinated in these before being smoked and pan-fried on a plancha, then partnered with a rich and creamy coconut and cashew sauce. We were rightly advised to leave the Rajasthani dish, lamb lal mass, to the end due to its heat, but this only created a sense of anticipation, and despite the hit of red chilli, it was never so incredibly hot as to numb the palate to the wonderful Wiltshire lamb, flavoured with black cardamom, cumin, cloves, coriander and cinnamon. A warm tingle that crept up gently on the tongue rather than scorching the throat and it proved a dish that showcased incredibly complex flavours alongside the chilli, which certainly brought fun to the party. Whenever it became too much the cooling cucumber raita was on hand.
The tasting menu, or should I say ‘journey’, ended like all good journeys do, before we were quite ready to depart due to being utterly absorbed in a new and exciting culture. The final course, a chocolate and cardamom ganache, coconut kulfi and mango coulis, was both refreshing and decadent, followed by a cleansing strawberry and mint tea. I was both heartily sorry to find that we had reached our destination, yet delighted to have discovered this temple dedicated to celebrating India’s beautiful, vibrant and expansive cuisine right on my doorstep. When you exit and look up at the building after such an experience, you’re amused by its bland modernity. It’s rather like being Dr Who with the key to another universe.
The Mint Room, Longmead Gospel Hall, Lower Bristol Road, Bath, BA2 3EB. To make a reservation call 01225 446 656 or visit the website.