La Porte des Indes
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But why “La Porte des Indes”? Yes, you are quite right, dear reader, it is French. You might know of The Gateway to India which is a monumental arch in Mumbai, and La Porte des Indes is French for very much the same thing. The restaurant presents dishes from many regions of India and draws on the culinary heritage of French India in particular.
The Union Territory of Pondicherry includes four enclaves located in three states of South India. It is also known as The French Riviera of the East (La Côte d'Azur de l'Est) and was considered as part of France from 1814 till 1954, the date at which it joined the rest of the, by now, independent India. The French connection is still evident in accent, food and architecture.
I was expecting something a bit special. I had done my homework and was struck by the fact that nobody that I had talked to had anything other than high praise for this establishment. La Porte des Indes remains as an example, in my opinion, of how to get it right. It’s not the cheapest food around but it’s delicious, well presented and the ambiance is truly remarkable.
Just a few minutes from Marble Arch station, La Porte des Indes occupies a corner plot at a quiet intersection. It’s something of a Tardis of a building having around 350 covers. Although looking smart and like a French Cafe from the outside, the inside opens to the most amazing scene. It’s a two storey former Edwardian ballroom. The ground floor balcony restaurant opens onto a lower level with a 40-foot waterfall and a sweeping marble staircase for good measure. Palms add to the exotic décor which is strikingly Indian-colonial but it is tasteful rather than kitsch. One’s eye is caught by a painting here, a wood carving there, a Mogul mural or two, and a glass-domed roof. Panelled walls and ornamental coving remind us of days when the British building industry offered an alternative to mediocrity and stippled, artexed ceilings.
The Jungle Bar on the lower floor is well worth a visit. It has a tradition of peanut shell-throwing started by some of its celeb patrons. It has a relaxed and convivial atmosphere with a hunting theme incorporating tiger-skin rugs and animal paintings recalling the days when one would travel the Empire to shoot anything with fur or feathers. There is a good selection of exotic cocktails here to start your evening. Rain Forest is a non-alcoholic thirst-quencher of freshly squeezed apple juice, orange juice and root ginger. Refreshing with a definite touch of the Orient.
La Porte des Indes has a menu that is out of the ordinary. Yes, there is Chicken Tikka Masala and Vegetable Biryani but take advantage of your visit and try some less familiar fare. There are dishes here that you won’t find anywhere else. Head Chef Mehernosh Mody and a battery of other chefs execute regional specialities with flair. The presentation of the food is nothing short of magnificent.
Large King Scallops in a Saffron Sauce are delicate and succulent. My guest and I mopped the fragrant yellow juices with onion and garlic naan. Roasted Chilli Seekh Kebab offered flavourful heat which was tempered by Chard Pakoras and Paneer Kebabs. All were served with chutneys designed to enhance the aromatic qualities of each starter.
The Roast Black Cod at La Porte des Indes is as good as you’ll find anywhere. It’s marinated in fennel, chilli, mustard, honey, tamarind and vinegar (an indication of a touch of Portuguese influence perhaps). It’s wrapped in banana leaf before being flame-grilled giving an end result which is meltingly moist.
Duck isn’t often seen on Indian restaurant menus but here it is at La Porte des Indes, giving a nod to its French connection. Magret de Canard Pulivaar are well-flavoured perfect-pink duck breast fillets served with a tamarind sauce. It’s said to be unique to the Creole community of Pondicherry so this will likely be your only chance to try this dish outside India.
Lotus Root Jaipuri is crunchy and addictive and should be sold by the bagful in Harrods’ food hall. Rougail d’Aubergine is another house speciality. Smoked and crushed aubergine, chilli, ginger and fresh lime combine to make a side dish that doesn’t have searing heat but is nevertheless robust enough to work with the tamarind sauce coating the Barbary duck.
Perhaps my favourite dish of the evening was Poulet Rouge. It’s one of La Porte des Indes’ signature dishes and is moreish in the extreme. Chicken is marinated in spices, grilled, shredded and presented in a creamy and rich sauce. It isn’t a hot and fiery dish so it’s just right as an introduction to the milder but nonetheless authentic face of Indian cuisine.
Desserts at Indian restaurants so often disappoint. La Porte des Indes, however, offers a Pistachio and Rose Kulfi which is to die for. It’s perfumed and exotic and perfectly matches this palace of a restaurant. They have a good selection of sorbets as well; Rose and Lychee, Indian Tamarind, Pomegranate and Imperial Passion Fruit, but they also do a surprisingly good chocolate mousse served in a folded-leaf cup. The mousse might hail from France but the presentation is pure subcontinent.
La Porte des Indes is like no other Asian restaurant you might visit. I am very much taken with its food and exotic atmosphere. I can think of nowhere better to spend a cold London night than basking in the colour and warm vibrancy of the long-gone raj. I’ll be back for another evening... or perhaps Sunday Brunch... or maybe a lunch.
Visit La Porte des Indes here.
Restaurant review: La Porte des Indes
32 Bryanston Street, London W1H 7EG
Tel: +44 20 7224 0055
Lots of Indian restaurants offer a special Sunday menu, but all Indian restaurants are not created equal and it’s easy to be put off from this gastronomic interlude by previous encounters with dubious curry-houses, the sort that proclaim as many as 6 dishes (one of them being a poppadom) and as much as you can eat for £7 a head with service that will continue till the oil congeals on top of last week’s left-over korma. There is a quite different class of Indian restaurant that will charm, tempt and enthral its guests, and La Porte des Indes is counted amongst their number.
It’s long been a favourite of mine and one visit will convince those weary of dingy curry-houses that this will likely be their weekend venue of choice, their polished gem in a sea of culinary mediocrity (or worse). It is, quite frankly, stunning. Sunday Brunch here will offer the visitor the chance listen to some live jazz and to wander around: the buffet is displayed over two floors so you will get the chance to glide down that sweeping especially-imported-beautiful-bespoke staircase like some transplanted Rajesque Scarlet O’Hara. One can marvel at the murals throughout the unique ex-ballroom and ponder seating arrangements for your next visit.
Some tables are placed for animated chatter between just two diners, while others are big enough to accommodate a family: brunch is a casual meal and a buffet allows everyone to try a little of this and to have an extra portion of that with never a hint of “Finish those sprouts or you don’t get any Arctic Roll.” Everybody can pick their own favourites, tantalise their tastebuds with the best of Indian cuisine; parents can enjoy a stress-free mealtime and kids might discover that they do actually like fish.
The Sunday Brunch buffet is famed and it’s easy to see why. The lower floor is where you will find the starters. Chefs man hot food stations and will tempt you with such things as mini potato-filled dosa or stuffed puri. There are several kebabs from which to choose and each is presented with their accompanying chutney. It’s a street-food extravaganza and it would be easy just to spend an afternoon grazing on these perfectly-formed little savouries, but there is more food on the floor above.
Copper chafing dishes stand in rows – one section for vegetarian dishes and another for those containing fish and meat. I am not an Indian food expert but I noted that half the diners at La Porte des Indes were Asian. They all seemed to be enjoying the food as much as I did, and many were evidently regulars there. Surely that must be a sign of the quality of the food. These folks know more about Subcontinental cooking than this writer, and they were all going back for seconds, so we followed them.
The selection of dishes on offer is huge; there is something to please every palate. The Lamb Biryani was aromatic and the meat tender. The Chicken Makhani was flavourful and mild. The vegetarian options supplied a spicy star in the guise of small, whole Asian aubergines. This was a rich and warming vegetarian option that just needed some plain boiled rice and some yoghurt on the side. Fresh naan bread was provided at the table.
It’s a universal truth that one can eat savoury dishes until one can eat no more and one swears that not another morsel will pass one’s lips until at least teatime, and then someone mentions that the desserts are at the foot of the stairs. Somehow we get a second wind: well, perhaps something light might help with digestion; sweet after savoury definitely constitutes a balanced diet. The desserts here are almost too good to eat. Individual portions of each and sized to allow everyone to try almost everything on offer. Kheer (Indian rice pudding), mango yoghurt served in terracotta bowls (my favourite), chocolate truffles, white chocolate and lime mousse, a mithai platter (traditional Indian sweets) with a fig and honey confection for which to die; and then there was the fresh fruit that you will take either because you know it’s good for you and it does look refreshing, or (and this is more likely) because, even though you really want some more mithai, you want the people on the neighbouring table to think that you have amazing self-control.
Sunday Brunch at La Porte des Indes isn’t the occasion for overt displays of restraint. It provides all the fixin’s for a thoroughly civilized smart-casual meal. The restaurant offers the most delicious Indian cuisine in a setting that is unique and a feast for the eyes. One visit will never be enough and the experience can be summed up in one word: Memorable.
La Porte des Indes
32 Bryanston Street, London W1H 7EG
Phone: +44 20 7224 0055
Fax: +44 20 7224 1144
Visit La Porte des Indes here
I had already some idea about Pondicherry as my father had spent time there in the 1940s (his friend, Taffy, being “deported” to India for having a liaison with the daughter of a civil servant) but I had no idea that the French food connection had lasted so long. It’s subtle but unmistakable.
There are in fact deux Portes des Indes restaurants, one in London and the other in Brussels, where it originated. Not probably the city with the closest of Indian connections but evidently one which was open to new culinary trends. La Porte des Indes is part of the Blue Elephant empire and has the same sumptuous decor, that has become the trademark of both restaurants.
The vibrant driving forces behind both the restaurant and the cookbook are Mehernosh and Sherin Mody. The book has also benefited from the skills of food and travel writer John Hellon and we have the gorgeous results of their collaboration. It’s contemporary, bright and full of amazing close-up shots by celebrated photographer Tony le Duc.
But the food is the star. There are familiar dishes but even these have been given the La Porte twist. I hadn’t expected to see Chicken Tikka Masala, which has become a cliché of Anglicised Indianish food. This dish, however, is something a bit smart and has a sauce of turmeric yellow. A cut above the original.
A signature dish of La Porte des Indes is Poulet Rouge (Chicken in a Creamy Red Sauce) but it is easy for a home cook to make this dish. It’s rich and stunning and just what you’ll cook if you want to impress on a budget. Chicken thighs are economic and the other ingredients are readily available in your local supermarket.
Duck is one of those archetypical French ingredients so here we have Magret de Canard Pulivaar (Roasted Duck Breasts in a Spicy Tamarind Sauce). The meat might make you think of romantic bistro meals in Paris but the marinade and sauce are all Indian. Madame Lourdes Swamy of Pondicherry is the originator of this recipe.
This is a restaurant cookbook so it has a chapter devoted to cocktails, and just the names will transport you to the subcontinent. Monsoon (Midori, melon vodka and champagne), Tamarind Martini (gin, limoncello and tamarind puree) are just a couple and there are also some lovely desserts.
Indian restaurant desserts are often a disappointing bunch but La Porte des Indes Cookbook has some unique and classy ones. Payasam (green lentils and tender coconut pudding) is a stunner but it would demand a visit to an Asian supermarket. Chocolate and Chikki Kulfi is Belgian Chocolate and Praline Ice Cream and a true liaison of two of the world’s classic culinary cultures.
La Porte des Indes Cookbook is something a bit special. It’s modern and full of innovation but it cherishes its French/Indian roots which have combined to create a cuisine with touches of both. A joy to read and to cook from.
Cookbook review: La Porte des Indes Cookbook
Authors: Mehernosh Mody, Sherin Mody and John Hellon
Published by: Pavilion