With a ninety degree August heatwave, Soho was absolutely throbbing with humanity and it wasn't hard to imagine oneself in India. But the minute we were inside the restaurant, thankfully the air conditioning soon dispelled the illusion. A Kingfisher beer hit the spot right away, but I have to say that drinking lager or beer with Indian food is rather a vulgar British habit, at least if done to excess.
To mark the period of the Indian Jubilee celebrations, The Red Fort is offering a special Jubilee Menu alongside the Avant Garde Menu. Even this combined menu is not one of those endless lists that one so often gets in neighbourhood Indian restaurants. (But then the Red Fort is about as far removed from your local takeaway as Scott's is from your local fish and chip shop). There are five starters on the Jubilee Menu. I'm not absolutely certain that Indian food really lends itself to categorisation as starters or main courses. The differences can often seem somewhat abitrary. However, Saas ni Machchi worked very well as a starter - it's made from cod cooked with onions, garlic and cumin then mashed into a paté thickened with egg. There was added piquancy from a dash of vinegar spiced with green chillies. The paté was finally stuffed into a small pitta bread to create a rather clever effect - it looked rather like a crab! I very much enjoyed the combination of fish and spices.
Badami Bater is not for the squeamish! It's a whole quail marinated in a lemon, almond and cashewnut paste then blasted in a Tandoor oven. It tasted simply marvellous, but it looked rather pathetic and recently expired, with its little legs trailing out behind its embryonic body. Starters to tempt you from the Avant Garde Menu include fresh salmon chargrilled in the tandoor with lemon, ginger and carom seeds, or prawns marinated with fresh coriander and mint chutney then steamed in banana leaves.
From the Avant Garde Menu, a main course of queen prawns was marinated in lemon and spices and tandoor grilled. The prawns came nicely presented on a very attractive large dinner plate, with little copper chafing dishes containing excellent pulao rice, and aubergine in a tangy yoghurt sauce. We also enjoyed another special Jubilee dish, Murg Kali Mirch which was very tender pieces of chicken in a sauce which was aromatic and owed much to ginger, freshly ground peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds. Next time I want to try Nando Masala which is crab cooked with red chillies, mustard, turmeric and curry leaves enriched with fresh coconut milk.
For dessert we tried Malpoa, a rather lonely little cardamom flavoured semolina pancake fried in rather a lot of oil (avant garde hasn't quite caught up with the puddings)! Aam Semiyan is a milk pudding made with vermicelli, more cardamom and enlivened with some fresh mango slices. I have yet to be convinced by the desserts in Oriental restaurants. The problem is no doubt a conflict of interest between the need for a more imaginative approach and a genuine (and proper) reluctance to sacrifice authenticity.
We drank a very nice Gewurztraminer from Albrect (20.50) which goes very well with spicy food, following that with some Brown Brothers Tarrango at only 14.95 a bottle from the "Bin & Wines" section of the wine list. I think it means "Bin Ends", and it's the place to look as there are some rather good bargains there. The main wine list has helpful tasting notes and it's very strong on New World Wines and prices start at 11.50 for house wines.
The service was very polished and charming - although we might have appreciated a little more informed help chosing suitable wines to go with the dishes. I do understand that there is likely to be a cultural problem here. Perhaps those of us who aren't Indian should begin to cultivate more of a palate for traditional beverages to accompany and complement Indian Cuisine. We made a start: instead of ending with coffee, we had some very refreshing massala tea with a cardamom seed pod in it instead of the usual dash of milk.
Red Fort, 77 Dean Street, London W1V 5HA
Tel 020 7437 2115
Starters mostly 4.95, main course dishes around 10.95, vegetables
5.95, desserts 3.95 to 4.50. Cover charge 1.50 per person.
There is a buffet lunch every day from which guests can help themselves from a wide variety of dishes for 12.50.
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