17 Jul 2009

Yawning at Quilon

“You’ve got to write hell or heaven,” advised my friend, Will Gau, months ago. “No one wants to read about a restaurant that’s just okay.”
Well, ‘Quilon’ peddles purgatory - so look away now...
In a misguided attempt to camouflage what may well be London’s most soulless hotel dining room, shrubs sprout from mirrors, MFI-style cabinets block daylight and stiff banquettes the colour of jaundiced salmon flesh correspond with waiters’ shirts. It is ominous that such garish garments were chosen not by a remote, colour-blind head office op-o, but Aylur Sriram, the restaurant’s Michelin starred chef. How, I wondered, could such an esteemed culinary artist have handpicked the ‘Dynarod’ pantone for his enviably sited dining room?
I went as the guest of Humayun Hussain, Editor of ‘Tandoori’ magazine and writer of punchy critiques for The Guardian’s ‘Guide’. (Disclaimer: these are my views; you must wait for his). Because Humayun is writing a feature on a lighter style of Indian food suitable for summer, Sriram’s southwest coastal cooking greatly appealed. His is a philosophy of subtle finesse, where butter and cream are banished, and chilli heat is never deployed for heat’s sake alone. The only garlic I noted came pickled in a jar – to go with the pappadums scattered with crunchy lotus ‘pepperpots’ and offered with homemade yoghurt and coriander dip. That was alas, anaemic, bringing to mind masticated silage.
As inert Indian muzac segued into something more sapless – let’s call it ‘flotation tank vibes’, I attempted to kick-start the meal with a ‘Quijito’ cocktail. Served short, this gently spiced take on the Mojito was brought by a Maitre’d whose Mr. Blobby-esque Polka-dot tie contrasted a grave temperament.
An almost homoeopathically chilli bitten, slightly over-grilled scallop was mingled with tooth-sized mango cubes, providing a thoroughly benign, salty-sweet exchange. But a curiously warm tomato chaser uncannily resembled a Heinz 57 canned oxtail soup. A perennial favourite of Sriram, this cleanser in fact had me sweating. Glancing around, fellow sufferers included business bods who find harmony in this former conference suite, and the dazzling wife of Bollywood actor, Om Puri. She was dining with über-food blogger, Simon Majumdar.
Tilapia – the Pinot Grigio of fish – gained little from being roasted in plantain leaf, remaining in need of a sassy sauce. A coconut sprinkled salad of green beans and asparagus shaved lengthways as to resemble avocado, was so excruciatingly virtuous that conversation flowed into that discussion beloved of critics - what is the worth of ‘Saf’? (Shoreditch’s limply titled, vegan eatery frequented by Heather Mills). Thank goodness, despite fairly bland morsels, Mangalorean chicken basked in a more invigorating coconut sauce. But being richer and spicier and generally more interesting, it technically eschewed Sriram’s temperate philosophy. The best dish by far was merely an afterthought: deep-fried mellow mallow – crunchy, greaseless okra.
Leftover mango from the scallop starter found its way into Humayun’s fruit salad, served with a ladle of black pepper ice cream. Faced with a demoralising pudding, for the first time in my life, I envied that most tedious of dishes. Mine was a gungey bebinca cake with surgical spirit smelling ice cream (the trouble-shooting cookbook’s index could read, ‘when vanilla goes wrong’) and a chocolate slice which adroitly impersonated blood pudding (replete with the knobbly bits). With Lotus flower tea as fragrant as a cosmetics counter, a presumably bought-in chocolate/fudge truffle tasted of indictment - it utterly upstaged both dishes.
So there we have it. Edible but unlovable. If I’d dined alone, I may well have dozed through to morning. Then the room becomes the setting for the breakfast buffet bussed in from the hotel next-door.
A glance at Sriram’s biography reveals a quarter of a century in hotel catering, with the last two decades under the same employer, ‘Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces’. Such a beige existence in a chain which only makes news when terrorists check in, must inevitably result in bland food. An insidious erosion.
Michelin dubiously gave ‘Quilon’ a star last year, which says all and nothing. But I’ll gladly hand out some made-up prizes of my own. ‘Quilon’, I honour you with the Starbucks award for the most jolting musical playlist, the Noel Edmonds bursary for sartorial inelegance, and the Chain Hoteliers Choice for creating the least provocative dishes possible.
Free from the shackles of a hotel budget spreadsheet, I do wonder how Aylur Sriram’s cooking could evolve. Whilst he calls his current style subtle, I see it as an unremitting sacrifice of flavour...
Quilon - 41 Buckingham Gate, London. SW1E 6AF
Quilon on Urbanspoon

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