23 Nov 2012

Restaurants: Three Faces and a Tiger: Fire Cracker-Free Diwali

‘DIWALI’ marks the Hindu New Year. The ‘festival of light’ is tied to the worship of Lakshmi, Hindu Goddess of prosperity, and ‘Remover of Obstacles’, Lord Ganesha. Overt financial gestures characterise the five-day holiday, including gambling (thought to bring luck), while businesses begin new books.
Despite great financial expectations (a Google search for ‘deals and Diwali’ reveals a plethora of offers, from ‘5 Best Smartphones under 15000 Rupees during Diwali’, to the headline: ‘Gold jewellers expect surge as people throng shops’) not everyone finds romance in finance. One Indian blogger, thin-skinned to fireworks, writes: ‘Whenever I see people lighting crackers it seems like they’re burning money. The next day leftover crackers look like burnt notes that could have helped spread joy...’ While I’m no evangelist, it feels rather different to advice outlined in the Bible: ‘Love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Greed leads to many foolish and hurtful lusts, many sorrows...’
In addition to profligate spending and positive detonations, perhaps negatively received, Diwali means feasting. While Indian families across the globe take days off work to prep banquets, I was fortunate to breeze in to Covent Garden’s ‘Moti Mahal’ to savour their one-night only Diwali menu. Like the original version thought to commercialise the tandoor and invent one of Britain’s national dishes, chicken Tikka Masala, head chef, Anirudh Arora is a product of Delhi. At just 25, he cooked for Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Prime Minister of India. Now owned by Nira Hotels and Resorts, the theatre-land outpost I visited opened in 2005. Sister properties exist in Shanti Maurice, Nira Alpina and Nira Caledonia.
Arora is a friendly fellow. Confident of his kitchen, he takes time to greet regulars out to make a night of Diwali. Note, this isn’t escapism from the heat of the tandoor - diners actually demand his presence. Indeed, the loud eater next to my companion and I who persistently narrates her meal to her overwhelmed friend, actually complains to management when Arora misses her on a lap of the liner-like, upstairs dining room.
Aside from a striking, and I would venture, beautiful Picasso-esque painting depicting a sexless, three faced rider of a (sexless) tiger, and the aquarium of an open plan kitchen where skewers dangle in dusky light against a mottled copper wall (and where one chef persistently gurneys) Moti Mahal’s decor is clean cut. Pink gerberas, those annoyingly cheerful flowers, coincidentally match my companion’s dress. Meanwhile, staff sport slightly strange cut-off ties; how odd it is that so few upmarket Indian restaurants clad their staff couthly?
Dinner begins with a Thandaii, cool, wonderfully idly textured, sweetened milk with white poppy seeds, coconut, almonds, black pepper and cardamom. On seeing my surprise at the delivery of a D.I.Y. salad plate, the waitress asks, ‘have you been here before?’ I shake my head. It proves a pleasant alternative to bread, though, and I make easy work ripping leaves and slicing radishes, tomatoes and cucumber before sprinkling them in mustard oil and nearly addictive curry-leaf salt from a baby mortar. The fact the first food is served this way also serves as an indicator of the sharing ethos to characterise the meal. 
Perfectly brittle soft shelled crabs follow, then a balsa casket of Nepalese chicken momos which pack a gently rising cuff of heat. Arora mentions he ate six of these pretty morsels before service. Tandoori chicken, first glimpsed prepared in the open kitchen, works well with the lime flavours of an Australian Riesling chosen by Zoltan, the Hungarian maitre d’. Arora mentions that after two years in the role, Zoltan is getting fat. ‘But you need to put good food in good people to keep good people,’ he says.
The main course is hot pot of very good Rajasthani lamb with daal, naan and a paneer-onion kulcha and a tenderly cooked but somewhat under-seasoned crisp-skinned stone bass fillet on appetisingly acidic green beans. Cherry tomatoes bring back a feint memory of the opening salad while wild mushroom bhajis, cooked to my mind to resemble popcorn, really please. Saffron perfumed rice is pleasantly willowy. Zoltan chooses a relaxed, plush, gracefully ageing Ripasso to successfully fend with the complex dishes.
Pre-dessert, our waitress makes sure I get the suggestiveness of her gesture: whetting a pellet which rises to become a cleansing cloth. And I duly wince. But my nano-scientist guest diffuses the situation: ‘Matters, except water, expand when cold meets hot,' she says. 'Water does the opposite – it’s basic physics...’
Desserts make my first Diwali meal definitely memorable: warm almond halva and smooth chestnut ice cream. And petit fours (chilli and gold) are an immensely enjoyable finale.
In the name of culinary research and personal discovery, Arora travelled from West Bengal to North India and Afghanistan. But it is his childhood, he tells us before we leave, which most ‘informed’ him. He jokes: ‘I have a 15 month-old, and my wife tells me he has a short temper like me!’
With warmth and humour, Arora delivered enlightening, hearty dishes somehow delicately: a feast with more depth, perhaps, than many of the financially overwrought festival celebrations...
Look out for Moti Mahal’s cask whisky matched dinner in 2013.
45 Great Queen Street, London, WC2B 5AA