Familiar with a wide range of Northern Indian dishes (well, I would be, wouldn't I? This is my mum's website) I know very little about the cuisine of the South-western states of the Malabar Coast, from which chef Sriram Aylur takes inspiration.
Unlike many Michelin starred chefs, Aylur doesn't seem to be interested in celebrity, so I do some googling to find out more. I learn that he gave up studying law to follow his real passion and his father's footsteps. He started cooking in his father's restaurant, working his way up to head chef at the Taj Gateway Hotel in Bangalore and launching the much-lauded Karavali restaurant. There he earned himself a reputation as one of the very top chefs in India. Just over 10 years ago, he was invited by the owner of the famous Bombay Brasserie, Mr RK Krishna Kumar, to move to London and open Quilon.
He has described his food as "authentic cooking but with a slight twist for the UK market".
It's time to find out more!
Lunch offers the promise of a taste of Goa, Karnataka and Kerala for just £23.00 for three courses plus tea or coffee. Better still, you can select from a whopping great choice of 6 starters, 7 seafood/meat main dishes or 7 vegetarian ones or 2 thalis, 10 sides and 5 desserts!
miniatures from the Elephant Parade 2010, raising funds to save the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild
Struggling to choose from the many temptations, the restaurant manager suggests, as we've been invited to review the restaurant, that we might prefer to taste a selection of the chef's dishes in small portions. This seems a fantastic opportunity, so we mention a couple of dishes that have particularly caught our eye and leave the rest to chef.
Now the food is taken care of, what about the drinks?
I cannot resist the temptation of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (£7), something my grandmother used to squeeze for her children when they were poorly, and which my mum has sometimes made for me – it's a fiddly job; you can't take the easy route of blending or the bitter seeds will affect the taste. I've never found a shop-bought pomegranate juice that tastes remotely right but this is it – freshly squeezed from the fruit.
Later I order a sweet lassi (£4) and am blown away even more. So many places seem to miss the essence of a lassi – the yoghurt itself. But chef Sriram Aylur has my undying respect for his lassi alone – it has the unmistakable rich tang of home-made yoghurt. It's thick and creamy with just the right balance between sweet and tart. I'd like it to be served a little cooler, but otherwise, it's absolutely fantastic and I can't stop myself grinning and exclaiming about as I drink it!
Pete is very pleased to choose from Quilon's special beer list. Sadly more than a little sticky from the previous guests' fingers, the list is nonetheless quite an intriguing one, with some familiar names and a few he's not encountered before.
He starts with a Kasteel Cru Rosé and moves on to a Pietra (both £4.50). We'll be posting separate reviews of these beers soon but, in summary, the former has a subtle lager taste with champagne style tiny bubbles and a pink hue whereas the latter has a distinct flavour from the chestnuts it's made with.
Tiny popadums are served to all diners, with coconut and tomato dips. We also supplement these with the table condiments; from left to right they are ginger and tamarind, red chilli and lime and garlic, mustard seeds and oil.
As we sit munching the little crisp breads, we take in our surroundings. I have to say, they're a little disappointing. Although I rather like the somewhat kitsch murals of gentle Malabar backwater scenes – luscious rubber plants, monkeys grooming beneath the trees, boats sailing along the water. But neither they nor the wall-mounted bromeliads manage to negate the hotel restaurant feel of the space.
Still, it's all about the food and it's not long before we're presented with a taster of three starters to catch our attention. From left to right are dakshini pepper chicken, seafood broth and crab cakes.
Although the dakshini pepper chicken (from the lunch menu or £9 à la carte) is described as 'green pepper corn, yoghurt and chilli flavoured' the dominant flavour for me is aromatic cardamom. The chicken is extremely moist and soft and the flavours are delightful. It's served on some gentle curry sauce, which adds a nice kick.
The seafood broth (from the lunch menu or £9 à la carte) is my least favourite, though Pete's more of a fan. In the bowl are plump prawns, a slice of scallop, some soft squid and a mussel. Our waiter pours the broth over them at the table. Whilst Pete likes the light spicing in the broth I find it too bland and slightly muddy tasting.
The crab cakes (£10 from the à la carte menu) are gorgeous. The menu describes them as 'crab claw meat tossed with curry leaves, ginger and green chillies'. Certainly, the quality and sweetness of the crab meat, and it's distinctive texture, come through clearly. So much crab meat is used that the cakes only just hold together! The sweetness is balanced by a mustard sauce beneath that brings a welcome sharpness.
After the starters, all diners are served an small glass of rasam – a warm tomato, lentil, coriander and tamarind soup that tastes a little like a hot, spicy bloody mary. It's fresh and fiery but not too heavy – this is the kind of kick I'd have enjoyed in place of the seafood broth.
We're slightly overwhelmed by the number of dishes that come out next, though we remind ourselves that the idea is to try – we don't have to finish them all!
Guinea fowl masala (from the lunch menu or £17 à la carte) comes covered in what is described as a coriander, green chilli and tomato 'rug'. I can't detect any tomato but the paste reminds me of my mum's green chutney, which I adore. The guinea fowl is surprisingly soft – it's so often been tough when I've ordered it elsewhere. If you love coriander as much as I do, this is a dish you'll enjoy, but it may be a little OTT on the herb for some.
The pistachio lamb (from the lunch menu or £17 à la carte) looks more impressive than it tastes. The green sauce is vibrant but lacks punch and I simply can't detect the flavour of pistachio at all, despite the colour. There is a lot of sauce to meat but the three pieces of meat are extremely tender. This is a very mild dish.
Two type prawns are available on the lunch menu for a £6.50 supplement, or à la carte for £10/£20 for a small or regular portion. One bread-crumbed and deep fried, the other plain, the giant prawns are served on a 'Manglorean masala'. Whilst the prawns taste great, I find them altogether too chewy – I prefer prawns to be softer and juicier. The tomatoey masala sauce beneath them is good though, especially with the paratha.
The cottage cheese and coloured peppers with lotus (from the lunch menu or £8 à la carte) is not like anything we've had before. The paneer is cut into small slivers and is firm like halloumi. I like that, though Pete expresses a preference for a softer, crumblier paneer texture. The small deep-fried kofte or balls of vegetable – presumably lotus – are fantastic. Pete rates them one of his favourite elements of the whole meal. Both cheese and kofte are lifted by the sweet crunch of peppers that have not been cooked to a mush and soft browned onions. The spicing is excellent.
The baked black cod might just be the most fantastic thing that's passed through my lips this year! The cod is as soft as silk and juicy, so juicy! And the charred edges of spice and molasses are smoky heaven. Available à la carte for £12/£24 for a small or regular portion, it's one of the few things we try that's not included in the set lunch menu. It is, we're told after enthusing about it, one of chef Sriram Aylur's signature dishes. It's a revelation; I've never had anything like it and have thought of it every single day since our visit!
Of course, black cod, you may be muttering to yourself, is a sub-Antarctic species and hardly forms a part of traditional Indian cuisine. Is this fusion? Chef Sriram Aylur's describes it rather as the "progress of food". Keen to remain grounded in his Indian roots, nonetheless he is happy to apply his own take on a traditional recipe, a take that makes use of ingredients available here in the UK.
From the long list of accompaniments we choose a Malabar paratha and lemon rice (both £3 à la carte). The paratha is flaky, soft and suitably ghee-laden – Pete says it reminds him of a flat, savoury croissant! The sour lemon rice (basmati with lime juice, curry leaves, split bengal gram and ghee) is not to either of our tastes.
I'm really not sure why we order desserts, other than the fact that we're greedy and we're curious. Curious, greedy bastards! And they're part of that great value set lunch menu too.
Pete selects the manuka honey cakes served with pistachio ice cream and white chocolate mousse (£8). The cakes are sodden with sharp, tangy manuka honey. They are good. The white chocolate mousse, served in a dark chocolate cup, is declared rich and creamy. The pistachio tuile I eat, as Pete's not a fan of nutty textures. It's delightfully crisp and crunchy and the very essence of pistachio. Disappointingly, the pistachio ice-cream, like the sauce for the lamb, doesn't taste of pistachio at all.
I go for hot rice kheer (£8), described as 'creamy hot rice pudding served with rose ice cream'. I love rice pudding and am not fussy about style, having grown up enjoying both the stodgy rice puddings of school dinners and my mum's lighter Indian kheers. But I really don't like this version at all. The texture is gritty, like it's full of broken rice and sand. The taste is bland. It's not sweet enough, though as the waiter was about to drop my ball of rose ice cream into the kheer before I stopped him, I guess that would have added sweetness. The sharp, acidic pieces of fruit beneath and on top of the rice pudding clash with the cream, for me.
The rose ice cream, on the other hand, is delightful, and I'm pleased I saved it from the sandy bowl of rice sludge. It's a very refreshing scoop of turkish delight flavoured cream.
Coffee (£4 or included in the lunch menu) comes prettily presented with sugar and a chocolate.
When I ask for mint tea (£4 or included in the lunch menu), made with real mint leaves please, I'm impressed to be immediately asked whether I'd prefer an infusion of the leaves or for them to mixed with black tea. I go for the former and am also rewarded with a little chocolate alongside.
Finally, our meal is over and we are replete. We've enjoyed a fantastic introduction to South-western Indian cuisine and have been very impressed indeed by much of what we've tried.
So much so that I'm determined to take my mum to visit soon – I know she'll enjoy it.
Of course, our bill for such a feast would have been higher for the vast number of dishes we tried than if we'd stuck to the set lunch deal. But we were very impressed with the choices on the £23 menu and would happily choose from this on a future visit.
Many thanks to Quilon and SLO London for arranging our visit.