I say scornfully that lunch is for wimps. But most of the time that dismissal of the midday meal is just to disguise the fact that I’m a bit bitter at my foodie friends gaily gallivanting around town and chowing down whilst I put finger to keyboard, greedily gobbling up the indecent images filling my Twitterfeed: the latest, greatest eats that they’re feeding on and I’m not.
And to add insult to injury, Scarfes Bar served chef Palash Mitra’s menu at lunchtime only. I used the past tense, because I gather that that has, or will soon, change. Huzzah and all that, but now back to relishing the tale of how I finally got to try my penpal Pal’s khana. Well, perhaps not ‘pen’, for we after all live in a digital age; but Mr Mitra and I had struck up a firm friendship over DM and email.
Bonded by Bengal – the chef is Bengali by birth, I am so by belly – and a love for exploring authentic Indian items from any and every region, it seemed more and more ludicrous that we hadn’t yet met. Dad’s birthday was on the way; I pleaded with Palash – was there any way he could sort a surprise supper for my father on a Saturday night?
Within mere moments, the knight in shining chefs’ whites replied simply, ‘I will take care of it’. And that was that taken care of.
And so my Dad finds himself thoroughly surprised as we find ourselves seated on a pair of plush, deep yellow velvet armchairs, ensconced by a roaring fire on a surprisingly nippy Saturday evening in August. I duped Dad into coming to the Rosewood Hotel, but the food will be a surprise to us both. I have not been privy to Palash’s plans.
As we await the arrival of the man who made it all possible, the man whose birthday it is and who ‘can’t stand cocktails’ takes a cautious sip of his Humidor and finds he can tolerate a blended beverage after all, and indeed fully finish one with consummate ease. Draining the glass of the last drops, he declares ‘that packs a punch’.
Palash, meanwhile, could probably do with a similarly stiff drink – he’s currently catering to a private party downstairs and greets us with a sweat-beaded brow. Leave the menu alone, he insists; he wants to send us a selection that showcases his best bits. So we sit, and sip, and people-watch, and wait. The dining room is so rich in itself that one could probably just dine on the decor.
But man cannot live on interior design alone, and we’re particularly peckish. So the sight of a teeny-tiny onion bhajia at the bottom of a big old bowl makes our empty stomachs groan with appetite and disappointment. And then, suddenly!
The waitress tips a copper pan and the fritter is afloat in a haldi-hued sea of soup – or ‘kadhi’, as the fennel-fragrant, yogurt and gram flour sauce is properly called. The spicing in the serving we’re gorging on is gorgeously Gujarati – the very state where Palash spend some of his formative years.
Kadhi calls to mind comfort; perfect monsoon fare when paired with kichuri. I aim to eat just a few scanty spoonfuls. I don’t want to be too full to do full justice to the feast Palash has promised will follow. But I simply can’t stop, and then my spoon is scraping the bottom of that bowl and my tummy is warm and my tastebuds are tingling. Dad is similarly delighted.
And so to salad. England meets India – garden lettuce, radishes and whitebait; crispy chaat, chutneys, the ajwain seed-studded batter for the fishies, and some diminutive dots of Heinz tomato ketchup. Yes, I place that in amongst the Indian ingredients; after all, it’s absolutely essential eating alongside many fried foods.
A single spiced crabcake also sits on the salad, the filling a rich mix and moreish mix of white and brown meat. We meet more meat in mains, as our waitress trills, ‘I hope you’re ready!’ and starts cramming a collection of karahis onto the tabletop. After the starters, we don’t feel it’ll be too painful to finish the whole lot.
And it’s not. Palash pops up again to ask how we’re enjoying everything and we offer only gerbil grins, our cheeks fat with food. His muttar pilau is surprisingly-spiced with shahi jeera – the thin, crescent-shaped black cumin seeds lending a smoky anise quality that’s a clever counterpoint to the peas’ sweet earthiness.
Raita is right-on – thick, cool, creamy. Sweet tomato chutney studded with kalonji seeds brings a bit of Bengali to the table; the condiment ever-present at any Bong banquet. Dry-spiced potatoes are so savoury I’d happily savour this single dish for dinner. The Delhi-style butter chicken and Hyderabadi white korma should be force-fed to anyone who claims to ‘luv a curry!’
The former is the dish most closely connected with the Great British chicken tikka masala. For those who crave CTM, eating a bowl of butter chicken will be the equivalent of Goldilocks finding her perfect porridge.
In Palash’s version of the classic created at Moti Mahal in Delhi, the tikka adds a smoky note to the sauce, which is earthy and deep from fenugreek, lightly sweet and tangy from tomato and ginger, and creamy from, well, cream. An extra bit of butter on the top would be overkill, but awesome.
The korma comes gilded with varq (silver leaf), a garish garnish whose application is quite classic – and an example of gilding the lily in the extreme where this already-rich dish is concerned. The velvet-smooth gravy is created with cashews, the lamb taking on the heady, fragrant flavours of cloves and cardamom. Its heat is meek, but dried red chillies litter the dish, adding flavour not fire.
You’d think the extensive feast would have extinguished our ardour for something sweet, but it has only served to fan the flames. Sticky toffee is Father’s favourite pudding, and this rib-sticking date and ginger version cements Scarfes’ version in his hall of fame. I miss the presence of mithai on the menu, but I’ve always said that baked cheesecake is sort of like sandesh, and this one is splendid.
So, too, is an oily and unctuous Diplomatic Immunity – the mix of rum, ginger spice formula, orange peel and liquorice liqueur suggesting a Negroni that’s a nightcap, not a sundowner. We sit, satisfied and almost as stuffed as the sofas. And then Palash presents Dad with another plateful of puds and a plaque proclaiming ‘happy birthday’. Created with chocolate, of course.
Meeting Palash Mitra and eating at Scarfes put us not at all in the mood to hit the tube. Of course we’d rather have resided in the Rosewood, waking up in the hotel high on the fact we were still on High Holborn and not in our lowly country cottage. But still, we wake happy. For Dad’s birthday dinner, at least, we lived and dined like kings.
- Scarfes Bar is at the Rosewood Hotel, 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN. For more information, click here.
- To read my profile of Palash for my blog with the Times of India, click here.