Recently I returned to London to visit my friend Nicola, who, as mentioned previously, is active in the wine trade as judge, critic and teacher. We went out to dinner at the Tamarind Restaurant, where Toby Gorn is the head sommelier. I had met Toby at the International Wine Challenge in 2009, and knew he had been a sommelier at Pont de la Tour, as well as having worked with the Whiskey Society and writing for a Hungarian wine magazine. Now Toby has responsibility for the wine buying at Tamarind as well as developing the wine list and staff training, and he had some sample wines for us to try, which he was considering for inclusion in the wine list.
The food is based on traditional Mughal cuisine of Northwest India, using tandoor ovens and a rich layering of spices and flavours. Chef Alfred Prasad has held a Michelin Star since 2001 and the Tamarind has been rated among the top ten restaurants in the Best of Britain awards for more than 15 years.
I adore Indian food, but at home I won’t open a bottle for myself alone, and the few rather basic curry houses I had visited in London and Porto only offered beer, so I was looking forward to learning how this cuisine, with its incredibly complex spices, would pair with fine wines.
In a word: magnificently.
First the food. There were four of us dining and among us, the starters included the following (details copied from Tamarind’s menu, which you can access in full on line here):
- Papdi Chaat: Spiced chickpeas, whole‐wheat crisps, mint chutney and sweetened yoghurt topped with blueberries and tamarind chutney. This is an Indian street food you could eat all night, a wonderful combination of crunchy bits, creamy yoghurt, the cool mint and the tart/sour flavour of the tamarind.
- Pudhina Chops: Tender lamb cutlets with ginger, turmeric, dried mint, malt vinegar and peppercorns; chilli yoghurt dip
- Aloo Tikki: Potato cakes with a sago crust and a filling of spinach, garlic and dried fenugreek leaves; tamarind chutney. These were very savoury and the tamarind chutney giving a nice sweet/sour contrast.
- Bharwan Paneer: Grilled paneer marinated in yoghurt, turmeric, ginger and spices with a mint chutney filling. Paneer is a type of fresh cheese in a firm cake (imagine tofu or feta) and cooked with lots of seasonings or a sauce. Again, this was a very savoury food, but the paneer gave a creamy taste with a dry texture.
With the starters, Toby served us two wines, not yet on the wine list: one was a Riesling Spatlese 2006 Karthauserhof, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and the other was Little Beauty Gewurtztraminer 2008, Marlborough. The Riesling was fresh, characterised by light crisp fruit and maybe a note of stone or mineral. The Gewurtztraminer had a more floral nose and palate, roses, maybe a touch of spice itself, very elegant, complex and full bodied.
I enjoyed both wines very much, preferring the Riesling with the Bharwan Paneer as a nice clean contrast to the cheese, and with the Papdi Chaat, I couldn’t make up my mind – tried both wines in combination with the chaat repeatedly, and though the taste sensations were very different, I enjoyed both combinations, the Riesling rather cutting through and making a light clean contrast, the Gewurtztraminer making a good pairing as far as weight and complexity being well matched. Couldn’t make up my mind… would happily spend an entire evening trying.
Our mains included:
- Jhinga Kalimirch: Tiger prawns tossed with shallots, tomatoes, ground spices and crushed peppercorns.
- Awadhi Murgh: Boneless chicken in an aromatic sauce with melon seeds, yoghurt and spices
- Hyderabadi Shank: Slow‐cooked lamb shank with turmeric, yoghurt, browned garlic and freshly ground spices
Again, Toby offered us two different wines, both of which are on the current wine list (which you can review in full – it’s a great list – here). First was Paritua Pinot Noir 2008, Marlborough and the other was Meerlust Rubicon 2006, Stellenbosch. The Pinot Noir was classic red fruit and maybe a whiff of herbs, a very supple wine. The Meerlust is a Bordeaux type blend, with a preponderance of Cabernet Sauvignon, very full bodied and structured with complex flavours of red fruits, earthy floral notes, and a touch of spiciness, maybe even black chocolate.
The prawn dish, which was my choice, was intensely spiced, with very dark, rich, complex flavours and it had the greatest heat of all our dishes, though it was a slow rising heat, not a scorcher. I don’t have much tolerance for chili, but this was so good I didn’t actually fully appreciate the heat of the dish till a little later in the evening. For me, the Meerlust was the winner with this, standing up to the complex spices and balancing the heat and richness beautifully. Nicola preferred the Pinot Noir with this dish, and I can understand the logic of the pairing, but somehow for me the prawns made the Pinot Noir show as rather too thin. But please don’t get the wrong idea – the Pinot was a beautiful wine.
Nicola described the Awadhi Murgh as very creamy, mid spicy without heat, but very elegant. She loved it with the Gewurtztraminer, and of the two reds, preferred the Meerlust with this dish.
With the Hyderabadi lamb shanks, the Meerlust again showed well standing up to the rich flavours. And while it may sound as if the Meerlust was the winner all around, I do remember noticing the decanter of the Paritua was empty, so clearly someone was enjoying it thoroughly! The waiter had spotted how much we enjoyed the chaat and brought us another bowl of it during dinner, and the Pinot Noir definitely worked with the chaat very well.
Finally, dessert was a pair of tropical fruit sorbets, served with Essensia Orange Muscat 2008, Andrew Quady, California. The wine is quite fresh, orange marmalade and not-too-dried apricot, and not at all cloying, only 15% alcohol, and paired beautifully with my mango sorbet.
The Tamarind is a beautiful restaurant, and the service was wonderful. They were very helpful and accomodating: when I asked what sago was (in the Aloo Tikki), the waiter explained and a few moments later brought out a little dish of it from the kitchen for me to try – it is a starch which comes from palm, in tiny pearl like balls. When I couldn’t make up my mind between two starters, they offered to create a starter plate with a small serving of each. And of course Toby is incredibly knowledgeable, and you can trust his recommendations on wine and food pairings.
I can wholeheartedly recommend the Tamarind Restaurant if you are in London, and if not, and you must cook your own Indian food at home, I recommend putting away the beer and trying some fine wines with your meal instead.