Friday, November 6, 2015
Sake & Spice (& Everything Nice!) @ Moti Mahal, Covent Garden
I love sake. I love Indian food. Put the two together? I wasn't so sure - until Moti Mahal did exactly this last week and it blew my tiny little mind.
Over five delicious courses from the world famous restaurant, we were introduced to a selection of sakes all handpicked by Barry McCaughley (Head of Beverages at Moti Mahal and another favorite of mine, Soho's Chotto Matte), who came up with the unexpected pairing of Japanese sake with the spices of traditional Indian cuisine.
And Moti Mahal London does traditional Indian food so very well. Founded in Delhi more than four decades ago, the restaurant is well known for its Tandoori cuisine and the invention of butter chicken (which later became the UK's beloved chicken tikka masala).
But back to the sake. I still wasn't entirely convinced. Then Barry began to break it down for us and it all made sense. Instead of competing with the flavors in your mouth as wine does (since wine is made from fermented grapes), sake (made from fermented rice which has been polished to remove the bran) enhances the flavor. It's not better - just different. In a really fantastic way.
Curious to know just how this phenomenon works in practice? Like this:
For our first course, we warmed up our palates with a Chukander Ka salad - wafer-thin pieces of beetroot topped with crushed peanuts and a wonderfully spicy stuffed pepper with mint potatoes and green peas.
This was paired with the Kimura Fukukomachi Junmai Daiginjo sake, which became my favorite sake of the evening. Fruity (it smelled like peaches!), floral, and light on the tongue, it was love at first sip for me.
But then the Barra Peshwari lambchops arrived, accompanied by baskets piled high with Keema Naan, a tandoori naan stuffed with spiced lamb mince. And ... it was exquisite.
So exquisite, I turned in my chair after the first bite and asked if it was a permanent item on Moti Mahal's menu and, if so, that I'd like to book a table for my parents' visit in December. That good.
Only problem: I just can't imagine not having it with the next sake, Kimura Fukukomachi Daiginjo from the Kimura brewery, which brought out the spices beautifully well. I might have to nip discreetly from a sake hip flask as the sake pairing was a one-off event from Moti Mahal!
Then suddenly, there was stir-fried pheasant curry on the table, served with a spicy pickled partridge, Tandoor-baked breads and okra, which I couldn't stop nibbling at!
We enjoyed this collection of dishes with Akita Shurui Seizoh Takashimizu Honjozo sake, which I didn't love as much as the first two we tried. This was a rich, fragrant sake with a dry finish, but it tasted slightly more medicinal to me (probably because of my cold!). It was, however, interesting to hear about the brewing techniques at the Takashimizu brewery. Located in northern Japan, the cold winter temperatures mean that brewing takes places during this season as the brewmaster has more control over the fermentation (totally saving that fact to impress the next time I'm out for sushi and sake ... or curry and sake).
Aside from the lamb chops, the next best course we had that evening had to be the Lahori Macchi Pulao - baby red mullet cooked in a sealed pot with basmati rice and curry spices. Basically the most amazing biryani I've ever tasted (and I'm telling you all the names so you can order the same dishes yourself!).
Lighter than lamb or chicken, the mullet was a welcome addition to this dish, which was paired with the ‘Gozenshu 9 “Mountain Stream" Junmai Nama Bodaimoto’ sake. Described as "fresh and lively", this sake was served in traditional sake sets and we were taught to receive the sake politely i.e. cupping the small cup with both hands while it was being poured. At this point, I wished I had more room in my stomach to clean my plate (because I loved it so much!) but I knew my stomach would regret it if I didn't stop - plus, I wanted to save room for dessert.
I sat next to Nobuhisa Nara for the evening, who works for S.K.Y. Enterprise, an importer and distributor of sake - namely, distributors of the sweet plum wine we were about to try for dessert, Ume no Yado. We chatted about our mutual expat status (he moved over to London from Japan around a similar time I made the move across the pond) and how food blogging's changing the restaurant review landscape. Lots of deep thoughts for an evening focused on sake!
But before I knew it, the beautiful glasses were lined up for the Ume no Yado and dessert was served.
We finished the evening with Ananas Ka Meetha - pineapple carpaccio with a plum and port wine sorbet. I wasn't a huge fan of the pineapple (although I normally love it!) but I eagerly dug into the plum and port wine sorbet, which only served to bring out the heady sweetness of the plum wine.
I marvelled at Barry's encyclopedic knowledge of sake and his skill at matching different sakes to specific flavors and cuisines. Throughout the evening, he encouraged us to think about the "texture" that sake creates on our palates when coupled with the heat from the spices. At first, the idea was a little too conceptual for me, but as the evening progressed, the revelation hit me: I totally got it. I felt like this was an exciting, newsworthy discovery: why wasn't this more of a thing? Why weren't more London restaurants making sake a permanent fixtures on their menus? If Barry has anything do with it, they just might. And I can't wait to try the results.
Watch this space.
Moti Mahal is located at 45 Great Queen Street, London, WC2B 5AA. Huge thanks to Moti Mahal and to Barry and Oana for hosting me at this taste-sensational evening! All opinions are my own.