Monday, 12 March 2007

Namasté

You can't fail to enjoy the lyrical and deferential translation put on the word "namasté" by the Buddhist monks of the High Himalyas: "The God within me bows to the God-like potential that lies within you".

Chef Angelo welcomes me and my family to Café SpiceThat said, the more succinct Hindi version: "hello" (or "welcome") will do me just fine. And whereas a polite bow and mudrā hand gesture may be appropriate in Kathmandu, a friendly smile and a slap on the back is more than adequate in the East End. That's exactly what I got on Saturday night when I took the family out to Café Spice Namasté in Aldgate, the site of some of my most enjoyable work experience. It's not every day you're warmly greeted by management, waiters and chefs on arrival at a restaurant and I was moved by our reception.

Welcome to the award-winning Café SpiceCafé Spice Namasté is a shining tribute to the work of Chef/Patron Cyrus Todiwala in developing the culinary art of modern Indian eclectic cuisine and in the vocational training of young people like me. Awarded an MBE in recognition of his commitment to the catering industry, Cyrus and his wife and front of house manager Pervin have been showered with awards.

Saturday night is a relatively quiet time to eat at Café Spice, as the restaurant draws much of its trade from City office workers during the week. I trained there in summer 2005, starting just days after the dreadful London bombings had taken place. An explosion at nearby Aldgate tube station had killed seven commuters. With this act of terrorism still fresh and business turnover slashed in its wake, it was not a good time for the staff of Café Spice to take on a student trainee. But I'll never forget how I was made to feel truly welcome. Nor will I forget those amazing lessons I received in cooking with spices. So I was amused last week to see that one of the MasterChef finalists, a guy with a well-developed sense of presentational artistry but a relatively bald palate, was sent to Café Spice to develop his taste buds.

Beetroot & coconut samosasThere's nothing wrong with tastebuds in my family, judging from everyone's reaction to the food. Dad had eaten there before, but for others in my family it was a first experience of the fusion of seasonal, UK-sourced free-range and organic produce with the delicate balance of Indian spices for which Cyrus and his team are renowned. Mum chose the Beetroot & Coconut Samosa starter (right) - a South Indian style blend of diced Cheltenham beetroot with diced potato, tossed with freshly grated coconut and sizzled with mustard seeds, curry leaves, cumin and chilli.

Baingan pakoras of aubergine and haldiWhen cooked with coconut, beetroot takes on a surprising and excellent taste. As does aubergine, when marinated with turmeric, chilli and lime juice, dipped in spiced chickpea batter and deep fried to create Baingan Pakoras (left). Served with fresh green chutney, this was dad's gluten-free choice. I had Tiger Prawns Chilli Fry - black tiger prawns marinated in red masala, skewer-grilled and served on a chilli fry masala bed of shallots, peppers, ginger, garlic & spring onion, tossed with spices and lime juice and served with toasted pitta drizzled with cumin-infused olive oil.

Aliyyah went for the red-hot Squid Dynamite, a dish of baby squid rings marinated in fiery Goan peri-peri masala and flash pan-grilled. And Joel started with house speciality Guizzado de Chorize Javali - wild boar chipolatas made specially in Suffolk for Café Spice with crushed peppercorns, toasted cumin and coriander and nibbed Kashmiri chilli, cooked in a rich vindaloo masala and served with toasted pitta.

Leeli curry ma Cornish turbotFor our main courses, Dad's choice was Leeli Curry ma Turbot (right), a mild and flavoursome Parsee dish of Cornish fish which Café Spice point out is one of their few dishes to genuinely bear the much-abused title ‘curry’ (derived from the Tamil word ‘kari’). After noticing the extent to which the menu draws on Portuguese influence, I thought it only right to order the Frango Peri-peri com Molho Chettinhad, a fusion dish of Goan chargrilled peri-peri chicken simmered in devilled sauce from the Chettiyars of Tamil Nadu and served with lime rice and raita. The dish is flavoured with spices that I love - crushed peppercorn, tamarind and chilli - and it's definitely not for the faint hearted.

Masala nu roast gosAlliyah's choice was Masala nu Roast Gos (left), a lamb shank marinated in extract of ginger and garlic with cumin and green chilli, part roasted to seal in the juices, simmered in its own gravy and served with steamed rice and fine crisp straw potatoes. Joel selected the intriguingly-named Beef Curry a' la Dada, named not after the founder of "anti-art" but Café Spice's former grand tandoor master. A Scottish beef curry in typically Darjeeling style, the dish is full of the flavours of blended spices combined with yoghurt and puréed onions and served with steamed rice.

Leeli chutney ma salmonMum chose Leeli Chutney ma Salmon (right), pieces of salmon fillet marinated in a Parsee-style fresh green chutney, skewered and chargrilled in the tandoor. Cyrus produces a fantastic range of chutneys and pickles based on his own family recipes and these are now marketed through catering exhibitions and stores such as Harvey Nichols. We shared a tadka dhal that was a bit lacking in texture but otherwise excellent and aloo bhaji made from a rare organic British potato sizzled with mustard seeds, cumin and onion and flavoured with garlic and fresh dhania.

Other intriguing dishes that none of us selected but definitely worth choosing on a return visit included Café Spice signature dish Venison Tikka Aflatoon (a dish of venison marinated as a tikka but flavoured with an exclusive blend of roasted fennel, star anise and cinnamon, replicating a dish famously served in the Maharajah of Gwalior’s private dining car), Loch Fyne King Scallops Balchão (Scotland's finest scallops pan grilled and tossed with the classic Goan balchão pickled seafood masala, flavoured with crumbled dried roasted shrimps and served with garlic palaf) and Ostrich Bhuna (strips of ostrich fan fillet, tossed with the most classic of sub-continental sauces, bhuna, served with pulao and chunks of fried potato.

A young Chilean sauvignon blancDad's choice of Chilean sauvignon blanc made an excellent accompaniment to the food - light, fruity and crispy and very "New World" in taste - quite unlike its more refined but less exciting French equivalent. It went down so well that by the time the desserts arrived we completely forgot to get the camera out to take photos. D'oh! Joel chose Lagan nu Custard (a popular Parsee custard dessert usually served at festive occasions, made by slowly reducing milk to a condensed form, blending with eggs & sugar, flavouring with nutmeg, cardamom & rose extract, steaming like crème caramel and serving warm).

I went for the Parsee Apricot Toffee Ice Cream (made from sun dried Hunza apricots gently cooked until almost caramelised prior to being blended into the ice cream base) and dad selected the Rose Kulfi (kulfi flavoured with natural rose syrup made by mixing Damask rose petals with lump sugar and placing in glass jars under direct sunlight for weeks). They were all great tasting dishes, but top marks to the kulfi which had a light shaving of cardamom on the surface that perfectly balanced the delicate rose flavour.

With aperitifs and coffee, this fabulous feast set us back £40 a head, including VAT and service. Having worked at Café Spice and seen the excellent standards of food preparation, computerised storage and health & safety in the kitchens, I can't fathom out how Cyrus makes a profit at these prices. But then that's not why he runs this restaurant and that, in turn, is what makes Café Spice so very special.

Feeling wonderfully satiated, we were just about to say farewell to the staff and head home when Cyrus Todiwala arrived and came to my table to say hello. He had been demonstrating all day at The Daily Mail Ideal Home Show in Earls Court and dashed across London to the restaurant before heading off to visit his Head Chef Babar Salim who had been rushed to hospital earlier in the day. Typical of the man that, under such intense pressure, he could still find time to spend with a former student. Thankfully, Chef Salim is OK and has now returned to his beloved kitchens. I'll be visiting him there again soon.

6 comments:

lindy said...

What gorgeous, gorgeous food.I am envious in the extreme.

mae said...

Dreaming at the thought of ginger and garlic, cumin braised lamb shanks. I can imagine that tasting really good.

Mae

ros said...

The menu at this place looks superb - and how sweet of Cyrus to take the time to come out and chat with you!

Those aubergine pakoras are something I would like to try on my parents. I am still trying to convert Dad to good food!

Trig said...

I've converted my dad to good food, Ros, the problem is that he can't cook it properly. I'm thinking about a post on this subject and I think you've decided it for me.

Truffle said...

looks amazing. during my recent london trip i headed to brick lane in search of a good curry but struggled to find a good spot without any local knowledge. will definitely have to try this place next time i'm on your side of the globe!

Trig said...

Truffle - There are plenty of good places to eat in Brick Lane but also some awful rip-offs and the food is not longer as cheap as it once was. Cafe Spice is in a different bracket, though - it's Michelin listed (BiB Gourmand as it doesn't qualify for a star).


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