Quilon, 41 Buckingham Gate, London SW1
Quilon is exceptional and disappointing in equal measure. Is that really good enough for Michelin attention?
Sunday 02 March 2008
So far, I don't like it. Admittedly I have only just arrived, but it seems fairly certain I am not going to enjoy Quilon. I'm only here because it recently got a Michelin star, and I am forever curious as to what Michelin sees in London's Indian restaurants. So far, Benares, Tamarind, Vineet Bhatia's Rasoi, Amaya and now Quilon each have stars, making Indian cuisine more one-starry than Japanese, Chinese and Italian.
The room is ominously bland, its low ceiling and tropical-jungle murals making it feel like a hotel breakfast-buffet room. Then there are the rules. I love the tamarind-sour, curry-leaf-spiced, coconut-sweet seafood of southern Indian coastal cooking, which means I want to cover the table with it all and let everybody dig in. Here, sharing means the chef does miniature versions of the order and plates them individually, so everyone gets a little bit of everything. They do that to Chinese food in New York, and I can't bear it.
Then, in seven simple steps, Quilon almost manages to convert me. Here's how:
1. Mini masala dosa (£7). It's so damn cute, the fermented rice-and-lentil batter freshly crisped and curled into a paper-thin tepee over a spoonful of well-spiced potato masala.
2. Yoghurt: the menu reads "plain yoghurt (£2.50)", but after her first mouthful, my wife lights up like Diwali. "It's home-made," she breathes rapturously. Set in big curds, it is neither sweet, salty nor sour, just pure, fresh and creamy. How many Indian restaurants care enough about yoghurt to make their own every day?
3. Tomato "soup": the inter-course palate cleanser is an elegant glass of utterly delicious tomato tea spiced up with ginger and tamarind, like a hot bloody mary.
4. Baked black cod (£23): using spices and molasses instead of miso paste, this Indian version of Nobu's black cod is so thick, juicy, scorchy and sensitively cooked, it works better than the original.
5. Indian Sauvignon Blanc: my first taste of Indian wine – and I thought I had drunk everything on the planet. The 2005 Grover Sauvignon Blanc (£24) from the Nandi Hills north of Bangalore is too heavy on oak, but is nicely spicy and perfectly drinkable.
6. Lemon rice (£3): light, golden and sunny, every grain separate yet still family.
7. Appams (£2): coming straight from a chef standing in the corner at a burner, these crisp rice-flour pancakes look like glazed porcelain bowls, and taste of delicately toasted rice. In a rather shocking act of destruction you tear, fold and dip them in whatever is handy – for me, that means the rich, coconut-creamy sauce of Mangalorean chicken curry (£18.50).
Seven steps forward... then seven steps back. The chicken curry is well flavoured but refined almost to death, with boring chicken breast instead of meat cooked on the bone. A lentil and tamarind sambhar is dreamy but so mild. Slow-roasted lamb shank is dense and dry. Mango curry tastes like dessert. A little salad of undressed sprouting seeds is awful. Gussied-up traditional desserts of layered bibinca cake and blancmange-like dodhol feel heavy and impure.
Quilon is just plain annoying, doing some things so well – the yoghurt! the appams! – that you almost forget you are sitting in a boring room paying high prices for overly refined cooking. Patrolling the room is chef Sriram Aylur, a quietly spoken, intelligent, 20-year veteran of the Taj restaurant group. I like that he is doing healthier, more modern Indian cuisine without adulterating it with foreign ingredients such as foie gras, but I do wish he'd rough it up a bit and stop pussy-footing around with the heat.
Quilon shines its brightest when it simply does things how they should be done, like the yoghurt and appams. What, then, got it the Michelin star – doing things properly, or the boring room, high prices and overly refined cooking?
SCORES: 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK, 10-11 NEEDS HELP, 12 OK, 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH, 14 GOOD, 15 VERY GOOD, 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS, 17 SPECIAL, CAN’T WAIT TO GO BACK, 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE, 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE, 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Quilon, 41 Buckingham Gate, London SW1, tel: 020 7821 1899. Lunch Sun-Fri; dinner daily. Around £110 for two, including wine and service
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