Karam Sethi’s more glamorous and ambitious Gymkhana, which opened in Mayfair last year, might have been garnering more column inches – but we decided to visit his original Modern Indian, Trishna in Marylebone. This one-Michelin star restaurant relaunched recently after a makeover. It’s usually touted as a branch of Trishna in Mumbai, acclaimed as one of the world’s best seafood restaurants. However, it’s completely independent in terms of the menu, design, ambience and ethos.
Like the original Trishna, this two-room venue specialises in coastal seafood dishes of south-west India. The area encompasses the whole of the Arabian Sea coastline, including Mumbai. Here you’ll find the varied cuisines of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities of Kutch, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and the entire western part of south India. Large, rustic antique mirrors, wooden tables set close together, and low-dimmed lighting gives this fine dining venue the feel of a neighbourhood restaurant.
Of special interest are Trishna’s ‘koliwada’ menus. The word means ‘of the fishermen (koli) community’ found around Mumbai, renowned for the spontaneously-cooked dishes of their fish markets. Koliwada cooking is light but can be highly spiced, and is flavoured with fresh coconut, tamarind and kokum (a dried fruit of the mangosteen family). There are textural juxtapositions of tender fish and vegetables made crispy and crunchy by grilling or deep-frying.
The vegetarian ‘koliwada’ menus are priced at £45 for five courses and £55 for seven. We were tempted to try the latter ‘for research purposes’, but we’re glad we opted for the former, as the portion sizes are generous. These veggie menus are not offered automatically though – we wouldn’t have known about them had we not seen them on the website first; and indeed diners at the next table were struggling to decide which meat-free dishes to order from their a la carte menu. Once our waiter realised we were ordering veggie, however, he swiftly removed the shrimp chutney that came with a basket of superior papads (often erroneously called ‘poppadams’ in the UK) and chutneys.
First, the dish that completely blew us away. This was a towering beauty of pan-fried heritage carrots, beetroot and broccoli; the mix of chunky, shredded and candied vegetables given crunch by cashew nuts, crushed peanuts, curry leaves and lotus root crisps. Lime juice, mustard and ginger gave the fresh, light flavours slightly pickled undertones. A harmonious combination of wonderful tastes and varying textures, this is an early contender for our ‘vegetarian dish of the year’.
Another highlight was ‘rasam’, a peppery south Indian tomato broth with strident spicing and chilli heat, accompanied by curry leaf-studded urid lentil vada (fritters). Paneer tikka, superfluously topped with sweetcorn and micro shoots, were enhanced by the sharp, slightly musky flavour of amchur (sun-dried powdered green mangoes).
We loved the distinct Kolhapuri spicing of stuffed baby aubergines, served with roasted aubergine puree and a disc of aubergine pakora – but the dish was slightly let down by the bitterness of the vegetable (as is often the case with the baby Indian variety). We were more impressed by the accompanying beetroot poriyal, potato Udayagiri and Hyderabadi dal: humble ingredients transformed into flavoursome fare by beautifully judged regional spicing. All these veggie dishes (and a few more) also appear on their a la carte menu.
Dessert was a superb, deep purple-hued heritage carrot halwa, rich with ghee and topped with almond slivers, just like how an Indian grandmother would make. However, the accompanying sweet samosa, stuffed with more of the halwa was a pointless flourish; and ‘chai ice cream’ was overwhelmed by the strong taste of tea. Service throughout was attentive, efficient and friendly, including from Sethi’s sister Sunaina, an award-winning sommelier who’s designed the imaginative wine list here.
If we were nit-picking, we would say that the vada, paneer and naan could have been a little softer and fluffier, considering everything else was of such high quality; the seasoning should have been more consistent, as some of the dishes were either a touch under-salted or over-salted; and the inclusion of too many dry-textured items on the menu should have been balanced by one or two more sauced dishes.
However, the cooking here is highly accomplished, and more vibrant and assured than that of the old Trishna. The dishes are true to their traditional selves, allowed to shine in their modern guises. The lively spicing isn’t patronisingly toned down for the western palate. Best of all, Trishna left us feeling happy and full, with a smile on our face and a spring in our step – which is what all good meals should do, vegetarian or otherwise.
Trishna, 15-17 Blandford Street, Marylebone Village W1U 3DG. Tel: 020 7935 5624.
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