Ruby Murray, the Northern Irish popular singer who gave her name to rhyming slang’s favourite cuisine, was herself a big drinker. But probably not this classy.
‘A journey along the Grand Trunk Road is a bewildering mix of the past and present, tripping back and forth between the mundane and the momentous,’ writes Tim Smith in the introduction to his rich photo documentation of the ancient path that skewers Northern India and Pakistan before sidling up to Afghanistan. Kipling – the writer, not the cake maker – was also a fan, describing the ‘Long Walk’ as a ‘river of life as nowhere else exists in the world’.
Appropriate then, that Moti Mahal in Covent Garden has been holding a series of dinners intent on mixing up bewildering flavours and themes to showcase its modern and progressive take on the traditional but varied cuisine found along the ‘GT Road’. Lacking somewhat ‘the mundane’ and veering sharply to the momentous, after I’d taken a Long Walk of my own from Holborn Tube station (it was hot and it seemed pretty long at the time), I was greeted with a fluted effervescent which resembled an old favourite devil-may-care tipple ‘Death In The Afternoon’ – absinthe combined insolently with Champagne by Hemingway himself. For better or worse, I had not been handed a sliver of my historically candlelit cocktail nemesis. This cloudy glass of fizz was, in fact, sparkling sake.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been busy keeping up with the army of invading East Asian spirits and liqueurs popping up all over my radar. I’ve forced fellow LUSSO reprobates to neck Chinese baijiu in the Dorchester, got my head around soju kicking vodka’s arse in global sales several times over and I’ve ‘taken one for the team’, experimenting with a still-unnamed milky grey Korean alcohol that tasted like tofu gone wrong. Consequently, I’d kind of forgotten about the somewhat more subtle delights and nuances of sake.
Yet here it was, and it was fizzy. Moti Mahal’s irrepressible sommelier Barry McCaughley had decided the time was right to explore the potential delights of combining Japan’s oft-misunderstood whimsical princess with the indulgent flavour bombs typical of head chef Anirudh Arora for a ‘Sake and Spice’ dinner.
While fellow diners contemplated on the best way to pace oneself on the epic culinary journey to come, I enjoyed the contrast of crisp fried lotus and sprouted lentil salad served with Fukukomachi Junmai Daiginjo, poured diligently by visiting sake sommelier Natsuki Kikuya. Sure, the subtle tropical fruit-driven aromatics of the drink complemented the light appetizer, but this was stepped up a notch with seared sesame, coriander and tamarind scallops served on ‘mushy peas’ done Moti Mahal style: crushed respectfully with lime and cumin. The lactic and slightly heavier umami qualities of the Atago no Sakura Junmai Daiginjo – brewed at Niizawa, one of the only sake breweries to survive the devastating Tohoku tsunami – somehow brought out the light cumin spice in the dish, the sake blending seamlessly with the shellfish. Natsuki had clearly thought about temperature, weight and presentation too, with this sake being served in beautiful chilled hand-made pewter sake cups she had brought over especially from Japan.
After that slice of sublime, I couldn’t help feeling that the delicious tandoor lamb chops and black dhal somewhat stole the show from the award-winning Fukukomachi Daiginjo from Kimura served with it. And when the fennel-laced murgh biriyani was placed ceremoniously centre table in a big pot with okra curry, even the pomegranate raita couldn’t coax our table-side chatter back to the Kimito Classic Junma. This despite the fact that against usual sake-buff protocol it had been served warm to bolster the umami notes. Perchance and mayhaps, I had also been somewhat distracted by the fact that conversation at the table had somehow turned to the masturbatory habits of the Namibian squirrel. Oh sake, you sneaky thing.
Nonetheless, the show wasn’t quite over yet and, for lack of a fat lady singing, we were served dessert. Thinking myself more a savoury type of fellow – the kind who passes on the cake to save room for cheese – I tend to forget the delights of an excellently executed dessert. A mango yoghurt panna cotta served with a ‘peanut crush’ was flawlessly complemented by (controversially) not a sake at all, but an umeshu, a Japanese plum wine. Those such as myself who happen to carry a lifetime membership card for Cocktail Snobs Anonymous and know all of the secret special ‘mixo’ handshakes will have been aware of the unparalleled joys of mixing with and wetting the lips a fine umeshu, and this was no exception. The off-dry, plummy yet also curiously nutty Kimoto Umeshu from Daishichi sang like the fat lady never did.
Naturally Indian food can be quite a challenge to pair with drink, no matter how perfectly executed it is. Which is why probably even the best of us might occasionally be caught reaching for an ice-cold Cobra while peeling back the foil in the wee hours or requesting the sommelier to fetch us a bottle of Picpoul tout de suite in the latest new-wave Indian. But sake, there’s a thought…
Julian de Féral is an award-winning bartender-turned international drinks consultant and occasional raconteur.
Starters from £7, mains from £14 and Tasting menu from £40. www.motimahal-uk.com.