I’m pretty sure that the Taj Mahal was the first Indian restaurant I was ever in, A modest establishment, nestled under some railway arches in central Manchester, it hung on in years after the Corpo had served a compulsory purchase order. The proprietor, a kindly man we called Mister Anwar, acted as confidant and father confessor to us students, giving as much attention to tangled relationships and broken hearts as to encouraging our juvenile taste buds to try the dishes in his nephew the cook’s repertoire. Although Anwar sometimes got it very badly wrong, as when he suggested I ask my parents to arrange a marriage between myself and one of my best friends. “I was married at nineteen. I had not met my wife before our betrothal. We are very happy. Nina and yourself are well suited.” Yeah, right. It would have been the marriage from hell. Luckily, she and I were both well copped on.
Back in those days there were few Indian (and here, I include Pakistani and Bangladeshi) restaurants with pretensions to class and quality. They existed to serve their own community; to provide students like my friends and I with cheap and sustaining food; to provide an opportunity for diners to flaunt their machismo by ordering vicious vindaloos and incendiary Bangalore phals, accompanied by as many as a dozen raw chilies.. And, because they stayed open after midnight, Indian restaurants also catered for the post-pubbing fraternity.
Most of that is now behind us and Indian restaurants are now settled in the mainstream along with Thai, Chinese, pizza and pasta emporia and steak houses. During the 1990s, however, the ante was upped by a new echelon of young trained chefs. Many had worked in fine dining restaurants in five star hotels in their homeland. They took Indian food up market. Whilst respecting their traditions and ingredients, they developed and lightened the culinary style and developed presentational skills that put them on a par with their European counterparts. In Ireland restaurants like Jaipur, Chakra and Rasam led the way.
Ananda, in the Dundrum Shopping Centre is a collaboration between Asheesh Dewan of Jaipur and Atul Kochar, proprietor of famed London restaurant Benares. The latter, who has a high profile from TV appearances, was head hunted for the London restaurant Tamarind back in the mid-nineties and was at the helm when the restaurant gained a Michelin star, first Indian ever to do so, in 2001.
Though the entrance is a trifle low key – up a couple of escalators in the building that houses the cinema – this is easily forgotten once inside. We got a warm welcome from the receptionist and maitre’d. The décor is modern and appealing; the staff young and clearly, professionally trained. Linen and glassware are of fine quality and all is spruce and sparkling; everything in place for a dining experience to remember.
It got even better when I opened the wine list. I have to say, I’m not much of a one for wine and food matching. My stance is that there are 5% of wine and food marriages made in heaven, 10% made in hell and the rest are somewhere in between. It I want to drink something, I’ll order it. And there it was, winking at me. Pezat 2005, €34. A remarkable price for a restaurant, because the 2007, from an inferior vintage, costs £20 in the wine merchants. Pezat, for those who haven’t come across it, is a Merlot-accented Bordeaux made by a class act called Jonathan Maltus from a small plot in a no-name area. ‘Beyond the pale’ it might be but from where these grapes are gathered you could pitch a handbag into the finest property in St.Emilion.
My Rajasthani seekh kebabs, made from minced Irish smoked lamb came as cylindrical ‘sausages’ – simple yet brilliant haute couture comfort food for a cold night, the fragrant delicate spicing pointed up by little spikes of chilli without obscuring the flavour of the lightly smoked meat. Sibella took the pan fried potato cakes filled with spiced peas served with date & tamarind relish. She pronounced it a winner.
There was hardly anything on the list of main course I didn’t fancy. The Coorg Ki Pork Champ wrong-footed me for the ‘Champ’ in the title led me to expect mashed potatoes in some form. It turned out to be two marinated and grilled pork chops with sage, served with an apple and cabbage confection and a sharp vindaloo sauce that gave the whole some considerable ‘oomph’. Sibs’ choice of this left me free to go for the Duck Chettiyar, described as “simmered in southern spices with tamarind, curry leaf & cracked mustard seed served with Chettiyar glaze”. Never did find out what Chettiyar glaze was but the whole shebang was delicious.
A side dish of Dal (lentils) is a good way of seeing how an Indian restaurant copes with traditional aspects. This one passed the test with flying colours as did the nan bread and the ‘every grain a roller’ plain boiled rice.
You would look in vain for korma, bhuna and their cousins but there’s no doubt that the food in Ananda is as traditional as jazz in New Orleans. Saucing, similar to its western counterpart, has made the transition from free-flowing gravy to intensely-flavoured jus, presentation is as high key as any one star Michelin, but that’s about all. The kulfi, Indian ice cream, we shared for dessert took me right back to railway arch days.
This is one fabulous restaurant. Smart chefs, doing their creative thing, pushing the envelope, exciting stuff. At the same time, no head-wrecking flights of fancy. Ananda represents a linear progression from a centuries old tradition not some coke-fired bozo chef’s hallucination. It can surely only be a matter of time before the po-faces from Michelin drop in and bestow a star. Anything less makes no sense.
Verdict: Inspired cooking, savvy wine list with fair pricing, fine décor, friendly, hard-working staff, pristine facilities, ’nuff said.
The damage: €114.50 ex-service for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, bottle of excellent wine