My chum Bangles had a word for it. “The attention to detail throughout this meal,” she said, “is positively forensic”. This as we stared spellbound by a juxtaposition of geometric shapes and swirls in rich colours and gradations on a white ground. Art on a platter, my immediate thought was it could have been painted by Wassily Kandinsky in his Bauhaus period. Hesitant to deface the masterpiece, it took me a few moments to dig a fork in. Eventually, conscious that sorbets time expire, I scooped up a mouthful, letting my palate explore a dazzling panoply of scents and flavours, ranging from fragrant basil to luscious, corruscating pomegranate. Bangles, who had never eaten in an Indian restaurant of this calibre before, went from scepticism over the prices to ecstasy over the food in the space of three courses.
Ananda, perched above the cinema in the Dundrum Centre, is the flagship of Asheesh Dewan’s Jaipur group, which also boats restaurants in central Dublin, Dalkey, Malahide and Greystones. Of the five, Ananda, in the charge of the hardworking and extremely talented chef Sunil Gai could be described as the group’s nerve centre, the ‘laboratory’ where the potential of Indian cuisine is explored to the outer limits.
We parked in the shopping centre, on Level 2, and strolled down the hill. There is a low key entrance on Sandyford Road. Ascending the stairs, I made my usual faux pas in turning the wrong way and ending up in a broom cupboard. We got there in the end, to be welcomed by Benny Jacob, the manager, a man who must surely have a PhD in meeting and greeting.
The room is warm and inviting and, on the night we visited, almost full. The impressive lighting always reminds me of a fleet of spaceships, reinforcing my ‘outer limits’ conceit. We selected a corner table and sat down to study the menu. Like many of Ananda’s non-Indian restaurants with upmarket aspirations there’s a fair chunk of puffery on it, of which the William S.Barnum-inspired ‘pan-seared, hand-pounded Wicklow lamb cakes’ is probably the supreme example. I mean, could you sear meat without using a pan? Do people really care whether their cakes are ‘hand-pounded‘ or no? Still, get behind the hoopla and you find some very serious food.
Our opinions were divided on the lamb cakes, clearly the hand-pounder had done a conscientious job and beat the bejasus out of the raw materials. Bangles hated the toothpaste texture whereas I quite liked it. Enhanced by smoked cloves and cardamon, mine slid down like an oyster. There was unanimity, however, over the accompanying crispy lamb cigarillo; we both gave it an unqualified ‘thumbs up’, especially when dunked in the piquant raspberry & curry leaf chutney provided. The free-range Barbary duck also came ‘two ways’, a duck tikka with passion fruit & date chutney and a succulent potted duck leg confit, enhanced by plum & anise jelly.
I imagine, readers, that by now you’ll be aware that we had ventured considerably off piste, taking the normal flock-wallpapered curry shop as the baby slopes. Our third starter, fresh Dingle Bay crabmeat with onion, sweet chilly, raw mango chutney, crab samosa & squid ink, with a chilli dip took us hurtling downhill to the fringe of black ice. How the chef could provide that pot-pourri of flavours while at the same time retaining the essential sea zing of fresh crab is quite beyond me but retain it Sunil did.This Gai is some chef.
If we thought we could return to the main run by choosing pork vindaloo we were mistaken. This one was a far cry from the post-pubbing dish fit for heroes we knew and feared. The essence of vindaloo – a sharp-sour, hot curry popular in Goa – was there alright. But the centrepiece was a sizable 18 hours marinated Irish organic pork chop with a slab of crispy belly for good measure, served with the chef’s stylish version of a vindaloo masala & ‘Konkani baath’, rice with coconut. The meat was tender enough to make a knife superfluous.
The menu of mains is divided in two categories, styled ‘Main Courses’ and ‘Traditional’. Intrigued by the latter I plumped for ‘Lagan Ki Biryani’ (no, it didn’t come from ‘Norn Iron’ but from Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India), a local specialty in that city comprising perfumed basmati rice & lamb scented with mint, saffron & rose water with a raita and a fairly mild curry. It came intriguingly presented in a bowl similar to the ones in which my late mother used to make both her steak-and-kidney and Christmas puds. It had evidently been baked in this vessel, covered with a flour-and-water pastry crust to keep the juices in. The lamb was cut in fairly large chunks to preserve texture. A simple dish, exceedingly well put together.
We also scoffed some of Ananda’s fine nan bread;although they do a range ofit, plain is my preference. Reluctant to abandon even a few millilitres of juice, we tore off strips of nan to scour our plates. As a result we were far too full to accommodate a dessert each, although I abandoned the kulfi (egg free traditional Indian ice cream), one of my favourite things, with considerable reluctance. We ended up with the dessert with which I introduced this review, the homemade raspberry sorbet with caramelized ginger and – oh no – ‘meringue burger’. We had eaten so well that even this gem of pure hokum failed to depress me.
I would also like to make mention of Ananda’s excellent wine list which includes no less than 17 wines by the glass, with a good few favourites like Jonathan Maltus’ Pezat, the stunning Portuguese red Herdade Dos Grous and Yalumba Unwooded Viognier among them, all fairly priced.
All in all, we spent €110, ex-service, including 2 glasses of wine. About the same as we’d have spent in a European-style restaurant of any repute. Since its inception Ananda has won its fair share of awards, including a Food & Wine Magazine chef of the year for Sunil Gai in 2009. The restaurant’s initial menu was designed by Sunil in conjunction with Atul Kochhar, chef/patron of London’s Michelin starred Benares who has a close relationship with the Jaipur Group.
Clearly, Ananda has left the conventional concept of Indian food way behind. What was a workaday culinary cliché, albeit a tasty one, is here developed and elevated to a plane that is at least the equivalent of the food that top chefs steeped in European culinary culture are creating. By my reckoning Ananda has to be one of the top half dozen restaurants in the whole of Ireland.
Ananda, 4 Sandyford Road, Dundrum, Dublin 14. Tel: 01 296 0099