Dining Diwali-style at Moti Mahal

In celebration of Diwali this year, head chef Anirudh Arora has created a unique set menu for diners at Moti Mahal.

Dining Diwali-style at Moti Mahal

In celebration of Diwali this year, head chef Anirudh Arora has created a unique set menu for diners at Moti Mahal. This specially crafted menu for the traditional Indian ‘Festival of Lights’ draws on Arora’s modern take on Indian cuisine combined with his use of traditional flavours.

Ordinarily, the food consumed around Diwali tends to be vegetarian, but the set menu offers a mix of vegetarian and meatier options for London’s demanding palette. We tried the menu ahead of Diwali to see what was in store for diners, and got ever so slightly wowed by what appeared in front of us. First things first – this is not your average curry house. Moti Mahal is a stylish affair – all plush leather seating and contemporary chandeliers. Northern and Southern Indian cooking styles influence Arora’s cooking, and his presentation is beautifully modern.

The first highlight of the menu came in the shape of the mushroom cappuccino that appeared before our starter. It’s flavour was intensely warming and earthy and it had such a deep mushroom flavour that it was hard to believe that it had been made solely with little button mushrooms. Our starters of chicken supreme and tandoori stuffed potatoes weren’t a bad follow up. The skewered chicken pieces were lightly spiced with plenty of flavour and were well matched with a sweet scoop of cranberry raita alongside. The stuffed potatoes were good, but almost upstaged by the sweet tasting pan-fried pea and cumin cakes.

If you venture down to Moti Mahal between the 24th and 28th October, you’ll have three main dishes to choose from as part of the set Diwali menu. We opted for the sea bream with baked Devon crab and bean cakes topped with a quail’s egg, and the spinach and paneer parcel. The sea bream made me wish I knew how to a) cook fish properly – retaining its juiciness but crisping the skin ever so slightly, and b) how to spice a dish delicately enough to avoid overpowering the meal, but enough to lure your palette back for more. Arora had both down to a fine art here, and although the quail’s egg and crab cakes were good, the sea bream stole the show.

Our desserts were a mix of east meets west, with the choice between warm chocolate cake with whisky ice cream, and honey & rose petal Kulfi. The chocolate cake was good, but stood in the shadows after a mouthful of whisky ice cream, which fast-forwarded my taste buds straight to Christmas. And the kulfi was a strikingly beautiful dish. Okay so you’re not supposed to just look at your food, but this plate made you want to (at least until you’d tried it, and then the ‘just looking’ bit became harder). The spiralling tower of kulfi stood alongside some caramelised fruits and rose petals, which were amazing to taste with their sweetened intensity. A few cups of chai tea later, and a feeble attempt at some petit fours, left us feeling spoiled and very, very satisfied.

For the duration of Diwali, Moti Mahal will be decorated with traditional Diya lamps, which are considered a symbol of prosperity. These traditional lantern lights also demonstrate the theme throughout Diwali, of good presiding over evil. Arora has been featuring a Diwali menu at Moti Mahal for the last three years. “It’s very modern,” he says of the set menu. “It’s not traditionally what you would find in India! We have to work with traditionality and at the same time, grow with time. Our food is modern, our flavours are traditional.”

Although his cooking has been predominantly influenced by a North Indian style, the coastal flavours of Goa regularly appear in his fish dishes, retaining the traditional seafood rich menu of Southern India. Arora’s modern style of Indian cooking gladly leaves you feeling just full, without a tinge of bloating. The food at Moti Mahal is healthy too – there are no dishes swimming under pools of oil, just particularly well-executed dishes that will quite possibly turn you into a returning customer. “We try to cook healthy food that people can eat every day. I have customers that come here three times a week. If they come three times a week, I cannot serve them heavy food – they have to have a reason to come back. The food has to be close to what they would eat every day.”

Arora laughs when he explains that he also uses two different types of chilli, depending on what the customer is looking for on the menu. “I use either Montania chillies, which come from India or I use snub nose chillies, from Spain. You have to look at who you’re cooking for. I tend not to use too much of the Indian Chilli, even in something like the wild boar curry that we do. It’s made with Goan spices and a lot of chilli in it. If use traditional Goan chillies, then it would be very spicy! So what we do is use Kashmiri chilli – there’s a lot of flavour to it, but the heat is not there.”

Arora explains that whilst some people will order the Diwali menu out of curiosity, knowing little about it, the majority of people come into the restaurant during the festival, to celebrate Diwali. “People come in, and obviously people from South Asia know about Diwali. Those who know about Diwali will generally prefer a vegetarian menu, which is fine as we have a lot of vegetarian dishes on our a la carte menu too. In India, Diwali is the biggest festival. It’s like going down to Oxford Street, the week before Christmas. The sales in shops around that time increase around five fold. People buy a lot of things because it’s said to be very auspicious if you buy anything expensive close to Diwali.”

Whether you’re celebrating the Festival of Lights, or just curious about the menu, Moti Mahal’s modern Diwali menu is quite a find at £25.00 (excluding service). This set menu is available for five evenings only from the 24th – 28th October 2008, with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options to choose from. (Prepare your palette to be wowed).

Moti Mahal: 45 Great Queen Street, London, WC2B 5AA. Tel: 020 7240 9329.