Who better to ask than 15 year proprietor/chef of Chelsea’s The Painted Heron Indian restaurant, Yogesh Datta. The Painted Heron was opened in 2002 when Fine Indian dining was but a twinkle in the eye of the tiger.
Yogesh Datta talks about the history of Indian food and drinks in the UK from a Chelsea and Indian perspective and his latest Diwali offer.
Wine is not a typical part of Indian food serving, as it has become in the dining scene of the UK and whilst there are thousands of Indian restaurants up and down the land, few have survived the tumult of economic crises, different competitive styles and venues of food and the trends like the Painted Heron. In order to understand drinks matching we have to delve deeper into understanding the food.
When Yogesh started out Indian food in the UK was made up of ‘one-pots’, i.e. 50 different dishes all of which came from one-pot and possibly still reflective of many a takeaway menu today. Indeed, many of the dish names were not known to Yogesh as an Indian chef. This is not Yogesh’s background or style. As a man trained in India and Switzerland, we can perhaps expect something more precise and ordered.
Yogesh started out with what he knew – fresh ingredients, especially spices; these are of prime importance to create authentic Indian food. Authenticity means much to him, because Indian food is fundamentally about sharing. It is served in bowls, as opposed to fancy plates with ‘stiff neck’ service with overly artistically styled pieces.
Yogesh declares that Europe has taught him much about cooking. Indian cooking tends to over-cook, Europe cooks quicker aiming to retain the flavour of the central item. Its style also seeks to keep the main ingredient alive and at the centre of the dish. Typically Yogesh will work on the spices around the centrepiece of the dish. When it is served the dish should have a single optimum cooked focus and is not complicated by too many fussy items.
In those early days, Yogesh learned much from a sommelier who worked at The Painted Heron. Every dish he developed the sommelier would produce a wine partnership for. These days, he is arguably in the best place of all to judge the drinks list. As a tee-totaler, he is unfettered by personal opinions, he can see what people are drinking, how they respond and maybe has the most objective view of what a balanced drinks list looks like.
Whilst many outlets continue to make a feature of how many wines are on their lists, subscribing to the old wine range adage that a better list is a longer list, The Painted Heron’s list is a well chosen 30-40 wines. There is a choice verses range issue that has continued in wine for at least 2 decades. Is a shorter well chosen wine list more help and more authoritative than a longer wine list?
As a small departure consider Aldi and Lidl’s wine ranges – typically 50-70 wines as opposed to the mainstream Sainsburys, Tesco, Asda, Morrsions, Waitrose wine ranges that will often be over 300 and up to 700. Which ones in the recent past have gained more press, more accolades, remain dynamic and perform better financially? Add in customer choice – how do you choose from 700 wines? – and it can be easily understood who is doing a better job for the customer, whilst achieving their business plans.
So, a small well-chosen wine list, which remains dynamic, keeps customers interested and can contain enough selection to still be interesting and attractive for them.
The Painted Heron has plenty of sparkling wine especially Champagne (this is Chelsea, darling) on its list. These make for good accompaniment to lighter dishes as the acidity cuts through any oil and the crisp dry finishes leave the palate fresh for more.
The white wines include a number of aromatic styles including Rais Baixas from Northern Spain, the classic Marlborough Sauvignon, Pouilly Fume and the unusual single estate German Riesling – a delicious accompaniment to many a curry and especially vegetarian ones.
The red wines are sprinkled with lighter more fruity styles of Fleurie from Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Rioja Joven (young unoaked style) which can also be excellent partners for certain curries.
Diwali is primarily, but not exclusively a vegetarian food celebration. The Hindu festival of lights is the celebration of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, a time that signifies positive change.
Although it has some religious basis, it that is not a requirement – most in India celebrates Diwali. Yogesh includes such curious intriguing delights as raw banaa curry on cumin bap, paneer with potatoes and koftas in a rich mild curry, okra and asparagus fritters, creamy black lentils and red kidney beans and of course the traditional assorted Indian sweets. Some of the wines described above are well worth giving a road test to.
Cocktails have also been in favour recently and a comprehensive list is offered.
For the more adventurous you could try the Fruli Strawberry Beer with the Strawberry Curry – a hot sweet style! I am also reliably informed that it goes well with soft shell crab from the A La Carte.
As for Yogesh he prefers lime soda something light and fresh. Although there is a preference in some quarters for lassi, he believes this a clash for most Indian dishes. The yoghurt is too cloying and heavy to go well with the food. He prefers something fresher.
Yogesh sees the trend for more authentic food away from the one-pots and stiff neck service as a very positive move towards authentic Indian cooking. The original sharing style of Indian food is coming back and the more casual dining approach suits this better. Whilst the Painted Heron is unique and very unlikely to be duplicated, the sister outlet in the city of the Bangalore Express may well branch out. Let’s hope we can look forward to another successful 15 years of The Pained Heron and Yogesh’s unique style of cooking.
Hospitality & Catering News, Wine & Drinks Editor