Tuesday, 17 January 2017
Flora Indica, Earl's Court
We're constantly being told that 2017 is the Year of the Taco, and while I'm obviously delighted with this development, especially if it means more places like Breddos opening, it seems to me that a bigger story is what's happening to Indian food in the capital. It may not be just coincidence that January has already seen me post on two separate and equally exciting (in their own way) Indian restaurants; first the high-end Jamavar with its elegant and sophisticated take on the classics, then Kricket with its innovative English-Indian small plates concept.
And now here's Flora Indica, a restaurant that defies easy explanation but for the sake of categorisation you may as well think of as "Experimental Indian". They describe themselves as "one-of-a-kind" and they're not wrong - the menu is a barrage of Indian words and unusual ingredients that, as it turns out, are only intermittently useful at predicting the food that eventually arrives at the table. But despite the almost wilfully obscure nature of the concept, I can't deny that things like "Green Banana Kali Mirch | Banana Chips | Smoked Garlic Yoghurt" or "Venison Gilafi Sheek | Coriander Chilli Sauce | Spiced Fig" do sound exciting as well as weird, and if you never quite know what you're ordering, well, perhaps that's entirely deliberate.
Plus, I don't think it's possible to order badly at Flora Indica; every single one of the fourteen or so (savoury) dishes we tried were at least good and at best brilliant. Unfortunately for them, a restaurant is more than just the food, and I'll get to the issues with service and value in a bit, but meantime have a look at this "Baby Bitter Gourd Tak a Tak", which was a very cleverly balanced dish, the slight bitterness of the vegetable offset by a sweet pumpkin soup.
Achari Tender Broccoli also went down well, in a mildly sharp and spicy dressing and dash of sour cream. You may think that's not a huge amount of food for £5, just five small twigs of broccoli, but at the time it didn't seem so much of an issue, probably because they tasted so good.
We'd ordered these "poppadums" as we sat down, but they only appeared with the rest of the starters as someone apparently forgot to put the order through. Interesting things though, apparently puffed cassava with a little pot of house bitter pickle.
Naan with hemp seeds and Red Leicester cheese was excellent, the kind of British-Indian fusion I can very much get behind. It would have been more enjoyable without our overly familiar waiter interrupting with unneccessary chat ("So how was your weekend, guys?") but perhaps he was just embarrassed about having forgotten to put the poppadum order through and was overcompensating.
Opening weeks jitters could also account for the bizarre decision to fill a vacuum wine cooler almost to the brim with ice then precariously balance a bottle of wine on top of it, an arrangement that had no more effect on the temperature of the wine than not using the cooler at all.
Still, amidst the warm wine and the annoying interruptions, we still had the food, albeit not much of it. "Malwani Prawn" (3 of) were beautifully bouncy, dressed in a gentle spiced chutney and topped with mooli spaghetti.
Pulled Gressingham duck came in the form of a neat little tower of chilli-spiked meat, topped with a gram flour "cheela" (pancake) and a dollop of coconut chutney. This, too, was a genuinely lovely and intelligent bit of cooking.
Salmon trout was timed perfectly to just-pink inside, and had a wonderful flavour. £8 got us just about enough for a single mouthful, but again it was hard to be disappointed with anything other than the amount of it.
Sweetbread "shikampuri" (kind of a fish cake/kebab hybrid) was another brave experiment that completely worked. A lurid pink, earthy beetroot sauce complimented the offal notes of the kebab very well, and almost made you forget you were paying the best part of a tenner for a few grams of food.
I don't mean to labour the point about the portion sizes, but the fact the food was all so good just made you want even more of it, and though getting to try more of the menu was hardly a hardship on the one hand, we were very aware of the costs mounting up. Even the dishes from the "curries" section of the menu, with their heftier price points, contained only a smidgen more product, but again what was there was stunning. This chicken tikka came in a sauce best described as Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup made by God himself, so incredibly rich and packed full of flavour you could hardly imagine it being improved upon at all.
And this rogan josh, three or four pieces of beautifully tender lamb in another exquisitely constructed sauce, almost chocolately in its intensity. Also pictured, a black dhal which though not quite as perfect as the version at Jamavar, still did its job well, and a butter naan, light and bubbly.
So yes, someone at Flora Indica knows how to cook. And I'll gloss over the slightly more mundane desserts - I don't think I've ever had a very good dessert in an Indian restaurant (sorry) - because what came before was so enjoyable. Above is some kind of beetroot pudding which I'd rather forget about, and I believe we also had something involving pineapple.
The bill came to just under £50 a head, which I guess isn't a vast amount of money but it's still enough to put things like the dodgy service and small portions in a slightly more critical light. Only just enough though, because as I hope I've made clear, this is some of the most exciting and innovative Indian food London has to offer, and if you're any less of a grumpy misanthrope than me (which would be just about everyone I think) you may find a chatty waiter the least of your worries. Or, indeed, a vacuum cooler full of ice. Flora Indica has, despite its flaws, plenty to recommend it.