Eating Atul Kochhar’s food has been on my lengthy foodie bucketlist for some time. After all, the guy’s a bit of a legend – he was the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star and now has a bit of an empire in the UK. You’ve probably seen him on Great British Menu or Saturday Kitchen – he’s definitely one of the big guys.
Plenty of my bucketlist entries have been, and will be, on that list for quite some time before they become reality. After all, there’s time, budget, and my waistline to consider. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get as close as possible whenever it’s doable, right?
Where am I going with this, you’ll wonder? Well, you may have noticed (only if you saw me raving about it over on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – and if you didn’t, it means you’re not following me, so you all know how to put that right….) that last month mum and I went on our first cruise. The annual mother-daughter trip is usually a city break but we changed it right up and set sail on P&O’s Oriana for a mini cruise to Guernsey then Zeebrugge to test out life on board.
While I plan to tell you all about the cruise more fully in a separate post, the short description is that it was fab. But one of the highlights was Sindhu – a showcase of Atul Kochhar’s cuisine right there on board.
Yeah, so it’s not the big man himself, but according to P&O, many of the chefs who are preparing dishes for the Sindhu restaurants on board its ships have been trained by Atul himself at Benares, and obviously the menu’s been prepared in collaboration with him. So, until I can make it to somewhere where the food is prepared by his own fair hand, I’ll take the next best thing any time.
I don’t know if you’ve been cruising before, but there’s plenty of dining options on board a ship. The one you probably see most is the main dining room – a chaotic hubbub of people, armies of waiting staff, hustle and bustle. Sindhu is different. An almost serene little bubble whose air is laced with the aroma of spices and decor transports you from a boat on the English channel right into a wood carving-adorned oasis of calm.
As we enjoyed the slightly more sedate atmosphere, we settled down for what we had been warned by some was a marathon of food. I wasn’t convinced initially, given that the availability of food elsewhere on the ship hadn’t exactly been scarce and anything vaguely fine dining doesn’t exactly come in huge portions. I’ll say it now, I was wrong.
We started with some gorgeous little poppadoms and dips. No, not like the ones you get at your local takeaway. If your average poppadoms, mango chutney, lime pickle, yoghurt and mint dip and onion is your average Sunday league footy team then this was Premiership, for sure. Tiny innocent looking titbits packing a helluva flavour punch guaranteed to act as proper warm-up for your taste buds ready for the main event.
After this we were brought an amuse bouche. Again, a top draw version of a classic – the onion bhaji. But you can forget a grease-laden ball of soggy gram flour. This was light and delicate, the sweet onion balanced perfectly with deep yet subtle spices.
Two loads of food down, we finally moved on to our starter. For me, Gosht Murtabak, a spiced ground beef flatbread served with a curry sauce. Think somewhere between a stuffed paratha and a Jamaican beef patty (does that make me a heathen if I say that? Sorry Atul).
The flatbread was buttery and flaky, delicately layered to make it light yet substantial enough to carry the beef – both in flavour and substance. But it was the beef inside that really sung – ground finely without losing its texture and flavoured brilliantly. A winner of a starter.
Mum went for the Tandoori Ratan – a pretty arrangement of basil king prawns, chicken tikka and smoked lamb skewer served with pretty squiggles of chutney. It was light and delicate, both in texture and taste, and while delicious, didn’t beat my starter in my eyes.
Choosing a main course was a tough call – with the Indian twist on what some might see as slightly English-sounding dishes sounding wonderfully appealing. Like beef tenderloin served with curried mash, garlic spinach puree and bhuna masala sauce, or roast lamp rump with keema matar, pak choi, baby carrots and rogan jus.
Of course, there were classics like cardamom-infused chicken korma or slightly different dishes like South Indian style duck, making it a fairly small but perfectly-formed menu offering up a challenge when it came to what to choose.
Since we had had meat a fair few times already, I decided to opt for one of the fish dishes, Coorgi Meen Kari. A trio of pan-fried red mullet, native sea bass, and lentil crusted cod with mustard upma, coconut and tamarind sauce. And no, I didn’t know what upma was either, but if you’re wondering it’s basically a kind of thick porridge (usually served as breakfast) cooked from dry roasted semolina or coarse rice flour.
It looked great and was fab to compare three completely different types of fish on one plate. Again, the flavours were subtle but deep and lasted a good old time, rather than disappearing into oblivion before you got onto the next mouthful.
As nice as it was, though, mum won with her choice of Atul’s Signature Plate. Of course, it stands to reason that it should be the best, but it really was good – combining the classic ‘curry’ with the refined feel of Sindhu to make for an elegant yet satisfying experience.
Her chicken tariwala curry was my favourite, creamy and buttery but still with a bit of spice, while the lamb bhuna was tender and rich with the intense flavour of the fried spices singing out. Third was the coconut prawn masala, a simple and classic mild dish that doesn’t appeal to my tastes but was, I promise, well executed.
And no, it didn’t stop there. As you can see below, our table was soon piled high with what felt like endless additional side dishes, from rice to dhal (which was pretty darn delicious) and a lovely collection of warm naan bread all wrapped up like a lovely, light bready gift. It was a feast – and a delicious one at that!
Of course, once you’ve gone that far and had that much nice food, it can seem futile to try to stop. So we careered on into dessert with the enthusiasm of those people who just don’t want a night to end.
For me, chocolate and chilli tart with lime infused creme fraiche. The pastry was perfect, butter and crumbly without a hint of a soggy bottom. And the filling itself was exactly as it should have been – bitter chocolate with a heat of chilli, muted by the slightly tart and sour lime-infused creme fraiche, making the whole thing a careful balance of four of the main flavours – sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
My mum is about as big a chocolate fan as Jamie, so went for the clearly OTT dessert – the dark chocolate sphere with white chocolate mousse and raspberry coulis. A bit of theatre on the plate, her sphere was placed delicately in front of her before a rather large amount of chocolate sauce was poured over the top.
I’m not sure whether she was supposed to have quite as much sauce as she did, or whether the sphere just wasn’t melting as planned to reveal its inner wonders, but she ended up with one helluva lot of chocolate on the plate. If it hadn’t been for how full we both were, I think technically mum needed a trip to the nightclub on board to burn off the sugar rush.
Of course, the aforementioned ‘fullness’ didn’t stop us from tackling the Sindhu-style petit fours – a collection of sugary jellies, seeds, mini madeleines and biscuits just to stick the final nail in the coffin of any so-called healthiness on board our cruise ship.
As dining experiences go, it was great. The staff were attentive, the surroundings evocative, and the food great. I could wax lyrical for a bit longer, but I think I’ll leave you with the picture below. I mean, come on, who smiles like that unless they’re having a great time?
We paid for our meal at Sindhu, which was a supplement on top of the cost of our cruise. They didn’t know I was a food blogger.