…with Em Marshall-Luck
Due to the fact that I have travelled in India and tasted “real” Indian food, I tend to avoid Indian restaurants in Great Britain, which generally bear a similar relationship to their mother cuisine as Becks does to real ale. My inability to tolerate very hot spicy flavours further inhibits my frequenting such establishments. Yet Mango Lounge promised, with high plaudits received for Ashwani Kumar (hailing from Himachal Pradesh and the Head Chef at the restaurant since its inception in 2007) and for the food consultant Mridula Baljekar (an Indian food writer and author), proper Indian cooking, and had me intrigued.
The exterior (prominently situated opposite the castle in Windsor) is smart, with the name clearly picked out in sophisticated lettering on a black facade. Peering in at the well-spaced tables in a large, marble-floored room, walls bold in dark red, grey and olive brown and a modern look established through the contemporary prints and coloured vases that fill the niches, you wouldn’t necessarily guess it was an Indian establishment. Tables are properly dressed with starched white linen, smart, modern cutlery and candles, and, in fact, the only give-away is the large statue of a dancing Shiva, the head of a Buddha and the popular Indian music playing gently in the background. But, then, this is not your typical Indian curry house.
We were warmly greeted and shown at once to our table by waiters with impeccable manners; throughout the meal the Indian waiters were all thoroughly professional – friendly and attentive without being pushy, and immensely polite – as one would expect (if only service was always this good!).
Menus were brought – these at once spoke volumes about how this is not any ordinary Indian restaurant but something quite special. Although some of the meal choices would be familiar to the visitor, all dishes featured receive either fascinating and unusual embellishments or, at least, mouth-watering, detailed and extremely enthusiastic (in true Indian fashion) descriptions (these, one imagines, would be very useful also to those not acquainted with Indian cuisine). There is an excellent, wide choice of meats (including roe, rabbit and duck alongside the more typical chicken and lamb), fish (monk fish, crab, lobster and scallops), and good, inventive vegetarian options for both starters and main courses, as well as side dishes, rice and breads. The menu commences with a list of the health-giving properties of the various spices employed, which is a lovely touch. Furthermore, Mango Lounge states that they use no GM ingredients and no artificial colours, flavourings or preservatives (how different from many other Indians one may be able to tell of, with their luminous-coloured sauces!). It is a further and unexpected bonus that the dishes are all reasonably priced – quite high prices could probably be charged for food that has been prepared with this level of care, time and attention, and for the quality of ingredients presented here.
The wine list is, comparatively, quite modest, with about four options for each of light, medium and full-bodied white and red wines, as well as some sparkling, roses, beers and cocktails; yet despite not being particularly extensive it nevertheless covers a good range of wine, with a wide price range and a reasonably good cover of countries. A number of tempting wines feature on this small but impressive list, and I chose The Yard Shiraz from Larry Cherubino’s Acacia Vineyard in Franland River in Western Australia. A dark ruby colour, this has a rich, fruity and deep nose of blackcurrants and ash. The very full and up-front taste is smooth, black and rich, with tar and ash, tobacco and tamarind. It lingers and mellows from quite a fierce (yet not unpleasant) first bite to something more rounded and gentler, with a hint of liquorice also tempering what could otherwise head towards harshness.
Appetisers were soon placed before us – interesting and (pleasantly) unusual potato cakes on cocktail sticks, and popodums with various taste-bud-tingling dips – a very far cry from the sticky, glutinous dips one might be accustomed to find in British Indian restaurants.
Starters swiftly followed suit: we had opted for smoked lamb chops and duck spring rolls. The lamb chops were served bubbling and sizzling violently in a cast iron dish placed on a shaped wooden board. The wonderfully flavoured meat was marinated in yoghurt, ginger, cumin, garam marsala and star anise, and placed on a bed of onions. Beautifully tender, despite being boldly flavoured with these spices, it was not too hot or spicy, just nicely smoky. The duck spring rolls were also very good indeed; spiced with chilli and lemongrass; accompanied by an appropriate soy and honey sauce, and with a good depth of texture – enveloped, as the duck was, by an extremely light filo pastry with enough crunchiness to complement the texture of the meat.
We were encouraged to try a few of the other starters on offer as well (not that we needed much persuasion). King tiger prawns marinated in lemon juice, ginger, garlic and anise, coated with rice flakes and deep fried were not as ‘fishily’ flavoured as one might expect; indeed, if blindfolded, one would be hard-pressed to ‘name the food’. The enclosing rice added a pleasing layer of crunchiness – again, a good depth of textures and contrasts. The chicken tikka (infused with pickling spices of mustard oil, garlic, ginger and chilli) and the tikka haryali – slightly milder with mint, coriander, green chilli, spinach, ginger, yoghurt and spices – were also something of eye-openers in their freshness and vibrancy.
I failed to resist the temptation of rose chicken korma for my main and was pleased to have done so, despite it perhaps not being the most adventurous of choices. Unlike many a chicken korma, this is actually flavoured traditionally with dried rose petals, which add an extra sweetness and a delicate floral flavour. Yet I admit to having found the meat itself just slightly on the bland side – it did rather need the rich and creamy sauce, with its tantalising additional elegance from the inclusion of saffron, to deliver the full requisite flavour. The pulav rice was also just slightly lacking in flavour, although it had a very good texture, with crunchy crispy onions and cumin seeds, which made it an especially good accompaniment for the korma.
My husband opted for the chef’s signature dish: lamb shanks with a masala fig sauce, simmered in an onion-based sauce with yogurt, Kashmiri chilli, garam masala and figs. He pronounced this superb (and my stolen mouthfuls confirmed this), with just the meat itself, without taking the sauce into account, being incredibly sweet and succulent, yet with enough natural saltiness to balances the sweetness. It was pleasantly lean (especially given that lamb shanks tend to be on the fatty side), and was cooked and served on the bone, which further enhanced the flavour. The sauce was smooth and spicy, with a good kick, yet which refrained from in any sense overpowering the meat itself.
A spiced potato and cauliflower side was recommended to accompany the lamb and, despite the fact that he is not usually particularly keen on this type of vegetable dish, Mr Marshall-Luck found it wonderfully (and surprisingly) mild and light, and an excellent complement for the lamb. It was just a little too dense for the korma (and the flavour tended to overpower the delicacy of this chicken dish) – not at all a criticism of the potato and cauliflower side; just the nature of the flavours of the different choices.
Although we were by now immensely full, we decreed it our duty to try the desserts. I once again failed to resist an old lure and went for the chocolate choice – in this case warm chocolate mousse with cardamom – a rich and dark sweet that was almost more fondant than mousse. My husband, meanwhile, tried the mango kulfi. He wasn’t sure about it at first, but it very quickly grew on him. Made with condensed milk, it was sweet without being cloying and was substantial enough to register without being in the least heavy. The texture he declared odd but intriguing, combining flakes of ice with a more spongy consistency than one would expect. I fully agreed with him that it was very moreish indeed – and very “Indian” in the best sense possible. We finished with excellent coffee and mint tea – a perfect conclusion to what had been a really rather superb meal.
It was a credit to the food that the restaurant was completely full by 7.30p.m. on a mid-week evening – and I personally found the mixture of westerners and Indians a good sign. It was also very encouraging to see well-behaved children sitting with their parents and enjoying the food. We certainly departed happy and replete – perhaps too replete, actually, with my husband finding it impossible to button up his jacket at the end of the meal and being forced to commit the sartorial crime of walking back to the car with an unbuttoned, single-breasted jacket flapping around in the breeze…