A gastronomic feast and an aesthetic beauty; looks and substance are a potent combination.
That’s exactly what 51 Buckingham Gate delivers, blowing my expectations out of the water.
It’s the birthday of someone very close to my heart. To celebrate, my surprise idea is to re-create a piece of the magic that we encountered during a recent trip together to North India. I want a vivid reminiscence; a revival on a plate; a meal that teleports us straight back to the magnificent Taj palace hotels with majestic al-fresco dining experiences and surreal opulence, that we hark back to with the fondest of memories.
I can’t think of anywhere better than the London Taj counterpart.
Sitting pretty, mere steps away from Buckingham Palace on the legendary Buckingham Gate, I have high hopes they offer ‘destination dining’. They don’t, as such but are more than willing to work with ideas. Initially, I suggest a fairytale garden with lights, candles and flowers in the iconic urban oasis that is the Courtyard at 51BG, with a private-dining style table for two. Having devoured a stunning Wimbledon-themed Afternoon Tea here, a month ago, it seems the ideal location. But because of Olympic season, it’s deemed too busy. I want privacy and exclusivity.
The terrace comes up. I study some photographs and think it looks perfect. The mission is simple: candles, flowers and some privacy.
Knowing full well how sought after this location is (just steps from Buckingham Palace) and how infamous this hotel is (THE Taj in London), I’m expecting a table at the end of a busy terrace, somehow made as private as possible, with a waiter on hand to give a touch of personalised service.
Arriving at the beautiful courtyard in the evening, I’m tentatively anxious to see how the brainchild of both myself and the hotel manager has evolved.
We’re led up a set of stairs, lit up by sweet twinkling fairy lights, escorted by two men in smart suits and welcoming smiles. Upstairs, we enter an expanse of terrace, spanning the width of the courtyard, and entirely transformed into our very own private lounge and dining area, al fresco. My companion is stunned. From up here, the central courtyard and eponymous fountain below are in spying distance. This instantly reminds me of the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The entrance upstairs is seemingly shut off from the world by a screen, behind which we have our private oasis for the evening. It’s classically furnished in a minimal yet intimate setting.
First, we’re encouraged to relax in the Indian Ocean-inspired lounge section, for canapes and champagne pre-meal (and later, for Masala tea and chocolates post-meal.) Beyond this section, taking centre-stage of the terrace is an elegantly decorated table, draped in crushed velvet, dressed in gleaming cutlery and bedecked in a mirrored centrepiece of exotic flowers, outlined by candles. The terrace is partially sheltered from the elements in an intricate woven lattice roof, a bit like a bird’s nest, and the balcony is entirely lit up by candles. Mood lighting and outdoor heaters create an extra-special ambience for what is to become a truly extra-special evening. And all this in such an extravagant location, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace and overlooked by the monumental Taj ‘Jaguar suite’, the world’s only suite designed entirely by Jaguar, which is currently occupied by none other than the legendary Mr Amitabh Bachan.
We’re greeted by our butler for the evening and start with cocktails and champagne, whilst taking in the sumptuous surroundings of our private dining affair.
After a drink or two we move to the table, eager to begin the Indian feast, full of expectation to see if food at this London counterpart can live up to the incredulous quality we experienced in India’s Taj palace hotels.
The menu has been created specially for us. It’s entirely tailor-made, taking into consideration each of our dietary requirements. Head chef Vikas phoned me days ahead to learn of my preferences and then e-mailed me his creation in advance, to be agreed beforehand. So I’m highly excited by the ingenuity and creativity that I know has gone into the mix in preparation.
The amuse-bouche lives up to it’s name. It’s an explosion of flavour; a spicy Rassam, which is a light soup of tomato, coriander, hint of chilli, turmeric and perhaps cloves. It acts as an energetic and bold welcome to the table; definitely a statement starter that prepares the taste buds in anticipation of a feast. Quite often, amuse-bouches fade into the background of a meal, gently awakening the taste buds; the bass instrument in an orchestra. But this Rassam is enlivening. It’s a loud awakening; the trumpet, signalling a taste extraordinaire.
A platter of starters arrive, deceptively gourmet in appearance yet satisfyingly filling. My favourite flavours come in the form of Achari Paneer tartlets, made with delicious shortcut pastry, and Dahi Puri, an haute cuisine take on Indian street stall food, delicately flavoured in beautiful Indian spices, leaving elegant flavours on the palette. It’s authentic Indian with the exotic Taj twist of modernity and opulence. I marvel at the perfection.
Indian cooking is an extremely fine balance of flavours and timing. The tiniest element could tip that balance; one hint of any one spice too much can overwhelm and overpower; cooking for a second too long can destroy artistic masterpieces, which are designed to extreme specificity. The Sous-chef Yogesh introduces himself at this point and is eager to know how we’re enjoying the food so far. Humble and respectful, he seems genuinely pleased at our response.
After a 10 minute breather, we welcome the main course. A pot of steaming Biryani is opened at the table and offered onto our plates. Usually, I’m not a fan of rice. But the aromas from the pot hit my senses like a summer perfume. The sweet inimitable scent of Saffron is strong and irresistible. A spoonful of multi-coloured and textured Biryani is served and it looks absolutely divine. Then comes a selection of freshly cooked Methi Paratha, Chappati and Roti, rolled to the ideal thickness and cooked to perfect crispiness. A platter of mains arrive with my specially requested side of my favourite, Dal Makhni.
As someone who’s not a fan of Gujarati cooking, even I can still appreciate the quality of the Jeera Aloo potatoes. The flavours are elegant and potatoes melt in the mouth. My favourites are the Makai Palak, (sweet corn Spinach) and Banana-leaf wrapped Paneer, cooked in a delicious paste of spices. It doesn’t get more authentic than this. The Dal Makhni is a scrumptious creamy texture with a beautifully balanced flavour. This is Indian food at it’s finest. Accompaniments of Lime and Mango Pickle, Pomegranate-infused chilli yogurt and crispy Poppadoms contribute to a refreshing and delicious meal.
Struggling now, we take a break before dessert, which is to be my highlight of the night. This is where the Chefs really get to show off their expertise. And they pull it off with natural ease and flair. The inventive creations include a trio of Gulab Jamun cheesecake, Wild Berry Kheer and Aamkhand. It’s the first that I’m most excited to try. But before that, we’re surprised a fantastically baked gooey sticky dark and milk chocolate fudge cake, a surprise Birthday Cake. It’s silky and has that beautiful sheen to it, exactly as it should. On the palette, it melts and delights every sweet taste bud!
I save the cake for later though, trying only a thin slice. I’m awaiting the highly anticipated dessert.
Looking at it, sitting beautifully on my dessert tray, I can instantly imagine the ‘difficulty’ element must have been high in it’s making. It’s created as layered slices of delicate cheesecake and Gulab Jamun holding together in a set pudding. As Chef Vikas later explains, it’s no easy feat getting the layers to set without collapsing or melting into one another and, ultimately, comes down to timing. The Aamkhand screams regality and reels in Royalty, with no shortage of expensive ingredients. And the Kheer dances delightfully with the taste buds as a creamy rice pudding full of Cardamom yet popping with tangy fresh berries. The great aspect of this trio of puddings is that nothing is sickly sweet. It’s an enjoyable dessert made of stunning sweet flavours, but doesn’t leave the palette overdosed on sugar. Hence, the dessert goes down well and disappears quickly!
As we recline back onto the sofas to end in freshly brewed Masala Tea with homemade Gajjar Halwa, Masala Chai and Chilli chocolates, we give each other that knowing look. This has been, without a doubt, the best Indian cuisine in London and in fact in this country.
Head chef Vikas pops his head in to greet us and welcomes our feedback.
I learn that both chefs are of world ranking, having previously worked at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai. Revered as the Queen of the Taj palace hotel group, that accolade is reserved for the world’s finest and fiercest. So to have that under their belt yet remain so humble and modest in a style most typical of Taj staff across the world, I take off my hat and send a heartfelt ‘Thank You’ to you, Chefs, for making it our most memorable evening to date in the heart of London. You succeeded, and beyond, in rekindling our passions for India, Indian food and most of all, the eponymous Taj. My heart belongs to the Taj.
- Brides Who Marry at Taj Boston Receive Wedding Gift of Free 6-Night Taj Hotels Fantasy Honeymoon (prweb.com)
- LUXURY vs GUILT? HAVELI HAVEN AMIDST JODHPUR’S LOCAL BAZAAR (ani-shah.com)
- An evening at Taj Grill (buffalorising.com)
- Marrakech excess (moroccotomorrow.org)
- Dabbling in dabbas (thehindu.com)
- You: Terrace dinner plan at Palace Hotel (japantimes.co.jp)
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- Taj Hotel Cape Town wins illustrious award, South Africa (south-african-hotels.com)