I am holding the mystical sphere
It's direct from Lhasa
To be honest I'm not particularly enamoured of the food in Indian Restaurants. It always pales in comparison with the Indian food I get in the homes of friends and relatives and of course my Mum who used to make the best Maccher Jhol going. However, when I learned that Atul Kochhar, owner of Michelin starred Benares, had opened a new restaurant in Wickham Vineyard in Hampshire my interest was piqued. It also offered an opportunity to get out of the city and commune with nature for a few hours.
And so on a typical English Summers day – wet, windy and pretty cold – I alighted at Botley, a small deserted station 90 minutes from Waterloo. Of course this being the countryside there were no cabs around so dodging the juggernauts and careering horse-carriers I tramped the two miles to the vineyard and Vatika (“Orchard” in Hindi) restaurant.
I had a couple of hours to kill so I took the audio tour which like many audio tours is never quite as interesting as having a real live person to guide you around. My 'experience' suitably enhanced I squelched my way to the restaurant which overlooks the Vineyard for some grub.
Very good grub it was too. Chef Jitin Joshi's food is characterised by accurate cooking, a light touch and vibrant flavours that really make the old tastebuds sing. There's a sense of playfulness and experimentation that holds one interest throughout the whole meal.
Bread was some of the best I have had: subtly spiced, very light with a thin crisp crust, it was served with some unsalted butter and a number of different salts to sprinkle over the top.
Amuses were some brilliant spiced, deep-fried whitebait – I could have done with a big bowl of these – a little croquette of black dahl and rice and a pate of chicken tikka. All served with a moreish roasted mango drink.
Although the menu is fixed price for two or three courses I'd inserted another starter. SCALLOP_ARTICHOKE (I know, I know but I did say it was a bit experimental) was excellent and very fresh pan-fried scallop with a little cerviche of the same. The best bit though was a small fritter of artichoke which was light and crispy with a delicious artichoke centre.
The other starter, PIGEON_BEETROOT was the weakest of the dishes. The Tandoored Squab was a little overcooked in places. Where it was rarer the flavour was excellent with a slight gaminess. The Beets and Jellied Consomme with a Tamarind Cream that came with the Squab didn't really do anything for me.
Things were back on track with the LAMB_SPINACH. The Indian tinged theme of the preceding dishes gave way to a more Middle Eastern influence. An unctuous lump of meltingly soft Lamb came with a tasty little Lamb Burger topped by some lavender cream. There were some good though incongruous spinach gnocchi. The small tagine of couscous on the side was exemplary.
There was a palate-cleansing granita before a textbook chocolate dish, but as anyone who reads this blog will know that apart from good ice cream, puddings never gets my pulse racing. Nice, though.
None of this comes cheap of course, there are plenty of signs around indicating that this is 'fine dining' – but judging by the size of the houses around these parts I don't think it will overly concern the locals.
In any case I think the prices are fair though given the quality of the cooking and the fact that I left Vaika with a spring in my step and a smile on my face always counts for something (who said one too many glasses of wine).