Going for a curry is a British institution. Along with Chinese and Italian it makes up over 75% of the UK restaurant market. No high street is complete without a tandoori churning out chicken tikkas and tarka dhal. It’s so mainstream Rick Stein’s written a book on it. Part of the appeal is the uniformity – from Bradford to Bournemouth, Tooting to Trowbridge – there’s something deeply satisfying about a pile of meat, drenched in a creamy red-hot sauce.
Mehlua in Bristol are doing something rather different. Taking the latest in modernist cooking – gels, spherification, smoke and foam – they put an entirely new spin on the traditional curry. One of the major issues of these modern techniques is that the can dull flavours, but with a rich Indian spice palate to choose from it works beautifully. Situated half-way up Park Street, Mehlua is considerably smarter than your average curry house. The décor is as modern as the food – think graffiti and glass. They offer a broad range of dishes, but the best introduction to their style is their gourmet tasting menu at £45 a head.
Naan Sticks and Chilli Jam
This little amuse was brought to our table while we waited – nice crisp breads and a lovely rich chilli jam.
Tea and Yoghurt
A nice palate cleanser – plenty of pepper in the spicy, savoury tea and little spherified yoghurt balls on a teaspoon.
Prawns with Wasabi and a Lemon Foam
This was a beautifully balanced take on a prawn cocktail, the wasabi was very restrained and the lemon foam brought a welcome citrus hit. The presentation was lovely – I had real glassware envy.
Nestled in a kilner jar full of smoke, this salmon skewer was beautiful. Carefully spiced and wonderfully fragrant it brought out the flavour of the fish. The edible sand was a nice touch.
Another smokey delight – moist chicken and a lovely sauce with all sorts of spicy delights. Rich creamy potato and wonderful lamb mince. Smoking chicken is very difficult as it can quickly become acrid – like the rest of this meal it was carefully judged.
I loved the presentation of this – a plate stand holding a skewer of chicken, lamb and a heavenly prawn, suspended over a nice salad. The meat is perfectly cooked and elegantly spiced, but I’d have liked a little more sauce.
Pink Grapefruit Palate Cleanser
I’m not normally a fan of grapefruit, but this was gorgeous: sharp, citric and really refreshing. The parade of big flavours in a meal like this can get a bit much – the sorbet was a great touch.
Mains – Chicken, Lamb and Prawn with Rice and Naan
The mains were very good – rich, creamy and with just enough spice. I loved the lamb dish it had a real meaty richness. The garlic naan was particularly good, with a much more nuanced texture than your average lump of bread.
Dessert – Floral Ice-Cream, Candyfloss and a Chocolate Samosa
If Europe can lay claim to any culinary crown, it’s desserts. I’ve never found myself looking at the menu of an Indian and drooling over their puddings. Mehlua do something really clever here – rich fragrant ice-cream, fluffy candyfloss and a delicious chocolate samosa. This is nothing more than Nutella, deep-fried in pastry and entirely wonderful as a result.
I applaud Mehlua’s ambition and vision. They’re daring to do something entirely new with Indian spices and it really works. The meal was clever and showed a level of poise and precision in the spicing that would be welcome in any restaurant. The service was friendly, but lacked some of the sparkle and verve you’d expect from a restaurant of this standard and price in London. My dining companions were wondering what would move it towards the Michelin star territory – we couldn’t quite put our finger on it as the food is stunning, but I think it just needs a little more magic and soul. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit – if you’re interested in trying something very unique and very special this is an excellent choice. Bristol is very lucky – I’ll definitely be going again!