Tom Shingler (Great British Chefs) reviews Kutir Chelsea: Where humble Indian dishes get a makeover
Chef Rohit Ghai made his name at the likes of Gymkhana and Jamavar, but at his first solo venture Kutir he’s truly found his calling.
Tom Shingler talks to him to find out how he takes simple staple dishes from across India and turns them into Michelin-worthy masterpieces.
There’s certainly no shortage of good Indian restaurants in the UK. From great value places slinging a never-ending supply of freshly baked rotis alongside simple curries to the Michelin-starred temples of Indian fine dining across London, you can enjoy amazing examples of the cuisine of the country at both ends of the spectrum. British ‘curry houses’ are still a common sight, but they’re certainly not all that’s on offer anymore – and more of us are now looking for authentic, innovative and regional Indian cooking instead of the Anglicised takeaways we grew up with.
When it comes to the Michelin-starred level of Indian cooking, you can’t get a chef with a better track record than Rohit Ghai. Previously working at Benares before becoming executive chef at the likes of Trishna, Gymkhana and Jamavar, he’s ticked off almost all of the Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in the UK. At Jamavar he won a Michelin star in under ten months (the first Indian chef to do so), cementing his status as a truly world-class chef. That’s why Kutir – his first solo restaurant – was surrounded by buzz and hype the second it opened back in November 2018. Situated in a Chelsea townhouse (the same building that housed Restaurant Vineet Bhatia until it closed), it makes the most of the quirky layout and offers a set menu, à la carte and a series of tasting menus. But what sets it apart is, of course, the food.
‘The restaurant is based on the hunting lodges of India,’ says Rohit. ‘I’ve done a few projects in London before, but I always look to bring something new and refreshing to the city as people are so open to trying foods they haven’t had before. When I was part of the team at Oberoi Hotels in India I helped to launch a luxury lodge in the heart of the forest, and that’s what inspired me to do something similar in London. It was perfect – we didn’t want to open a big restaurant so we could really focus on the food and have staff talk customers through some of the more unknown dishes.’
Being situated in a townhouse certainly means the kitchen team doesn’t have a huge number of covers to handle, so the dishes can be as refined and intricate as Rohit likes. And while his restaurant is a homage to the hunting lodges of India, the food takes inspiration from right across the country. ‘There is so much depth to Indian food simply because the country is so big,’ he explains. ‘The north, west, south and east each have their own ingredients, cooking techniques and styles to go along with their unique cultures. I’m still learning about it every day – there’s no end. At Kutir I try to incorporate flavours and ingredients from across India, but there’s so much to the country’s cuisine that it’s impossible to cover it all.’
Reading the menu, it’s clear that Rohit is bringing something new to London’s already pretty impressive Indian dining scene with Kutir. While there are some familiar dishes – korma, rogan josh, biryani – they’re made with the likes of guinea fowl or duck, or served with ingredients like stone moss and pickled swede. Starters such as aloo tikki – a sort of spiced potato croquette popular in the north of India – are presented beautifully with bursts of fresh, tangy flavours to contrast with the rich, comforting fritter. British ingredients (particularly game, meat and fish) are championed on the menu, and strictly cooking with the seasons means dishes change regularly.
Rohit has enjoyed success over the years thanks to his ability to take traditional and humble dishes from across India and make them special. While most of us in the UK will recognise dishes like korma and biryani, it’s the things we don’t recognise where Rohit’s cooking really gets exciting. I’d never come across dhokla before (a sort of savoury sponge cake made from fermented rice and chickpeas) and when I tasted it I couldn’t believe it wasn’t more widespread. I was even more surprised when Rohit told me it’s a common staple across Gujarat in western India.
‘Dhokla is a very basic food – people back home would be surprised it’s even on a restaurant menu! But as with anything humble, if you put some effort into how it’s cooked and presented then you can turn it into something beautiful. It’s a soft, spongy cake so I decided to temper it with sweet and sour ingredients. Granny Smith apple worked perfectly, and then I added some heritage beetroots as they’re seasonal, colourful and taste delicious. To balance out that sweetness I then added a blend of spices. Correctly spicing dishes is so vital to the flavour of Indian cooking, and flavour is of course the most important aspect on the plate.’
Rohit’s take on kichadi (or khichdi) – a precursor to the Anglicised kedgeree – follows a similar school of thought. The traditional dish is a humble staple found across India in various guises, rarely seen on fine dining menus. But when regarded as a carrier of flavour, it can be transformed into an absolutely knockout dish (which just so happens to be vegan and gluten-free, too).
‘In India kichadi tends to be made with green lentils and rice, but my mother always made it with yellow lentils, which I personally think works better,’ says Rohit. ‘To that base I add seasonal wild mushrooms and gave the dish an exotic twist by adding plenty of truffle and truffle oil. It tends to be served with poppadums, raita or pickles on the side back in India and I wanted to keep that same tradition at Kutir, so they come on an accompanying side tray which adds a nice contrast in texture.’
The result is a sort of risotto-esque dish absolutely packed with subtle spices, luxurious truffles and earthy mushrooms. It was the best dish I tried on the menu, and for me perfectly encapsulated why Rohit has enjoyed so much success in his career. His recipes for the likes of dhokla and kichadi may be much more complex and contain more luxury than the traditional versions eaten daily across India, but he’s careful to ensure they retain the essence of their origins. Of course, there are some traditionally ‘high-end’ inclusions on the menu too – we are in Chelsea, after all – but in my opinion the best eating can be found in the dishes which are less recognisable.
The Michelin inspectors will no doubt be paying Kutir a good few visits throughout 2019, and I’d be very surprised if Rohit doesn’t receive another Michelin star when they’re announced in the autumn. Until then, he’s focusing on refining what he serves at Kutir as well as opening a street food restaurant called KoolCha at Boxpark Wembley, which focuses on the kulcha (stuffed flatbreads) Rohit grew up on. This is yet another example of the chef taking humble, simple, regional dishes and elevating them in his own unique way. But after eating at Kutir, one thing’s for sure – I’ll certainly never dismiss a dish of rice and lentils as uninteresting ever again.