Dinner at Chez Mumtaj, St Albans
PUBLISHED: 06:55 13 March 2015 | UPDATED: 06:55 13 March 2015
A world-fusion menu sounds massively ambitious, but food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne is bowled over by the flavours at St Albans’ Chez Mumtaj
Looking back, Chad Rahman is the first to admit April 2008 was ‘the worst possible time’ to open a restaurant, especially one as grand as Chez Mumtaj in St Albans. The global economy had collapsed, he had around 100 covers to fill and his menu, as he himself describes it, is ‘eclectic’. But he persisted. ‘We managed to hang on,’ he says from the ornate surroundings of his elegant dining room. ‘What kept me going is belief in my product. If I had lost faith in that, I would have shut up shop long ago. That was the impetus, the passion. It is a very demanding business, you are on call all the time, but the rewarding thing is when people enjoy your food and you see empty plates coming back and that is the satisfaction for me in being a chef.’
Although I was present at the opening, I had not been to Chez Mumtaj for a full meal, so when my neighbours said they were interested in going I tagged along, notebook in hand. Making up a party of four also meant I had the advantage of four opinions of the place rather than the usual two and the opportunity to see and try a variety of dishes. For want of a label, Rahman describes his cuisine as French-Asian fusion, but there’s more to it, a mix he describes as world cuisine, things he has picked up on his own culinary journeys, with influences from east and west but subtle in flavour. He summarises, ‘My menu is what I would enjoy eating in a restaurant regardless of ethnicity.’
Chez Mumtaj was buzzing on the Saturday evening we visited, a sure sign that word is getting around. The menu didn’t disappoint. For starters, we chose the Chez Mumtaj Salad (£5.95), aubergine steaks (£4.50) for two and a dim sum (£7.95). It may sound prosaic, but wait. The salad was seasonal green gourmet leaves with cilantro, shaved mango, fresh pomegranate and papaya, tossed with walnuts and honey-mustard vinaigrette. The aubergine came as breaded beignets stuffed with potato, cashew nuts and golden sultanas with a mango and tamarind coulis; while the dim sum was a light mousseline of chicken and prawn in steamed pastry with coriander and chilli-lime broth. I asked for comments and all were positive, especially in the matter of the dim sum.
If the line-up of ingredients for the starters looked tempting, those making up the mains were more so, even though the less adventurous members of the party played it safe by ordering duck (£17.95) and rack of lamb (£18.95). I strayed to the exotic side with the Kasundi black cod (£21.95), which I discovered later is Rahman’s signature dish, while my companion, primed by a glowing article about the restaurant in the Daily Telegraph last year, chose the seafood biryani (£15.95). The cod, roasted Alaskan wild-catch and rarely found on menus, had a kaffir-lime tomato curry emulsion with freshly-grated coconut rice, a coriander and mint Braeburn apple and mango vanilla salsa plus pickled samphire grass. The result was a delicate and refreshing dish infused with the subtle but persistent flavour of the fish.
The seafood biryani was Dum-Phukt style, which basically means sealed and steamed, a mix of fresh Loch Duart salmon, tiger prawn and haddock with rose water. It comes in a clay pot locked with a puff pastry lid and is served with roasted cumin and cucumber boondi raitha. In the East, the seal would be plain dough, which is discarded; here, in true Chez Mumtaj style, you could eat it. The Telegraph verdict, which summarised the restaurant as ‘a culinary wonder’, paled into significance alongside the enthusiasm from across the table at the sight and taste of this dish. Fair comment.
To misquote M&S, the rack of lamb was not just ordinary lamb but best end new-season Penshurst west Kent salt-marsh Elliots Farm lamb. Again, the apparent ordinariness of the dish was misleading – it came with gratin of dauphinois, a spicy smoked lamb patty, crème fraiche, mint-mango, and coulis and rose petal lamb jus. Similarly, the duck was a seven spice-dusted Barbary duck breast in a sesame, chilli, ginger and honey glaze, accompanied by a stir-fry julienne of young vegetables, oriental rice, cassia, star anise, apple, plum and rhubarb marmalade. Like all the food at this meal, these dishes were different, elegantly served and failed to produce a word of complaint.
After all that, you wouldn’t expect the desserts to spoil the evening, and they didn’t. Two helpings of Kheer, or Indian rice pudding (£5.95 each) with rhubarb ice cream were happily shared between three of us while a mango brulée (£5.25) did an apparently perfect job for guest number four.
As our waiter explained, all food is cooked fresh, which in the case of something like the rack of lamb means a 25 minute hiatus after ordering, but then that’s why you have starters and, lapsing into cliché again, it’s worth the wait. Chez Mumtaj’s most pressing problem seems to be its misplaced image as an Indian restaurant. It really isn’t. Yes you can have a curry if you really want but there is much more to explore and on this showing most of it demonstrates a new approach to Rahman’s ‘food of the world’ well deserving of a wider audience. I shall certainly be back. And, apparently, so will the neighbours.
The cost of this meal for four was £158.68, or £79.34 per couple, including a bottle of house white and service.
This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed.
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Centurian House, 136-142 London Road
St Albans AL1 1PQ
01727 800 033