I was recently invited to try a special menu at Mint and Mustard to celebrate the Chaakara Fish Festival. I’m a little fussy about Indian cuisine – I don’t particularly enjoy the standard curry house fare, but if it’s something a bit more ‘refined’ and unusual, then I’m more keen. I’d heard good things about Mint and Mustard that suggested it might fall into the latter category, so I was excited to have the opportunity to try some of their dishes.
Mint and Mustard’s Whitchurch Road location didn’t make the best of first impressions on me. Arriving in the pouring rain didn’t help matters, neither did being approached by a drunk outside who I had to negotiate my way around in order to actually enter the restaurant, but once I was inside I was more pleasantly surprised. The décor is fairly contemporary, but still maintains something of a traditional curry house feel – and, importantly, looks and feels as if effort has been made to make the décor special.
Those of us that were trying the tasting menu were in a room at the back of the restaurant, with another large group, but the front dining room was busy as well – a good sign for an otherwise quiet evening on Whitchurch Road!
Perhaps the inclement weather was trying to put me in a watery mood to celebrate Chaakara! It’s a marine phenomenon that occurs off the coast of Southern India when the seas close to the shore are full of a huge range of fish and shellfish. The festival celebrates the harvest of the sea and, with this in mind, Chef Pramod Nair had put together a special tasting menu for us which focused on the Keralan fish and seafood dishes from Mint and Mustard’s a la carte menu and gave us an opportunity to try some of his favourites. Pramod talked us through each of the dishes, but I didn’t make notes, and as it was a bespoke menu I can’t tell you exactly what we tried, but will certainly be able to tell you some of the highlights of our evening’s tasting.
We started with poppadoms, but instead of the usual selection of pickles, the tray included a rich, bright green mint and mustard sauce and – even more unusual – a parsnip chutney, which was surprisingly tasty and worked well with the other pickles.
Our started included a scallop cooked with saffron and coconut (this was delicious and I’d have happily had a whole plate of these!), a soft shell crab (ditto), a king prawn (this was a bit too messy to eat – I could have done with a finger bowl) and a salmon mousse in a heart shape, that didn’t look as if it was going to be spicy but was actually the hottest thing on the plate! I’m not convinced that these four tastes really worked together well, but to be fair, it’s not a normal dish from the menu, and had been put together to allow us to try as many different dishes as possible.
Next up was a king fish steak, served with shallots and tomatoes and a potato cake. I really enjoyed this dish and it’s something I would consider ordering as a main course if I ate at Mint and Mustard again. The meaty king fish (a bit like shark or swordfish in texture) held its own against a rich sauce, and it was nice to have a potato cake rather than rice or Indian bread as an accompaniment. I do think the presentation could have been a little better, though.
With the evening going swimmingly(!), more fish was on its way – we each had a plate with fillets of pomfret and pearl spot (the latter cooked in a banana leaf), plus a crab shell filled with crab meat in a masala sauce, and a small timbale of seafood rice. It was nice to try the different fish fillets, as I’d not eaten either of these fish before. We were in good company trying the pomfret – this was a dish that Pramod had cooked for the Queen when she visited Kerala! The crab didn’t work for me, though – the delicate flavour and texture of the crab meat was at odds with a rich sauce like masala, and it didn’t look pleasant either. Saying that, one of my fellow diners loved it, so perhaps it was a ‘Marmite’ dish!
We also had a tiger prawn curry to share. This was delicious and probably my favourite taste of the night. It had a light, fragrant flavour, almost like a Thai curry (I think I could taste lemongrass in it) and would have been lovely with some light rice as a main dish. There was also a mixed seafood curry, which had a hint of pineapple with it and again was a nice, fresh flavour – although the pieces of squid were probably a little overcooked for my liking, but there were generous chunks of other fish to enjoy, including salmon, which worked well with the sauce.
There were a couple of different Naans to accompany our meal. My favourite was the Peshwari, which used mango for flavour in addition to the usual coconut, so had a fruity orange coloured centre and was really unusual! I think it would have worked better with a richer, more spicy curry, rather than the light, fruity ones we tried (you can have too much fruit in a savoury dish) but I’d definitely order the peshwari naan again. It would be a nice contrast to a dish like the king fish steak.
To finish, we tried a trio of ice creams. Pramod told us that the first, Jackfruit, was more like a Kulfi in texture. This was my favourite – although I’ve never tried Jackfruit before, I enjoyed the taste. Next was rose and vetiver – to me, this tasted like perfume and reminded me of old ladies. It also had a strange powdery texture – I wouldn’t choose it again! Finally, the one we were all intrigued to try: the eponymous Mint and Mustard flavour! I was really hoping to like this – but sadly I didn’t. The initial flavour was mint, but was too much like toothpaste – I was hoping for a really strong peppermint. The aftertaste was overwhelmingly of mustard, but the two flavours didn’t really seem to be working together. Pramod did say it’s a work in progress, and I hope he does keep working on it, as I think it has potential and would be a great signature dessert for the restaurant.
It was great to have an opportunity to try so many different dishes, especially some more unusual fish and seafood. I think a few of the dishes need a bit of fine tuning, particularly if they’re going to work together on the same plate, and the presentation of some of them needs some attention. With a little bit more work, though, Mint and Mustard could definitely become a ‘must visit’ Indian restaurant. At the moment, with it being the wrong side of Cardiff for me, I can’t guarantee I’d make a special journey there, but perhaps if they had another special menu like this on offer, I’d consider it, as it is lovely to sample so many things as part of one meal!
The special Chaakara menu is running at Mint and Mustard throughout the month of June, so there’s still a few days left to try! Pramod is doing some tasty and innovative things with Indian food, and even the ‘normal’ menu has some intriguing and unusual dishes on offer.