Located in the handsome red bricked building in Victoria that was once the St James’s Hotel but now the Crowne Plaza, Quilon is part of Adi Modi’s Taj International group. Sister restaurant of the celebrated Bombay Brasserie, but never in its shadow, Quilon has achieved distinction in its own right.
The award of a Michelin star in 2008 was the culmination of a string of accolades which included Best Indian restaurant in ‘The Good Curry Guide’ (2001), one of the five best restaurants in the ‘Time Out’ food guide,(2003), and a “Five Star Diamond Award” from the American Academy of Hospitality Science
In addition, Quilon won the Wine Spectator’s prestigious Award of Excellence in 2009.
The elegant split level dining room, divided by pillars, is vibrantly decorated in rich colours of brown, red and gold.. A back wall features a large, bright mural of a mangrove swamp, so characteristic of the Malabar Coast. Backlit showcases of Indian artefacts, further add to the opulent feel. Tables are generous in size and well spaced. The wicker backed chairs – if not the velvet banquettes – are reminiscent of the British Raj. Quilon is, thankfully, one of the few restaurants where the lighting is not dimmed at night. Why is it that most restaurateurs assume people prefer to eat dinner in semi darkness?
Chef Aylur Sriram, named one of the top five chefs in India, has had a distinguished career at the southern west-coast restaurant Kakravalli and at the Taj West End hotel in Bangalore. His approach is described as one of traditional home style cooking, with the blending of traditional eastern flavours and modern western culinary techniques. Lighter, clean tasting sauces, with the cautious use of ghee, and displaying multi-layered flavours, are essential hallmarks of his cooking.
Although Quilon is the largest importer of South Indian spices in the whole of the UK, dishes are not overloaded with heat; indeed great subtlety in the use of spices is a main factor is the restaurant’s success. Diners are informed in advance of the medium to low degree of spicing of most of the dishes.
Specialising in the cuisine of India’s South West Malabar Coast, which embraces the states of Kerala, Goa & Karnataka, Quilon offers a wide range of seafood and vegetable dishes to balance the lamb, poultry and game options on its eclectic menu. As one would expect, the seafood dishes are the main attraction. These include spiced grilled Red Snapper, pan fried Lobster with Kashmundi mustard cream sauce and spices, chargrilled whole sea bass cooked with tomato, lime juice and chilli, and served wrapped in a banana leaf..
What impressed us at an inspection visit was not only the quality of the dishes on the carte but also the attention paid to incidentals. Chutneys and dips were lively and fresh, whilst crisp, flaky parathas came warm from the oven. An appetising glass of rasam, a thin tomato and lentil soup enlivened with tamarind, was served as a middle course.
Four starters began a memorable meal. An innovative vegetarian dish of smoked mushroom and soya bean chop had the texture of a croquette and was mildly flavoured. A delicious mini lamb shank had been slow roasted to a delicate, melting consistency. Peppered prawns, fried in a thin batter then mixed with a tomato and onion masala, excited the taste buds but was not overpowering, despite the menu description of “fiery.” Grilled scallops with mango and chilli was, perhaps, the least successful dish, the sweet and spicy salsa not marrying well with the delicate seafood.
Of the main courses, Black baked cod was outstanding. Subtly spiced, the marinated chunk of fish had a sweet, barbequed flavour and a melt in the mouth texture. Soft and juicy slices of Guinea Fowl were coated with a contrasting thick masala of corinader, green chilli and tomato that made the mild gamey taste of the bird come alive. Manglorean chicken, flavoured with kori grass and cooked in finely ground fresh coconut, had a gentle, satisfying quality. On a much more spicy note was the Koondapur fish curry which featured halibut chunks in a thin coconut, onions, tamarind and chilli sauce. All the above dishes exhibited precise cooking and well balanced combinations of ingredients that retained their vitality.
Of the vegetable dishes on offer, thinly sliced okra was crisply fried in a light batter and tossed in onion, tomato and crushed pepper. This proved a perfect accompaniment to the fish, meat and rice. Lemon rice had been tossed in lime juice, curry leaves, split bengal gram and ghee whilst Tomato rice also included onion and mint.
Desserts included a Goan speciality called Bibinca, and Dodhol, pressed layered pancakes encasing jaggery, a delectable fudge like puree. This was served with cracked pepper ice-cream.
The overall experience of dining at Quilon was enhanced by the excellent acoustics, the absence of piped music and, most of all, by the knowledgeable, attentive but unobtrusive service, overseen by the charming manager, Shantanu Mazumdar,
Prices reflect the excellent quality of the ingredients and the refined skills of the cooking. However, expenditure need not break the bank. In addition to the carte, there is a five course beer and food menu and a good value set lunch.
Overall, is not difficult to see why Quilon has won the attention it has received. Its food, décor and ambience is as far removed from the local Indian restaurant as the Malabar coast is from the UK. It caters to an ever increasing market ofdiscerning clients who will not be satisfied with the second rate, so its continued success is well deserved