I have a confession to make. When it comes to Indian food I’m stuck in somewhat of a culinary rut. Bhuna, Jalfezi, or Biryani, naan, saag and occasionally an onion bhajee to start – I know what I like and I tend to stick to the same familiar dishes every time.
So when I settled down in the modern, light, high-ceilinged rear room of The Spice Merchant, on the picturesque riverfront in Henley-on-Thames, I decided it was high time to be a bit more adventurous. And I didn’t regret it.
After the obligatory appetiser of poppadoms and tasty chutneys, my partner and I started with meaty and succulent King Scallops – which I love but would never think to order in an Indian restaurant. Served in a seashell with a delicious green herb sauce and a lightly spiced tomato relish, they were a wonderful start.
Next I tried the rich and full-flavoured Venison Tikka, marinated in honey and spices and flame-grilled in the Tandoor – this was a particular hit with my partner. My favourite was the Punjabi Chicken ‘Lollipops’ which are a best-seller at The Spice Merchant – and I can understand why. With chili, lime, tamarind and cinnamon, these little chicken wings were sweet and spiced and very moreish.
For the main course we tried three very varied dishes with a range of sides, my favourite being the Bindi Bhajee; ochre sautéed in mixed spices. On the manager Hasan’s recommendation, we went for Malai Prawn with a side order of fragrant lemon rice, which was fresh, summery and lightly spiced. While it may look like a simple dish, it was complex in flavours and the sauce, made with fish stock, was a delight.
Lamb Chattinard was another new experience. Big, tender chunks of meat were marinated in freshly ground coriander, pepper, curry leaf and red chilli, and I was quite relieved to find that, although it was medium spiced, it wasn’t as lip-searingly hot as it looked! That’s not to say it didn’t pack a real punch in the flavour department and we were seriously impressed.
The most traditional curry dish came in the form of the Chicken Karahi, with a sauce of green peppers, ginger, garlic and coriander – wonderful with a thick and doughy garlic naan to scoop it up.
Admittedly, when it came to the dessert, I went for the age-old favourite of mango kulfi – Indian ice cream – served with a delicious drizzling of mango puree.
I would happily order every dish again, and very likely will as their sister restaurant in Cookham (they also have a branch in Beaconsfield) is within irresistible smelling distance of my front door!
The staff couldn’t have been friendlier – Hasan was a joy – and while this was true comfort food, the setting, the presentation and the accomplished flavours elevated the experience to something rather special indeed.