Mumbai Mansion

250 Morrison St, Edinburgh

0131 229 7173

Lunch: £15.95/£19.95 Dinner: £22-35

Food rating: 8/10

BACK in the 1980s I met the lawyer Dik Mehta, then president of the Edinburgh Indian Association. A Tanzanian who came from Zanzibar’s Indian (Gujerati) community, he told me that he had happened into the restaurant business in exasperation at the absence of authentic Indian vegetarian restaurants where he could eat lunch. He set up the Kalpna restaurant in the city’s south side, and Ajay Bhartwaj, a talented chef who hailed from Uttar Pradesh, and had cooked in several top Indian establishments, came over to Scotland to cook. The Kalpna went on to be a legend, rated far and wide and beloved by its faithful clientele. Bhartwaj has only recently retired after a long, distinguished career of pleasing people with his unique and creative cooking.

These days, chefs like Bhartwaj would have only the very faintest hope of coming to the UK because stricter immigration policy changes have made it much more difficult to hire skilled workers from abroad. The result of this fatuous, inward-looking policy? A chronic shortage of chefs who can cook sub-continental food.

The situation has become acute recently because even though chefs theoretically fall under the “shortage occupation list”, to qualify they must earn a minimum salary of £35,000 per year, and restaurants that offer a takeaway service do not qualify. What this means in practice is that only big-shot chefs, usually from top Indian hotels, fit the bill, and they are being wooed to London where only high-end restaurants can afford them. We’ll be lucky if Scottish Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi restaurants can maintain their old standards as the supply of suitable staff dries up, cutting off our current complement of such restaurants from the regular infusion of fresh blood they need if they are not to stagnate. Already, there are few potential excitements on the Indian cooking scene.

One restaurant in Leith, Mithas, nobly challenged stereotyped “curry house” perceptions of Indian gastronomy with a radically different menu designed to breathe new life into this eating out segment, but that venture didn’t work out unfortunately. In part this was because it was ahead of the pack, but more, I suspect, because of its location. I was cheered to see, however, that chefs who formerly worked there had set up a new restaurant in Haymarket, the Mumbai Mansion. Its mission statement is to “revolutionise the way Indian cooking is perceived” no less. There are no pakoras and “nothing is pre-cooked” apparently. Well, good luck with that, there’s a steep hill to climb.

What distinguishes the menu from other Indian restaurants is its emphasis on marinated meats, fish and vegetables baked over the searing charcoals of a clay tandoor oven, or on a hot plate (tawa). Our sweet corn and pea kebabs, with a texture resembling home-made falafels, finished on the tawa, came with a peanut-like sauce. Cubes of super-tender venison with a black smoky crust hot from the tandoor had been marinaded robustly with spices that stood up to the gaminess of the meat. The tandoor had also preserved the moistness of guinea fowl, its yoghurty marinade aromatic with black salt forming glorious blackened blisters. Juicy nuggets of monkfish, yellow with turmeric and hot at the back of the nose (perhaps from white pepper?) lacked only one thing: invigorating lime to contrast with the spice chorus. A fresh-from-the-tandoor roti was wondrously light, one papery side of its crust parting appealingly from the puffy whole.

Desserts are a pleasant surprise at Mumbai Mansion, spanning the most divine warm carrot halwa, light, un-cloying gulab jamun, strained yoghurt fragrant with citrus, and an accomplished hot Callebaut chocolate mousse served with a bitter orange sauce and punchy ginger ice cream.

Compared to all this, the curries were dull and dominated by samey flavours. Silky home-made paneer deserved better than its unexceptional sauce. You wonder why Mumbai Mansion bothers with the standard curry offerings, but then of course, it’s because most people expect them. Only a very brave Indian restaurant can deal with both deep-laid consumer expectations and the Department of Visas and Immigration.