Matching wine and Indian food at the fabulous Gymkhana With Sue Sethi

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On Monday night I was at Gymkhana, one of London’s most happening restaurants, for an Indian food and wine matching dinner with wine buyer and co-owner Sue Sethi (pictured above).

Gymkhana has made quite a splash since it opened last September. It specialises in home cooked-style Indian food, and this year it won restaurant of the year in the National Restaurant Awards, the first ever Indian restaurant to achieve this. It’s part of the Trishna group, a growing empire of restaurants owned by the Sethi family (Sue and her two older brothers, chef Karam and money man Jothi), which includes Trishna, Gymkhana, Bubbledogs and Lyles, as well as Verandah in Copenhagen.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether it’s really possible to match Indian food with wine successfully. ‘Indian food is quite vast, so to generalize and say you can’t match wine with it is absurd,’ says Sue. ‘Here and at Trishna we keep the home style of Indian food but we use spices delicately. When you have over-spiced food, of course it is harder.’ One challenge for food and wine matching is the complexity of flavours in many dishes. ‘Indian food has so many different components,’ says Sue. ‘For example, a starter has three or four elements on the plate, so it can be quite tricky.’

‘My whole list is put together with the food in mind,’ says Sue. ‘What we are trying to do is to show wines that take people out of comfort zones.’ Sommeliers are on hand to make suggestions, but she notes that people are much more responsive to advice at Gymkhana than Trishna. ‘Trishna is more a neighbourhood menu, and people are in their comfort zone and know what they want. They are much more experimental here.’

So what sort of wines don’t work? Sue reckons that you don’t want firm tannins or too much alcohol in reds, and that you need to be careful of oak. For whites you need to be careful with acidity. ‘Balance is important,’ she says. ‘Just as the spices need to be balanced, so the wines need to be balanced.’

Sue Sethi got into wine by mistake. ‘Growing up my dad had a wine hobby,’ she says. When Karam, her brother, opened Trishna in 2008 she was working in Germany for HSBC, on track for a career in finance. ‘Very quickly I realised I didn’t want to do this,’ she recalls. So in 2010 Sue left Germany, returned to London, and began applying for jobs in management consultancy. The GM of Trishna was moving back to Austria and Karam needed some help, so she stepped in. Working closely with the then Hungarian sommelier there, she quickly realized that restaurants would be her future. ‘Within five days I realised I wanted to do this,’ says Sue. She took over the wine list and began travelling and learning more about wine.

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Course 1:
Casava, lentil and potato papadum with shrimp chutney, mango chutney and mint and coriander chutney.
This was served with Hidalgo’s Manzanilla la Gitana. The combination worked well, in part because Fino/Manzanilla sherries are so versatile as food wines, with their savoury notes and broad texture.

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Course 2:
Ajwani salmon tikka with tulsi chutney.
This was a delicious dish, with subtle but effective carom seed flavours and a really nice basil chutney.
Wine match:
Ivica Matošević Grimalda 2010 Istria, Croatia
A blend of 50% Chardonnay, 25% Istrian Malvasia and 25% Sauvignon Blanc, aged for 12 months in French oak. Rich, creamy and texture with a lovely citrus and herb twist. It’s a broad wine with a real spectrum of flavours from richness through spice to fresh citrus and aniseed. Lovely blend of oak and fresh fruit. 92/100

This combination worked very well, with the breadth of flavours of the white filling in all around the flavours of the main dish. A well chosen match.
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Course 3:
Lansooni wild tiger prawns with red pepper chutney
The prawns are marinaded in ginger, garlic and green chile, and this dish was superb: lots of flavour, but not overspiced.
Wine match:
Domaine Gerovassiliou Viogner 2013 Epanomi, Greece
What a lovely wine: lively and bright with citrus and ripe pears. Quite exotic but precise at the same time. A really aromatic, precise wine with lots of personality. 92/100

This combination worked really well because of the exotic aromatics of the wine, which matched with the aromatic nature of the tiger prawns.
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Course 4:
Kid goat methi, keema, salli, pao
This is quite cool. You can also have it with brains, if you fancy your chances with prion diseases! It’s finely chopped kid goat, delicately spiced, served with buns and onions, so you can make your own mini burgers.
Wine match:
Teusner ‘The Riebke’ Shiraz 2012 Barossa valley, Australia
Sweet, ripe, pure and lush but it still has nice definition to the sweet fruit. Nicely focused black cherry fruit with a hint of pepper. Quite elegant and pure with nice balance. Silky. 92/100

This worked well. There weren’t too many challenging spices, and the sweet, lush but nicely defined fruit worked really well. Wines do need a bit of fruit to match food like this.

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Course 5
Suckling pig vindaloo
This was pretty hot. It gave me hiccups, which is my internal spicing detector. Apparently it’s not normally quite as hot as this, but it was delicious nonetheless.
Wine match:
Pulenta Estate Gran Cabernet Franc 2010 Mendoza, Argentina
Such a lovely wine, and it is an ideal red for Indian food matching generally. Lovely sleek black fruits with a fine green pepper edge, and a smooth, spicy texture. Very sleek and ripe but with great definition and some smooth, grainy tannins. 93/100

This was a challenging match, but it worked because this wine is such a versatile Indian food friendly bottle, with its concentrated, sleek ripe fruit and superb balance.

Course 6:
Mushroom Methi Mattar Pilau with black truffle
This was a sensational dish, with incredible aromatics.
Wine match:
Michele Chiarlo Barbera d’Asti ‘le Orme’ Superiore 2011 Piedmont, Italy
Fresh with raspberry and black cherry fruit as well as a bit of spice and a stern, savoury, slightly rustic side. Warm herb and leather notes on the finish. 90/100

Again, a really well chosen match. The savouriness of the wine worked well with this dish, which is mildly spiced, aromatic, and really wine friendly. I reckon a new world Pinot Noir would also have done a good job.
Conclusions? With high-end Indian food that isn’t over-spiced, and which isn’t swimming in gravy, it’s possible to execute some really smart wine matches. Where Indian spices are used subtly and creatively, there’s no reason why you can’t raid the wine list and have a lot of fun with some smart bottles, without being worried that their qualities will be wasted. And Gymkhana lives up to the hype. It’s the second time I’ve been, and both meals have been memorable.

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