Mooli Madly Deeply

Now and again, the sandwich business takes a major leap forward with the advent of an inspirational new concept or innovation. Mooli’s, a roti-based, Indian-inspired operation, represents just such a breakthrough, says Nellie Nichols.

The remarkable and unpredictable come along far less often now in our so safe food world. Those flashes of simple, inspiring brilliance and deliciousness that make me realise, when I’m lucky enough to come across them, how much I love this industry I chose to work in. That moment of discovery when great edgy taste and concept come together and all you can think about is coming back for more.

Some of the London pop-up restaurants are hitting the bull’s eye. A recent visit to The Dock Kitchen to eat Steve Parle’s set supper club menu was well worth the visit; his ever changing menu inspired by a season, an author or a favourite place. Plate after plate of off the grill magic included the freshest, crispiest tiny fish with a squeeze of lemon and a torn piece of bread. The simplest of dishes, yet the most fulfilling because his execution is spot on.

Following the long awaited arrival of the world-famous chef Daniel Bulud from New York, who has just opened his Bar at the Mandarin Oriental in London, I was very fortunate to be taken there for lunch and was blown away by his special of Grilled Madagascan Prawns with Chargrilled Lettuce. But the surprise wasn’t in the meltingly sweet juicy and succulent prawns, it was the outstanding smoky, charred crisp heart of lettuce I won’t ever forget. And the annoying thing is, I’ve been chargrilling lettuce constantly since then and can’t get anywhere near the same perfect blistered, scorched and wilted leaves.

I have been madly hoping it was only a matter of time before there was a breakthrough into the truly new in our field. The empty sites across London have grown in numbers as retailers have closed due to dwindling sales and hiking rents. Of course, the strongest are surviving, but to be honest, not without ever growing menu fatigue. The commercial shackles had to be broken by someone with some unbridled energy, innovation and a good straightforward idea; an idea with conviction, and simple enough in its execution to underpin its chances of success. Something with the capability to capture the imagination and create a bit of a buzz, and should you check out the blog, twitter and reviews on Mooli, you will see even though it’s a concept still in its infancy at only seven months old, it’s one which has started to carve an impression all over the internet.

Mooli’s have opened where Piada once stood, on a site in Frith Street that has housed no less than fourteen businesses in ten years. Parts of Soho hold notoriously difficult sites, often deserted and dead till lunchtime, and this is one that represents a challenging high risk strategy for any concept. But it also holds an upside, being a licensed site with a built-in grill left behind, both worthy contributors to a hot food concept.

I, probably like you, thought Mooli was a radish. With no bearing at all on the product, it merely serves as a catchy name for ‘warm flavoursome fillings, zesty salsas, vibrant chutneys and crunchy salads, all rolled in a homemade roti’ – I couldn’t have described it better myself, this is street cuisine but with quite a difference.

Sam and Matthew both grew up in India and the street foods of Delhi, Bangalore, Kerala and Hydrabad became part of their make-up. Living in London, they finally gave up their jobs in management consultancy and law to start Mooli’s after teaming up with Head Chef Raj Rawat, who trained at Oberoi, India’s five star hotel chain and who then went on to cook at Benares, a Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair.

Walk in and you will see a (very similar to McDonald’s) pass holding warming shelves of products and a clear view into the kitchen where the chefs work away – the power of the ‘freshly made on site’ message clearly conveyed to every customer. A simple menu to choose from is above the till: only six choices of chicken, asparagus, paneer, beef, pork or goat, but the clever execution is each comes in a small Mooli, a regular one or a salad box. That’s it, no more no less.

The Roti bread is made from scratch every morning, with a special machine Sam and Matthew had to travel across the U.S. to find. Like many of the handed down family recipes, there is little in this business that hasn’t required an enormous effort to perfect and it shines like a beacon in their end result.

The bread is not like a tortilla, and nothing like a wrap, it’s fresh, soft, and gorgeously elastic. Made with wholewheat flour and nothing artificial, it is so much more than just the outsidey bit that holds such a treasure chest of delicious ingredients.

When I meet Sam he comments that I am five minutes early. This is merely an observation, and he makes many interesting ones. He comes from a family and a country where food is intricately woven into life, when whatever time is necessary is taken to produce melt in the mouth recipes, often served on the streets. He has every intention of exploiting this heritage – he and Matthew have simply just walked away from their previously successful career paths.

He insists I have a Mango Lassi with Ginger, which is really not my type of thing, but I’m unusually polite in not pointing this out, and if it hadn’t been so early I might have asked to try a Pomegranate Mojito or perhaps even a Guava one – much more me. But, I have to say the Lassi perked me up no end, and then I noticed that nearly every customer who came in asked for one.

On to a selection of mini Mooli’s – the perfect size for girls – all neatly wrapped and very exciting to unpeel. I tried the chicken, made with pomegranate, tomatoes, cucumber, green apple and mixed leaves, with a yoghurt and coriander dressing. What can I say: it was an absolute rollercoaster of fabulous flavours, and it was all I could do to stop myself eating the lot. Then the asparagus and potato, inspired by aloo chaat, popular in the street food of Northern India. I loved the potatoes, the roasted cumin, the dried mango and the tamarind, but the asparagus spear running up it like Nelson’s column was difficult to eat and just a little disconcerting.

But my favourite has to be the beef, slow cooked for hours with Malabar spices, then mixed with fresh coconut, salsa and a cucumber raita – hot, spicy and fantastic, like simply the ultimate chilli you could ever hope to find. Did I say the beef was the best? Ah, that must have been before I tried the Punjabi goat. I would have thought this could never be a high seller, but it’s already legendary on the streets of Soho. Meltingly soft meat, mixed with cumin potatoes and tomatoes, I’m trying to believe as I eat this that I haven’t been morphed to the main course in one of the ritzy glitzy famous Indian restaurants in Mayfair.

It doesn’t stop there; there are outstanding homemade chutneys, raitas and salsas to pour over and dip with or have with a cheeky, cute little packet of roasted pappadom bites – the green chilli far too hot for some I’m sure, but even though it tasted so good, the pond water look was a little off putting. There is no fat in any of these, but you simply don’t miss it, and this is truly a nearly impossible art. Packed with flavour and punch in everything you eat, this entire menu is blissfully absent of the crutch of mayonnaise.

I’m fit to burst, but Sam won’t let me out without trying the awesome homemade dal. I’ve got to leave before he starts on introducing me to his range of Indian kulfi ice creams. I have absolutely no doubt somehow they will be outstanding. But he’s very keen to see me go now, the customers are filling up the doorway and he’s already chatting to most of them, greeting them by name, remembering their orders. I’m sure there will be a horrendous queue in time, but just to add to the perfect synergy of the concept I’m totally impressed that it only takes a minute and a half to make a Mooli.

As I walk away up Frith Street I bump into a friend I haven’t seen for a while who works as an editor in Soho. Have I had lunch, he asks; did I want to join him? He’s “going to Mooli for a goat,” he says – “can’t stop eating them” – laughing I tell him I can totally believe it. We wrongly described Nellie Nichols as being a former Pret Development Chef, in the soup feature in the last issue. She was, of course, Head of Food.

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