Restaurants

Babur’s Nepalese menu

Babur Save the Tiger

I love Nepalese food, and I am fast falling in love with one of my newest friends. In a purely platonic sense; and in no way owing to the fact Rajiv is a champion chef when it comes to Nepali cuisine. Well… perhaps in part. What can I say? After all, as oft-quoted, ‘there is no love sincerer than the love of food’.

So to show my appreciation of a cracking chap, I’m taking him along as the man with the gyaan to review Babur’s new Nepalese menu. The award-winning South London restaurant is no slouch when it comes to showcasing Indian regional food, and now they’ve broken through the borders to showcase the specialities of the country from which many of the team’s members hail.

I am very happy to hail from North London, and am none-too-overjoyed to be crossing the border to the south side of the capital. All that changes upon arrival, when I discover that the area does have a few things going for it. In fact, with Michelin-recommended Cinnamon Culture not far away, this neck of the woods is pretty well-served in terms of fine Indian diners.

This particular pair of diners have arrived with stomachs all a-rumble after a loooong journey from the other side of town.  It may not be far in terms of physical distance, but a true-blue Londoners’ mental stance on the North-South divide dictates that the opposite riverbank could just as soon be the other side of the world.

But when you are welcomed to a new world with a ‘Cold Weather Collection’ cocktail comprising barrel-aged whiskey, Campari, rhubarb bitters and more besides, it’s easy to let your frosty demeanour thaw. And that’s why I feel warm and fuzzy feelings wash over me as I sip a Yorkshire Manhattan as my companion contemplates an equally-excellent Cornish Sour.

Cornish Sour

These beautiful beverages are not at all Nepalese, but they don’t half please the both of us. They also pack enough of a punch that the procured pappads and chutneys are munched gratefully in order to line empty tummies and limit the likelihood of the liquor going straight to our heads. Or, at least, stop the next lot from doing so.

Slightly squiffy, we select from the specials, guided by a Nepalese waiter who knows what’s good. I’m a little worried I’m more tipsy than I thought ,as I’m having trouble following the conversation – until I realise he and Rajiv have slipped into their native tongue, debating dishes a mile-a-minute. It’s the goat that floats my boat; as long as I get that, I’m happy. Even if the lingo is leaving me all at sea.

We choose chicken ko choala to start, along with a Gurkhali lamb tikka. The former is something Rajiv cooks regularly and shares often at his supperclubs, so this dish is one we’re keen to dissect. We’ve picked the latter for quite the opposite reason – Rajiv’s cooking comes from the Newari tradition, so this Gurkha preparation promises something deliciously different.

In Nepal, methi is a major favourite. Many schools of Indian cooking command you keep an eagle eye on the frying seeds lest they burn and become bitter. But the Nepalese method takes things further, making the methi far darker. Far from being bitter beyond belief, the blackened spice actually imparts an almost meaty savour to everything it flavours.

choala

That savour is especially evident in that choala; small chunks of moist meat with a roasty-toasty taste. Rajiv reckons it could use lifting with lime, but we’re in agreement that it’s far more finger lickin’ than certain other poultry preparations we could care to name. Lamb is equally good, the marinade featuring the unusual inclusion of celery. The accompanying sesame chutney is a surprise; more akin to a creamy Middle-Eastern dip than any of the condiments we know from Nepal, and perfect for soothing mouths numbed by the Szechuan pepper so popular in that country.

Goat curry is a perennially popular dish with Rajiv’s supperclub guests, so it’s imperative we try Babur’s version to see if it passes muster. The gravy’s good; dark, rich, once again imbued with that incredibly earthy flavour of methi. But the dish comically calls to mind the expression ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ – the meat seeming to eat with the pronounced grassy sweetness of sheep rather than its cloven-hooved counterpart.

Either way, we polish it off pretty smartly, soaking up that savoury gravy with steamed rice and blistered breads from a mixed basket. Next, we navigate the perilous pinbones of the trout in the tarkari, rewarded with moist, mild flakes of fish tarted up with a mustard-methi sauce that satisfies my appetite for the Bengali flavours I hold so beloved. Yogurt-fried rice is terrifically tart, a simple side to relish in its own right.

Rajiv’s sweet tooth never grew in, but when it comes to dessert, I’ll happily eat for two. Particularly when the puds are Indian-inspired and as intriguing as these. Babur’s rum vada is not Nepalese, but the syrup-soaked fritter isn’t so far from the sel rotis Rajiv has watched me merrily munch as fast as he can fry ‘em. An apt choice, then.

rum vada

And when chocolate’s on offer, I have no choice but to yield to my unquashable cocoa cravings. The bittersweet fondant is a revelation for Rajiv. For a man who declared a dislike for the brown stuff mere moments before, he’s certainly making short work of the gooey spoonful I insist he try. Not to mention the one he swipes for himself. The earthy element added by cumin is the clincher, keeping the sweet from becoming even slightly sickly.

Nepalese to please? Most certainly. It’s also most commendable to see a culinary showcase of an undersung cuisine. Nepal’s food is often described as a mere mixture of Indian, Chinese and Tibetan, but it’s both distinctive and utterly delectable in its own right. Rajiv has always been determined to differentiate the food of his homeland – a country Babur is currently doing a cracking job of championing.

  •  Babur’s Nepalese menu is part of the restaurant’s ‘Year of Saving the Indian Tiger’, throughout which the venue will partner with the Zoological Society of London to help fund charitable conservation work in Nepal.
  • Babur
  • 119 Brockley Rise, SE23 1JP
  • www.babur.info

Sheba

????????

I just shared me a paratha with Pat Chapman. Not a bad anecdote for a spice-lover to have under their ever-expanding belt, eh? I literally broke bread with the man who demystified ‘British Indian Restaurant’ cooking for the masses. Pat’s sat next to me to sample Sheba – a curryhouse I’m hoping will steer away from the classics, and afford us a bit more of an exploration into the authentic Bangladeshi fare about which Pat penned another publication.

Sheba’s at the top end of Brick Lane’s ‘curry mile’ – and, according to Pat’s very own ‘Cobra Good Curry Guide’, it’s at the top of the heap comprising its curryhouse compatriots. By rights, this should be THE place to get a banging balti – but it should also be the place to drag things up to the next level, somewhere to sample something beyond the old ‘formula curry’ slop. However enterprising that method may have proved over time, surely its time is past?

Call me a spice snob, a curry bore, whatever you like – I’ll take it. Because seeing someone order a curry combining any old protein and heat level with their preferred base sauce is like watching car-crash contestants on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. I don’t want to watch, but I can’t look away. Gangs of boozed-up blokes ordering piles of poppadoms and a buckets of chicken tikka masala make me gag. But, I guess, the restaurateurs round these parts earn their buck from this discerning clientele. I don’t envy them.

But I’m sure the rest of the curryhouses envy Sheba’s award. Manager Sultan is justly proud, and tells me wistfully that he wishes he could garner a bit more interest in the Bangladeshi specials. But he knows his market only too well – so reckons it’s best to keep on doing what they do well, pushing the proper stuff to those seeking a bit more than a seekh kebab. And speaking of, they’re pretty average here – as are a mixed tandoori platter, standard samosas, and the quintessential curryhouse favourite – the onion bhaji.

I’m sulky and petulant as I chew on a lamb chop, because I wanted to be proved wrong. I’d hoped to swan in, giving it all that on bastardised curryhouse cusine, then have to meekly swallow my pride along with some stunning fodder and I admit I was wrong about the whole thing. And it’s just not panning out that way.

Sheba food

But then, along come mains. And with each massive salver that hits the deck, I feel my mood lift. Lamb with Bengal pumpkin, flavoured with five spice; a good few Bangla fishy dishes; a chicken dish that’s a speciality of Sylhet – the region which gave us most of the UK’s Bangladeshi restaurateurs and chefs. Tucking into a rich dish of ‘fat prawns’ and soft fish kofte, this sourpuss actually cracks a smile. The chital fish is insanely tasty and bony both – mincing it into these divine dumplings is the perfect solution.

Boal fish fry is fab, too. Yet another of the myriad species of ‘sweetwater’ fish from Bengal, the ‘land of a thousand rivers’, boal is meaty and firm – guaranteed to be a firm favourite with anyone who like a bit of kingfish and its ilk. Sheba’s comes coated in a thick, slightly sweet sauce. The flavours in these dishes are all similar to the stews sold in the real Bangla cafes down the road, but a little richer – the extravagant food you’d eat at a Bengali wedding rather than what you’d down daily.

Unless you wanted to become very, very fat. An idea I’m entertaining when a few more platters are paraded our way. A couple of lamb legs; a few ‘lobsters’ – actually giant prawns from the Bay of Bengal -; a traditional Bangladeshi korma featuring gargantuan chicken legs on the bone in a thin gravy, worlds away from that sweet, rich preparation; and the most brilliant biryani.

I’d censor my self-imposed curryhouse condemnation for this dish alone. The hunks of bone-in lamb and rice punctuated with whole spices and fried onions are familiar, but the Bangladeshi flavouring is completely unfamiliar to me. I can’t figure it out and that’s why I keep dishing myself out another helping. Yup, that’s why.

Biryani at Sheba

This biryani is made the ‘kacchi’ way – the meat and rice cooked together in a sealed vessel from raw, requiring phenomenal skill to judge when both will be cooked just-so. Less-confident chefs will often opt for the ‘pukki’ method – pre-cooking the meat; or even just mixing together cooked rice and meat in a pan. But this one has obviously been cooked by a master. It’s gorgeous, ghee-rich, and has gee-d my enthusiasm right up. It comes free of ‘curry sauce’ on the side. Only raita would be right.

Sultan says that Sheba’s planning to offer a handful of ‘kitchen specials’ on Mondays and Tuesdays. Worth heeding, because it’s on the strength of these kind of dishes I feel Sheba has earnt its award. Handily, the days you can dig in coincide with the time Brick Lane is least troubled by rugger buggers and screeching hens. Work up an appetite dodging the touts along the curry mile. Take a seat and put yourself in Sultan of Sheba’s capable hands. Trust his recommendations, tuck in, and soon you’ll be making your very own merriment.

Imli Street

Imli bar

The old Imli was, frankly, a bit rubbish. All the gear but no idea, unable to conceive of its very own concept. Said concept was ‘innovative Indian tapas’, which in theory sounded great. In reality, this translated to clunky, starter-sized dishes difficult to share and an oddly-constructed menu impossible to get to grips with. The majority of the confused clientele ended up sticking with the tried-and-tested chicken-curry-naan-rice triumvirate. How innovative.

So I do not arrive with lofty aspirations for the Soho restaurant’s quickie refit and rebrand as ‘Imli Street’. It all smacks a bit of clinging desperately to dynamic Dishoom’s coat-tails, trying to get its own bite of the bacon naan roll. But actually, the decor is less ‘eccentric old Bombay’ and more ‘Soho stripped’ –the ‘industrial-chic scuffed-wood-and-metal’ sort rather than the red-light type.

Although, like Roxanne in the song, or perhaps Simon Cowell on ‘The X factor’, I do have to put on my own red light regarding the seats. I don’t like to dine atop a stool at a height where I may as well stay standing. But maybe that’s just me – the rest of those stools are filling up fast enough, and the bar’s packed. It’s now the main focus of Imli Street, and with good reason. The insipid, sickly tipples of yore have evolved into a smart little list featuring a handful of Indian-inspired decoctions.

Amongst them, ‘Bombay/Soho’ is a musky, lusty gin-pomegranate-ginger refresher, zesty with lime. A ‘Twisted G&T’ features saffron-infused gin, the divisive, inimitable flavour pronounced in the perfect measurement. Both pack a small, polite-but-definite punch, adding slightly to our sense of befuddlement and déjà vu when casting an eye over the new menu. There’s still complete ambiguity over how much to order and in what manner, and even what dishes are. When it comes to Indian food, that bolshy Soho-Brit style of merely listing key ingredients doesn’t fly, tempt, or help.

Guiding us through the ‘concept’ and explaining the menu is where he comes in, our waiter tells us. But in many cases he – in fact, no-one – can actually tell us what we need to know, or confuses us. They’re a very enthusiastic but very under-informed bunch; and there simply aren’t enough of them to decode the entire menu to the entire place when Imli’s even half full. Far better to just include more detail on the page, surely – that, or make a communal Rosetta Stone a statement feature.

Imli cocktails

And so to food. We’ve apparently ordered ‘a lot’, but even with an only-slightly-peckish companion we make light work of the spread. We’ve tried to give it all a fair chance, bar the seafood section – the waiter’s description of the masala crab having elicited an ‘oh, yuck!’ from across the table. Shame, I rather fancied it. I do insist on the kaleji, though, and wish I’d been similarly dissuaded. Rather than the tangy, dry-fried chicken livers I’d expected, this is over-cooked pate in a thick brown gravy.

Anglo-Indian lamb curry ‘from the railways’ is better – the nicely spicy gravy taking on that lovely lamb flavour from the tender chunks of meat. What makes it ‘Anglo’ is anyone’s guess, although it does somewhat resemble a superior version of a British curryhouse rogan josh. The ‘cheese’ naan we eat it with is almost false advertising; featuring a parsimonious scrape of said ingredient in a workaday bread, compared to Dishoom’s gloriously gooey, ghee-brushed goodies.

If you’re ascribing ‘Ceylon’ as a descriptive adjective, I certainly expect flavour, and would gamble there might be fire. In the Ceylon kothu, though, there is neither. The dish of ‘scrambled parathas’ is a meek hash of broken bread fried up with pedestrian carrots and green beans – the use of thick, Punjabi-style parathas rather than their thinner crispier cousins a fatal error that’s turned the whole lot into a plain, pudding-y bowl of banality.

Tandoori paneer is tasty – good-sized chunks in a tangy green marinade, the cheese slightly halloumi-like, with more tang and salt than most. There’s a smidge of chaat masala and a few red onion slivers to add welcome twang, and a verdant mint-coriander chutney tarted up in the proper manner with green mango. There’s more puddled under the fat bottom of a Punjabi samosa, along with sweet yogurt, and a jaunty pipette full of tamarind chutney attempts to inject a little interest to the classic samosa chaat .

Imli interior

The quirk doesn’t quite deliver requisite interest though, and the generous filling of the samosa is bland. It’s also suffering from that embarrassing taboo – the soggy bottom. A side of saag paneer is beautifully velvety and unchallenging. Pilau is oddly-spiced with nigella seed, and uses poor-quality rice with no inherent aroma or flavour. Yellow dal is okay. We eat it all and feel replete and ambivalent.

‘Pink City’, a sort of hard version of a faluda milkshake, saves me from diabolical chai ridiculously served with a jug of foamed milk. Puds are interesting, although there’s no enlightenment regarding what ‘Lonavala chikki’ on the sizzling walnut brownie might be for the uninitiated. In the middle of mango season the soup – aam ras – is confoundingly insipid. Hyderabadi bread and butter pudding is comforting and well-textured but needs both cardamom and oomph – sense a theme developing?

It’s all a bit humdrum. More ‘hey ho’ than ‘wahey’. The ideas are bold but execution vague. There are lots of dishes that are good, if unexceptional, a few that are wacky seemingly for the sake of it – naan pie? –, and some authentic, esoteric dishes that could be really exciting, helping introduce Soho-ites to under-represented, well-loved Indian creations like Mumbai’s chilli cheese toast,  Northern tangdi kababs, or Indo-Chinese dumplings.

But you won’t find converts by meekly pedalling pedestrian fodder in a neighbourhood saturated with strident, satisfying flavour, packed with people who want their jaws to drop from what they put between them. The intention’s there and the stage set – Imli Street just needs to undergo a spot of assertiveness training and build a character as colourful and confident as the legendary local populus. After all, on the mean streets of Soho, more is more. And please, do something about that chai.

Potli

Potli

Each and every day, a chef at Potli will spend three hours carefully and expertly roasting, toasting, grinding spices and blending unique and complex masalas, from dry rubs to the most fragrant, lingering paan you’ll ever chew. It’s a big commitment and a labour of love, but for co-owner and head chef Jay Ghosh the ‘daily grind’ is just part and parcel of the daily grind of running the restaurant.

And that little labour of love is Potli all over. Founded after Jay discovered there were no mid-priced Indian eateries offering authentic, quality home-style food to discerning diners looking for more than a madras, the restaurant smashed through the low ceiling set by the classic curryhouse like a stack of so many poppadoms.

It’s since become the sort of home-from-home neighbourhood place that serves regular customers weekly, if not even more frequently; indeed, our neighbours claim to be in every few days. And, despite being features almost as constant as the pharmaceutical display by Potli’s loos, they always manage to find something new. On this occasion, it was banana leaf-wrapped prawns in a herbal green chutney. Sadly, it was ours. Happily, we were up for sharing.

In return, the couple shared the inside tip on their own favourites, several of which we’d ordered. But before that came pickles from Potli’s unique in-house ‘pickle bar’ – gloriously gloopy green mango mush; tart mixed achar stuffed with masala-packed mirchi; and dry chutney based on roasted chana – the most relish-worthy of the relishes. Perfect for lending a little more munchiness to the bland comfort of a seasonal sweet potato chaat – like revenge, a dish best served cold.

Potli tikka

Those exemplary green prawns are one of the three starters we sample. Lasuni tikka is a summer-ised version of the a la carte chicken trio; a little lighter, a little more garlic-fragrant as you’d deduce from the name. These tikka put the usual titchy morsels to shame, meaning the middle stays soft and juicy with enough surface area for a good old charring. Shimla mirch also gets the tandoor treatment, the stuffed red pepper swollen-bellied with a mellow melange of fruits, nuts and veggies.

My Bengali companion must have left her traditional and massive sweet tooth at home, because she claims the sauce on the prawn narkel diye is slightly too that way inclined for her taste. No matter, her disdain for the ‘meetha’ gravy just means all the more for me, ta! Plump prawns boast that lunar translucence, and bob in a sweet sea infused with coconut, mustard and coriander. It certainly puts a big saccharine grin on my face, particularly over the Kerala-style lemon rice.

More savoury – indeed, very savoury indeed, is dal tarka panchmel. The five-pulse mix means it straddles that potentially dangerous dal division amongst diners with aplomb. It’s simultaneously as earthy as the simple staple that makes up half of the humble dal-chewal dinner, and as rich and sumptuous as the kali dal fit for any Maharani. The perfect compromise, then – and perfect, too, scooped up with the flaky layers of our pudina laccha paratha.

Lamb coconut fry

Lamb coconut fry has an echo of Goan xacuti, with a hot vinegary pungency and a tasty, thick dry masala. It’s also full of copious chunks of well-sourced tender Kentish meat. Veering wildly Northwards and to the Mughal courts, we dive into a dish of extra-special Shahi malai kofta – the golf ball-sized, soft dumplings enclosing a heavenly hotpotch of paneer, nuts and royal cumin. The richness of velvety, nut-thickened and cardamom-infused gravy that cloaks the kofta momentarily masks an earthy chilli heat that builds sneakily, steadily and beautifully.

The entire meal has also steadily built my respect for Jay’s talent, and the restaurant as a whole. Talking about his enthusiastic, knowledgeable team, the chef reveals that the majority of his kitchen compatriots come to him with few or no cooking skills, enabling him to foster and nurture their emerging prowess – not to mention school them in that inimitable style so essential to the Potli experience.

Jay insists it’s crucial to show respect and confidence in his staff; in return he’s rewarded with a restaurant he’s happy to leave in their hands, secure in the knowledge standards will be maintained. He’s not wrong. The chef shakes our hands and whizzes off, leaving the team to tempt us with mithaiya. The shrikhand is sensational. Masala chai is as malai-pocked as the surface of the moon – the very object Jay shot for when he opened Potli. I will say this much: the man has excellent aim.

Ravinder Bhogal’s ‘Fork Me, Spoon Me’ pop-up

Ravinder Bhogal

I first encountered Ravinder Bhogal’s food on a trip to a Basmati symposium in India, and, despite feeling a shade ‘Delhi’-cate, I liked it, and not a little. Fresh, vibrant, clearly the product of a girl unafraid of augmenting the roots-y stuff she grew up on with her new foodie finds; the ‘Cook In Boots’’ dishes tempted even my timid tummy.

So I was rather enthused to come across Ravinder’s month-long residency at the South Place Hotel. The title of the Saturday supperclub series – ‘Fork Me, Spoon Me’ – may be aiming to induce mirth, but there’s nowt funny about Ravinder’s eccentric-yet-assured menus. From India to Italy, via the Middle East and Japan, these dishes did not leave a bad taste in one’s mouth… at least on paper.

It had to be the Indian night- a pretty fishy-sounding feast featuring a whole shoal of seafood. For the second time in a month, I offered matey the chance to chow down on lobster- this one hopefully savoured slightly more sentiently than the specimen scoffed at 4am in a Chinatown diner. Although, sipping a rum-based punch resembling an Indian sunset does get things off to a similarly tipsy start…

So, when a pani puri arrives filled with oyster meat, bivalve-virgin matey is lubricated enough to go at it with gusto- and both of us end up making a small puddle of the tamarind water in front of us as we pour it into the crisp semolina shells pre-crunchy munch. The brine-y ozone flavour combined with chaat masala makes for a heady mouthful that lingers.

Next comes King Kong-sized soft shell crabs, so large I think one has a prawn in its claw – nope, that’s just its claw. They’re in the same burnished gram-flour batter as an accompanying baby aubergine, full-flavoured from the inclusion of thyme-like ajwain seeds, both sat atop a pretty relish-some relish – a thick mulch of peanuts, tamarind and jaggery. Fork me, indeed.

South Place Hotel

There’s plenty more fish in this sea. We’re each presented with a pretty high falutin’ half-lobster languishing in his shell, draping himself all over a slurpy, sloppy pool of gingered kedgeree, majestically and rudely nude excepting a strategic dollop of green chutney to protect his modesty. Nuts are fully on show, though – cashews paired with green beans in a tasty thoran.

It’s time to get to meatier matters. Almost-stuffed matey’s eyes widen almost as much as her burgeoning belly as groaning bowls of tandoori lamb chops start whizzing around the room. I’m groaning, too- the meat is primally pink, juicy enough to keep your own juices flowing, and has a properly toothsome bite. Anointed with pomegranate yogurt, it’s oh-so ‘raita’.

I have to confess I’m a slight chubby chaser- when it comes to my animal protein, that is. And these chops have indulged my culinary perversions a treat, each boasting a lovely fatty border. Eaten with cold red lentils sharp with dried tomatoes and herbs, it’s a lusty push-pull of a dish. As a bonus, every flavour’s seeped into the chunks of bread Ravinder’s flung into the fattoush-like lentil salad.

I don’t reckon Finish Quantum could get my plate much cleaner. Pud’d still be good, though. It looks a seductive sweetie; rose-and-pistachio kulfi slowly melting into a deep pool of jelly studded with pretty pink rhubarb chunks. But I can’t be doing with my rhubarb sharp and crunchy. The sublime ice redeems the dish for me, though. It tastes like an Indian temple. In a very, very good way.

Ravinder’s gone and set herself a bit of a standard here. Drooling over the menu at my laptop’s one thing, but it’s a rare thing when one comes off quite so well in the execution. After this super scran, we’ll be steering clear of ill-advised, early-hours Chinatown adventures for a while – at least while we can still scoff at these superior supperclubs instead.

Indian Essence

Indian Essence

What motivated Atul Kochhar and Oberoi-trained Jitindar Singh to decide that what the small suburb of Petts Wood really needed was a restaurant delivering their slick, modern Indian food remains a mystery. Setting up a Benares-lite beacon for discerning locals, offering narry a whiff of an onion bhaji or a samosa, is an honourable, if ambitious, concept. But wandering around the neighbourhood, Indian Essence is clearly the Kohinoor diamond in a crown of paste gems.

They’ve clearly captured the imagination of locals; the cosy dining room is busy and several tables are turned during our dinner. The menu frequently draws on successful Benares dishes, deconstructing and democratising them for what’s essentially an upmarket high-street restaurant. Temptation to offer the ‘curryhouse staples’ has been resisted, but there’s evidence of a slight concession to that ilk on the drinks menu, which lists ‘Monster and Jaeger’ under ‘shooters’.

Indian Essence

Suffice to say, we do not indulge our dormant ‘post-pub lout’ leanings, instead opting for the floral, ominous ‘Delhibelly’ cocktail, which actually sits very nicely on the stomach, and a stunning virgin ‘Masala Mary’. Sling in a shot of vodka, and this would unequivocally be The Bloody Mary To End All Bloody Marys’. Poppadoms, though, could benefit from Wabi’s trick of being stored in a dehydrator to retain that essential brittle bite, and chutneys are less-than finger-lickin’.

I’d happily have the amuse bouche – a paneer kofta dressed with various chutneys – writ large as a starter proper. Although we’ve chosen well; sharing scallops that pair perfectly with our second choice – properly-crusted spiced potato cakes dressed with tamarind chutney and sweet yogurt. The parsnip and cumin flavour pairing on the scallop dish is one that will be repeated in my kitchen forevermore. Thanks for the flavour tip, Atul.

Indian Essence

A platter of tandoori kebabs is a neat little boat on which sails a quartet of colourful morsels- Punjabi-style lamb chop pounded to extreme tenderness; a crusty king prawn; Bengali mustard-marinated salmon; and chicken slicked with a verdant herbal paste. It’s a meaty treat both visual and visceral, gobbled up with breads – roti, kulcha, paratha – that are slightly meh, and could be so much more. All just a little lacklustre, and I do prefer my paratha from the tawa rather than the tandoor.

Gosht biryani is delivered in a nicely vat-like dish, gratifyingly sealed with dough so it’s properly steamed – in the case of the rice, for ever-so slightly too long. The meat is heavenly, though; the accompanying raita thick and rich. By comparison, pan-roasted John Dory is a spartan plate but, with its green marinade and roasted tomato relish, satisfyingly abundant in its flavour. It’s a shame so many other diners have eschewed it for the more familiar ‘chicken-curry-rice-fizzy-lager’ triumvirate.

Indian Essence

Overcoming that customer reticence is a tricky conundrum, and one that doesn’t often plague the inner-city restaurateur, whose diners are more likely to engage with the menu and indulge a chef’s culinary creativity. With a less assured clientele, you need compromise, as written all over the stricken face of a guest anticipating ice cream options more Neapolitan than the rather cosmopolitan choices of ‘cardamom’ or ‘sugar cane’.

She seems pretty pleased with the pistachio kulfi she settles on, though – as are we. Other desserts are once again based around Benares dishes- we recognise a tasty peanut butter, chocolate and sugar cane combo, and my Calcutta-style ‘cheesecake’ echoes the raspberry and rose in Atul’s bhapa doi. A subtle cardamom chocolate fondant is a good illustration of the kitchen’s ability to temper the dominant Indian flavour in a dish guaranteed to curry favour with the local palate.

There’s no denying the food quality, but the location sadly seems to undermine Indian Essence’s output. Intended concept doesn’t quite gel with the demographic – a real shame. The answer, perhaps? Ask not what Atul can do for Indian dining in Petts Wood, but what the people of Petts Wood are willing to do for Indian dining. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure they’re ready to relinquish requests for ‘wet lager’ and vanilla ice cream for some quite delectable, different dishes.

Zaika’s Pre-theatre menu

Zaika

A top-notch Negroni, a Manhattan, and a bowl of smoked almonds. Both the situation and that Manhattan are perfect, the second quite literally – effortlessly occupying that narrow territory between too dry and too sweet. Seeing as we’re getting such a good-value dinner, a pre-pre-theatre menu aperitif seems more reward for our smart dining plan than profligate excess. That’s how we’re justifying it, anyway.

Zaika’s bar area is quietly opulent – occupying a soft-furnished, jewel-toned cosy corner of the high-ceilinged, library-ish restaurant. With a duo of decoctions and a selection of Indian bar snacks yoursfor £20, we’re sorely tempted to remain and work our way through the cocktail list, making a meal of morsels like crisp Devon crab-stuffed puris, tandoori paneer and almond-crusted potato and sago cakes . But we’d probably end up horizontal, never a good look in such a well-heeled eatery.

The advantage of early dining means we’re able to resist late-afternoon noxious nibbling- that mindless grazing that seems to kick in as some sort of primitive response to knowing you’re got a long hungry wait for your tea. We also get to pick a prime spot, opting for a curved banquette that’s kind on the behind whilst providing ample opportunity to ogle. Not so much fellow diners, you understand, as their grub. Gives a broader, if regretfully vicarious, flavour of the menu.

Zaika

The high-end nature of Zaika means there’s the occasional spot of inter-course amusement to titillate the appetite. A dusting of that magical, sulphurous elixir, chaat masala, never fails to twang the tastebuds – sprinkled over a paneer pakora and anointed with sour-sweet tamarind chutney, it’s a welcome beginning. The pre-theatre menu is nicely concise- 3 starters, 3 mains and a duo of puds. Skimming the extensive a la carte, it’s a relief to have some of the agonising taken off my hands.

Ottolenghi, that giant couscous zealot, would no doubt find the on-trend grilled moghrabieh cakes to his taste- tough, Yotam they’re to mine, too, and I’m not sharing. I tell a lie, I do exchange one of the satisfying patties for a go at the lip-smacking crumbed spiced haddock with its lobster butter and curried tartare. There’s a couple of fries, too, in a Lilliputian silver frying basket so covetable I’d predict it to become essential trophy thieving for any London food blogger worth his or her Halen Mon.

I’m not too ‘well jel’, though- I’ve got a whacking hunk of crisp-skinned cod for my main, concealing the garlicky mushroom it’s sat on. It’s the best-cooked piece of fish I’ve had in a long time, delicate enough to allow appreciation of a subtle tomato-cumin sauce and the gunky unctuousness of a baby aubergine. Extra sauce is offered, although I reckon if you’re bold enough to serve it judiciously in the first place, stick to your guns. Zaika diners shouldn’t be after a Brick Lane bhuna.

Zaika

In fact, the only thing remotely ‘curryhouse’ is the vindaloo sauce that accompanies succulent poussin grilled in a Goan green marinade- and even that’s in name only, more akin to its tasty Indo-Portuguese ancestor than that chilli powder-enriched base gravy. Naan and paratha both confirm there’s a skilled roti-wallah in the kitchen. Mains are complete dishes, but for me daal is non-negotiable. Zaika’s comes as a dainty duo- rich black and home-style yellow. Both are top.

Approaching pudding in an Indian restaurant I often get a bit anxious- sometimes because I’ve eaten too much, but just as often because the diverse and delicious scope of the Indian repertoire is neglected in favour of a banal, basic list. Kulfi can be great or lacklustre- this is the former, lychee and pistachio flavours both. My stand-your-spoon-up-thick cinnamon chocolate mousse puts a huge grin on my gob. Thankfully, that current scouge of puds- popping candy- is restricted to the surface only.

With the menu starting from £22.50, and the option for tacking on paired wines for another tenner, the pre-theatre offer is a canny way to have an elegant evening for about the same as what you’d deposit on some distinctly dirty food in Soho. The refined, subtle, sophisticated tastes and suitably sublime hospitality of Zaika, or queuing down a ‘fragrant’ alleyway for the dubious privilege of being ripped off by a knowing team of smug scenesters? I think I know where the smart money is.

Moti Mahal’s Diwali menu

Moti Mahal spread

Moti Mahal is high-end, but low-key. So low-key in its outward appearance that we miss the entrance- the companion notes, ‘it’s designed to keep riff-raff like us boho types out’. But then this is a venue that has no need to shout for attention. And when we finally bumble in to the elegant dining room, we’re treated less like riff-raff and more like royalty.

Sat opposite a fine gentleman dressed to the nines in his smartest red tartan cravat-and-trouser combo, we feel somewhat under-dressed. My companion’s a wee bit jealous, vocal in his aspiration for a similar sartorial style in his own dotage. But once we’re draped in white linen napkins, sipping fruity Prosecco-based aperitifs in louche style, attire ceases to matter. Now it’s all about our growling stomachs.

We’re presented with what, at first glance, could be a vegetable cornucopia designed to adorn the table. But the instruction is to treat the platter as a DIY salad bar- and, as a duo of demi-vegetarians, we need little encouragement. Making ersatz lettuce wraps of tomato, cucumber and onion, seasoned liberally with chat masala and curry-leaf salt from tiny mortars, dribbled with mustard oil, we are nothing more than kids let loose in a candy shop.

Moti Mahal Soft shell crab

It’s a great idea- tooled up, the daunting, impossible-to-tackle plate of whole veggies that often goes un-eaten  in a Lebanese or Persian place are, here, ripe for the picking- or slicing, chopping or hacking however you see fit. But there’s only so far salad can take you. We’re here for the Diwali tasting menu, delivered slowly to the table in a measured drip-feed that’s simply delicious agony.

First up, chicken momos given the pretty frills of Chinese har gow rather than the homely ‘Cornish-pasty’ crimp. Fantastically garlicky enough to be avoided on a date, it’s handy our only amore is directed food-wards.  Soft shell crabs are huge, handsome mahogany specimens our waiter looks so keen on I invite him to join us. In fact the extra mouth would solve our pani puri dilemma- three crisp shells for single-bite consumption, two of us?

We break the impasse by filling two with tamarind-mint water and gulping down as etiquette dictates, and messily smash the third and eat it dry, as etiquette does not. Etiquette also means the kindly staff cover up our tablecloth misdemeanours as they lay the table for mains. The various splotches could be down to our Chablis consumption, but we prefer to see them as visual appreciation of the meal.

Moti Mahal

There’s more ‘appreciation’ to come with the scooping of a traditional Rajasthani lamb maans, and a solid example of the black daal that’s become the standard of the high-end Indian restaurant, with pillow-soft naan and a paneer-onion kulcha unexpectedly reminiscent of a low-rent packet of cheese’n’onion. And every bit as finger-lickin’. A crisp-skinned fillet of stone bass atop spiced green beans and cherry tomatoes raises the tone again, almost European in its execution.

After devouring a dainty stack of rather nifty wild mushroom bhajis, super-thick, super-cool raita, and Very Very Good saffron rice, we look at each other, perplexed. Not a scrap remains but we’re merely replete, not stuffed. Almost unheard of with an Indian feast menu, and pleasant indeed. It means full appreciation is afforded to a similarly-refined trio of gulab jamun, warm almond halva and silky chestnut ice cream, even leaving room for bang-on liqueur coffees. Very nice it feels too.

It’s a rare treat to experience a menu that’s so well-judged in terms of balance, pace and portioning. Being two of the capital’s greediest gannets, we could complain there wasn’t enough. Except there was, and every bit was a quality morsel worthy of sufficient savour. In a world of restaurants where diner demand dictates that ‘quantity’ more and more stands in for ‘quality’, Moti Mahal bucks the trend. All killer, no filler.

Roti Chai’s Monday supperclubs

Roti Chai

‘This one will get you in a sweet mood’, Hindustani saxophonist Jesse Bannister assures. Good- I need a dose of sugar after a slurp of the companion’s exceptionally tart Nimbu Sour, seasoned liberally with black salt. Yum, yum, and thrice yum. Coupled with the chaat masala-sprinkled plaintain chips, it makes for a very merry welcome to Roti Chai’s weekly Monday supperclub.

My own ‘Gulab’- a rose petal vodka and lychee decoction- is slipping down a treat, too- almost as smooth as the Indian-style jazz set Jesse and guitarist Juliano are opening the evening with. This week’s event is in conjunction with the London’s Darbar Festival, the ‘Indian soul’ menu offering a range of traditional soul-food dishes- Indian comfort eating, if you will. Great for a cold, miserable evening like tonight.

If you’re unfamiliar with Roti Chai, think ‘Dishoom-lite’. A great escape from Oxford Street’s haphazard pedestrians, it’s felt little of the foodie hype of its near relative, yet delivers the same sort of no-nonsense menu and a level of studious ’undesign’ that’s funky rather than funking annoying. A brief scurry from Selfridges, it’s also rather too central to have your vista spoilt by a hipster’s latest asymmetric hairstyle.

In the downstairs dining room, the vibe is moodier than the canteen styling of the ground floor. Train carriage luggage racks, murky rivet-studded mirrors and bare light bulbs nod at shabby without going the whole ‘peeling-wallpaper’ hog. The ‘supperclub’ tag is perhaps rather gimmicky- really just a trend-led term for owner Rohit Chugh’s themed set menus offering diners the chance to sample a bit of quirky ‘India modern’ at a healthy price.

Roti Chai

We start with pani puri (a ‘girly dish’, declares the male companion, although was he that chose it). We sluice the stuffed crispy shells with tamarind water from the accompanying jug and shove ‘em in in a single bite- a serviceable classic. My own haleem is lovely- the lamb in the rich meat-and-wheat hotchpotch unusually kept chunky. Rohit says it suits London diners- unlike the invalids and toothless rulers dishes like this or galouti kebabs were designed for, most of us have our own teeth and prefer a bit of texture.

I’ve had my meat, then, and my soul’s crying out for a bit of roughage. So the ‘Punjabi duo’- spiced chickpeas and aloo gobi- is a no-brainer. The latter is surprising both in its use of potato wedges and the liberal sprinkling of viciously hot green chillies that lurk ready to ambush my wuss-y palate. The vibrant green sauce of the murgh saagwalla has picked up a pleasing smokiness from the tikka-d chicken, and plain, homestyle yellow daal, rice and roti keeps the whole meal earthy and, yes, soulful.

I like a ‘proper’ pud, so the Qubani ka Meetha edges out over mango kulfi only on the promise of a blob of clotted cream-like malai. I don’t even like apricots. Bah. Oh, hang on, turns out I do. These are soft, stewed in a chai-spiced syrup, and punctuated with the bitter kernels. The boy’s kulfi-on-a-stick is pleasant enough, but I’d prefer another Triple Charge cocktail- which tastes like nothing so much as a melted, old-fashioned Rocket lolly.

Supperclub, theme night, set menu, call it what you will- Rohit’s hit upon a nice little series of foodie evenings. If you’re up for a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour and witty fusion-confusion the ‘Masala mac’-yes, an Indian spin on macaroni cheese- evening will come as a welcome treat, whilst weeks devoted to Diwali and Christmas get the festive spirit flowing. What the Samsara- ‘cycle of life’ menu will deliver is anyone’s guess- chicken and egg dishes, perhaps?- but that’s all part of the fun. Roti Chai– one to try.

Salaam Namaste’s Delhi regional menu

Salaam Namaste

It’s been almost a year since I visited the chaotic, crazy, captivating Indian capital and I’m feeling nostalgic. Especially since the Grande Dame of Indian home cooking, Madhur Jaffrey, has just made a rare London appearance at the South Asian Literature Festival, and I wasn’t there to see her. Madhur’s autobiography, ‘Climbing The Mango Trees’ is full of delectable Delhi reminiscences- home-style chicken stews, the most artisan of breads, and the snack-y treats so beloved of the diverse people of the city that never stops.

So when Sabir Karim decides Delhi is where we’re headed with the latest monthly menu in his year-long regional series, I can’t RSVP fast enough. Salaam Namaste is an unassuming joint in the quiet Bloomsbury backwaters, about as far from the frenetic bustle of Chandni Chowk or Chawri Bazaar as you could conceive. It’s also a smidgen more conducive to a wine-soaked leisurely lunch than the squat-and-gobble street stalls that proliferate in the subcontinent.

North India is known for having a wicked way with meat. Despite large numbers of Hindu vegetarians, the Mughul influence dating back to when the city was known as Shahjahanabad is equally in evidence. Modern Delhi boasts a cosmopolitan cuisine, with foodie residents chowing down on anything from top-end Italian to Chinese noodles. But we’re here for the city’s finest- kicking off with succulent, green-spiced chicken kebabs.

Lamb chops aren’t quite as large or as tender as the Pakistani whoppers you might have encountered at Tayaabs or Lahore, but nonetheless, the combination of the stronger ‘garam’ spices and the savour of the meat is a winner. The arrival of Amritsar-style Kingfish steaks and grilled prawns tenderised with the fabulously tartness of raw mango rapidly turns the starter course into a Delhi-style surf’n’turf.

Veggies are given a look in- a street-style chaat of chickpea-and-chutney-strewn spiced potato cakes doffs its hat slightly to the fruits of the earth, but mains offer yet more carnivorous pleasures. Dhaba gosht is a well-spiced, simple lamb dish, akin to the humbly tasty stews you’d find at an Indian truckstop. Lamb raan takes its inspiration from that legendary Delhi purveyor of tandoori cooking, Bukhara– the rich shank meat served on the bone rather than the shredded-in-a-bun version proving so popular at the new Dishoom.

Salaam Namaste

Moti Mahal has widely been considered one of the city’s premier Mughlai-style restaurants for over half a century, responsible for the creation of the luxurious butter chicken now loved everywhere from Delhi to the curryhouses of Dundee. Salaam Namaste’s is rich and sweet as a dish fit for kings should rightfully be, a fitting ointment for buttery, tender naan like that which first appeared in the Imperial Court in 1300AD.

Paneer is a meek ingredient, celebrated for both its clean purity and ability to take on myriad flavours. The whole spices used alongside red chilli in the Kharey Masaley imbue it with a pickle-like flavour, cutting through the riches of the heavier preparations. The Mughals were also responsible for the introduction of the ‘Yakhni’ technique- cooking in stock, and our pilau has benefitted from a highly savoury immersion.

It would be ludicrous to pay a visit- in reality or vicariously- to Delhi and not make the pilgrimage to Parathe Wali Gali- the avenue so well-known for its breads it’s named for them. Although savoury versions are better known in England, most people are familiar with the coconut-and-fruit filling of a Peshwari naan- testament to the pairing of soft, savoury dough and sweet, sticky filling. Here, rabri-a highly reduced milk grainy with tiny milk solids and redolent with saffron, cloaks wedges of wheaty paratha.

It’s a tasty end and fitting euphemism for Delhi itself- a city of contrasts; the old and the new; the sweet and the bitter; the madness and the majesty. It’s a place that gets under your skin and stays with you, that asserts its memory in the most unlikely of circumstances. And here, in those quiet Bloomsbury backwaters, Salaam Namaste’s regional menu has managed to evoke the metropolis.

Darjeeling Express’ British Raj supperclub

Asma seated

Elbow room? Yes, that’s lacking. But what I’m more concerned about is just where my growing gut is going to expand to. 40  hungry diners squished into the diminutive School of Wok is all well and good, but none of us accounted for the fact Asma Khan was planning to stuff us to the very gunwales with her British-Raj themed, multi-course Indian feast.

Although it’s not fully Bacchanalian- we’re chastely sipping Nimbu pani- described underwhelmingly as ‘Indian lemonade’ but tasting of much more than that affords. We Brits have been honing our national palate to be spice-receptive since the East India Company’s William Hawkins landed in Surat in 1608. Four centuries on, those flavours are every bit a part of our cuisine as Worcester sauce- which, incidentally, was also Indian-inspired.

Momos and kati roll

But Asma’s determined to share the lesser known wonders of her beloved Bengal- where the British established a base in 1698 Calcutta. Churmur chaat- its onomatopoeic name owing to the sound made eating it- is similar to the papri chaat so beloved to Mumbai-ites; a cold hotchpotch of potato, chickpeas, fresh herbs, chutneys and broken puri wafers. Ever generous, she’s served it both meetha- sweet, with jaggery, and namkeen- savoury, with the addictive sulphurous tang of chaat masala.

We’re zipping up to the Northeast next, for the momos hailing from Darjeeling in the cool foothills of the Himalayas. These divine dumplings display a distinctly Oriental influence, with the veggie version tasting almost spring roll-like. Katti rolls- fluffy bread filled with egg or chicken are wrapped burrito-style, but taste distinctly subcontinental- again, an interesting parallel with that Mumbai  favourite, the ‘frankie’.

Momos

Asma’s 1940’s-inspired recipes perfectly emulate the hybrid cuisine the Indian household cooks- ‘bobajees’- of the Raj were required to produce. Although borne of necessity, their clever re-workings of Brit classics would no doubt be considered today as the height of funky fusion – surely more than worth the fillip they often cannily elicited from their Memsahibs by exaggerating food prices on their daily shops.

One such example is the lamb chops which are disappearing with rapidity. Tender and smoky as only Indian meat can be, they nonetheless evoke that most typical British Sunday feast- the roast dinner- especially when accompanied by baked, dry-spiced cauliflower and coarsely mashed potatoes made vibrant with the uniquely Bengali touch of panch phoran.

Paneer korma

More ‘classically Indian’ dishes appear in the form of sweet prawn and paneer malai curries- ultra-rich from the use of the clotted cream-like malai. Asma’s used juicy hunks of chicken in the chaap- dressed with a curd-enriched gravy pungent with green cardamom- dishes quite possibly straight out of the ‘Indian Cookery Book’ penned by a ‘thirty-five years’ resident’ of the country and a regular fixture on many Raj households’ bookshelves.

Chana dal is simultaneously extraneous and most necessary- it’s soothing, somewhat mealy earthiness an essential counterpoint to the riches on our plates. However much rice is served it’s never enough- particularly when it’s cooked into an Armenian pilau, unusually flecked with dill, demonstrating just how diverse foodways can be. Elegant Bengalis are good at their breads- from multi-layered paratha to soft, puffy loochis, and Asma’s not bucked the trend with diminutive fried puris just right for swooshing through her signature tomato, prune and apricot chutney.

Fruit chaat

Puddings are understandably a triumph of the Raj kitchen- it stands to reason that a nation renowned for a galaxy of sweetmeats should have no problem selling their desserts to one collectively raised on the nursery pleasures of sticky toffee pudding, treacle tart and their ilk. Accordingly, cinnamon kheer is scooped from earthenware bowls with gusto- full of creamy ground rice, subtle spices and condensed milk comfort.

Chaat masala-spiked fruit salad is again once familiar and exceptional- a theme which has persisted all evening. The British Raj and its uncomfortable legacy may be an issue that divides opinion, but tonight we’re united in resounding favour of a clever celebration of a notable cuisine. Asma’s Raj cooking demonstrates the delicious results of two cultures colliding, fusing, and ultimately assimilating with great success- in the very least, in the kitchen and around the table.

Carom’s Green Saffron rice masterclass 

Arun Kapil

‘When this rice is done, the grains should be standing on end, begging you to eat them, almost dancing around the pan’, declares Arun Kapil, himself doing a fair spot of the latter as he jigs about eulogising about Green Saffron’s AAA Vintage Basmati rice. He and Carom’s head chef, Balaji Balachander  have got a biriyani on the bubble, to demonstrate why this particular grain strain is just so superior.

Arun is the animated founder of Ireland-based family company Green Saffron. With an Anglo-Indian heritage and a determination to reintroduce us Brits to the intense, fresh spices which whizzed over during the height of the spice trade, he’s heavily hands-on with sourcing, purchasing and blending the masalas Green Saffron is fast becoming so renowned for. And it’s not just with Indian consumers- Joel Robuchon, Heston Blumenthal and Richard Corrigan are all big fans of the brand.

Basmati

The unmistakable smoky, alluring scent of Basmati is pervading our nostrils as Arun describes the arduous 14-month trawl to discover the perfect rice strain in the Himalayan foothills. Although the Dehradun region is classically synonymous with Basmati production, it essentially now belongs to the multinational companies, and no longer holds quite such a cache. By contrast, Green Saffron’s rice comes from the Taraori region in the Northern state of Harayana.

Chef Bala is a fan, declaring Basmati to be like ‘a beautiful girl you are admiring’. He happily pays the premium for Green Saffron’s rice, but, since well-aged grains have double the yield of inferior products, he gets his money’s worth.  Ageing the grains for up to three years between layers of salt allows the taste to become sweeter and more intense, with a more pronounced bite. Neither Bala nor Arun believe it necessary to rinse their rice prior to cooking- a notion to which the formidable Cyrus Todiwala will attest.

Two bowls of rice are passed around- even dry, the difference is immediately apparent. Green Saffron’s sample is a creamier hue, with longer, thicker grains. Due to the minimal processing, well-aged Basmati holds the same GI value as brown rice, and this particular brand uses neem leaves- known for their antibacterial effect- as a natural storage preservative. Together with the known health properties of the spices in the garam masala Bala’s mixing with the rice, we’re going to be in rude health tonight.

Biriyani

Bala is preparing his biriyani in the Southern style known as ‘Nizwad’- a speciality of Andra Pradesh’s capital city, Hyderabad- differentiated from its Northern Moghul counterpart by lighter, more fragrant spicing and by cooking the grain and meat together rather than merely combining to serve. The dish is assembled in layers and cooked ‘dum’- allowed to steam under a sealed dough crust. Bala tops his rice with puff pastry, then pops the pot in the oven to allow the flavours to mingle.

The proof, they say, is in the pudding- or, as here, the biriyani. Despite the dishes’ high aromats and thick dollops of the traditional accompaniment of cooling raita, Green Saffron’s Basmati retains a voice of its own- and manages to shout pretty loudly. To many, rice is an everyday, dependable store-cupboard staple- but Arun’s on a mission to convince us it can be rather extraordinary. Well done, pal- I may not be a top chef, but you can definitely chalk yourself up one more convert.

Cinnamon Culture

Cinnamon Culture

Light, airy, elegant… Not words you commonly associate with an Indian restaurant. Rarely fitting epithets for the way you feel post-curry, either. But then, Manpreet Dhingra and Jiwan Laal aimed to open a venue anything but common and, with Cinnamon Culture, the duo are right on the money.

Housed in a former Bromley boozer, Cinnamon Culture’s bar still offers tired commuters and leisurely weekenders a place to gossip and graze, with a decent list of spirits- heavy on the whisky, as is the Indian predilection, skilfully crafted cocktails and bar snacks like spiced whitebait or grilled paneer- a cut above the ubiquitous peanuts of dubious provenance.

Provenance is clearly important, with the diverse menu rolling with the seasons and showcasing unusual ingredients like buffalo meat. The restaurant used to use ostrich, too, but Manpreet explains it’s been hard to come by since bird flu. No matter- goat vindaloo is a tasty option for carnivorous types, served with a crystal decanter of garlic vinegar and, despite a companion’s fears, authentically rich with cloves and cinnamon rather than searing hot.

Cinnamon Culture

In fact, if you’re game, there’s plenty in that vein, from Chettinad-style pheasant tikka to rabbit shami kebabs. But the food’s just part of the reason for trekking to deepest Saaarf Landaan- indeed, pretty much crossing the border into Kent. Workaday curryhouse just wouldn’t justify the trip- but Cinnamon Culture delivers the full classy decor/service-with-high-style package, stacking up the fine dining credentials alongside local French and Italian ‘faine daining’ enterprises.

It’s good- and rather infrequent- to see an Indian restaurant confidently placing itself alongside European-style peers, commanding similar prices and offering modern takes on classic regional cuisine without veering into cringeworthy ‘novelty’ territory. Again, Dhingra and Laal have succeeded. Papdi chat is re-imagined using sweet potato, served prettily in an oversized papdi ‘bowl’ and decorated with all the necessary chutneys; neat discs of paneer sandwich raw papaya chutney.

Seafood is another lure, an amoeba-like tangle of fried pastry shreds encasing impossibly sweet, tender scallops with grape and tamarind chutney. A seabass main is lightly cloaked in a creamy lemon and coriander sauce, the well-cooked fillets perching atop a mound of tasty broad bean kedgeree. Dishes are served with well-considered accompaniments, but a few side veggies, like the crunchy green bean foogath, are irresistible.

Cinnamon Culture Meen Awadhi

As we daintily nibble, a background soundtrack of piped jazz tinkles away- and, one Sunday a month,Cinnamon Culture holds a live jazz brunch buffet, worth a languid linger whilst you sup a pear & cardamom sidecar or a refreshing ‘Saffron Garden’ cocktail. Whenever you visit, don’t skip pud- the quality’s maintained with the coconut brulee or gooey cumin-spiked chocolate fondant.

And that’s just it- Cinnamon Culture manages to sustain the ‘high-end’ offering across the board, bringing Indian fine dining bang up-to-date without compromising authenticity- a goal currently achieved by woefully few restaurants throughout the capital- and indeed, the wider UK. Cinnamon Culture is a much welcome inclusion to the noble few ramping Indian cuisine up to the level at which it rightfully belongs. Namaste, guys, and cheers- see you at the bar!

Cafe Spice Namaste’s Khaadraas Club

???????????????????????????????

Today is suspiciously auspicious. Not only is it my dining partner’s birthday, but also that of the bloke behind us. And, to cap it all, it’s only Navroz (New Year) for the Zoroastrians- the Persian sect from which the Parsis of India descended. The Parsi community has a well-deserved reputation for enriching both culture and cuisine wherever they tread- and, since landing at Gujarat in the 17th century, their influence has spread far and near.

The fable of the Zoroastrian arrival in India attests to the riches the Parsis have to offer. Seeking refuge from a local king, he initially refused them entry, using a brimming bowl of milk to illustrate there was ‘no room at the inn’ for incomers. Cannily, one of their number reached over and sprinkled in a few grains of sugar, which dissolved without overflowing the bowl. His message? The Parsi presence would simply sweeten the local landscape- a message that’s proved more than true over time.

And that sweet Parsi presence is certainly being felt this evening, as we take our seats at Cafe Spice Namaste. Cyrus Todiwala and his wife, Pervin, are bustling about, warmly greeting guests with cries of ‘Navroz Mubarak’ before departing for their own festive celebrations. We’re left to toast the occasion with a pint of Cobra, a delicate decoction of coconut water, rum and rose, and a selection of the restaurant’s stunning own-made pickles.

The Parsis are a high-achieving, enterprising people, and the Todiwala family uphold those values. From his championing of goat meat and rapeseed oil in the kitchen, to mentoring other Indian restaurateurs, Cyrus has built a small empire attributed, in no small part, to faith, hope, and charity. The latter quite literally- notably through his involvement with the charity Find Your Feet. He’s also a typical Parsi in his dietary preferences- a devoted carnivore with a liking for refined, complex dishes like the famous dhansak.

Cafe Spice Namaste

The Persian lineage is writ large on the Parsi table- wide use of noble spices like saffron, use of fruit and nuts to enrich sauces and pilaus, and an intense love affair with the aubergine. Unusually for a religious group, abstention from certain foods is rare, with the exception of beef- a nod to the Hindus who originally provided sanctuary. However, symbolism is ascribed to certain items- for example, there’ll be no sign of the Parsi’s beloved prawns tonight- being ‘bottom feeders’, they’re too closely linked with death.

Instead, those of us of a piscine persuasion are treated to a toothsome hunk of white fish- its pleasant vinegary flavour a legacy of the Goan cooks’ influence on Parsi households, served atop a mound of wonderfully stodgy kitchuri, full of cassia and black cardamom comfort.  It wouldn’t  be a Parsi feast without an egg dish- ‘per eeda’, here steamed over a flavoursome keema before being steamed. Not a vegetable in sight, and none the worse for it.

A chicken jardaloo, full of dark, juicy meat, gains sweetness from Hunza apricots and a frivolous little crunch from the thatch of straw potatoes crowning each serving- an eccentricity thought to have been inspired by business dealings with Westerners. But the star of tonight’s feast is undoubtedly the lamb pilau- generous, genius, and downright gorgeous. Parsis won’t eat meat for three days following a death. I’m starting to wonder how they cope.

Given the Parsi propensity for bounty, I’m looking forward to a big old piggy pud. Not a word of it- but this dessert’s a textbook case of quality over quantity- and we Brits are to thank, at least in part, for it. Lagan nu custer- a thick, rich cream flavoured with powdered cardamom and nutmeg – is a hangover from British rule, and that nursery favourite, baked custard. With it comes a diminutive kulfi- dense, slow-melting and packing the most intense pistachio punch. It may not yet even be midnight, but this meal, along with the famous Parsi hospitality, has pretty much made my year.

Benares

Benares Chefs' Table

When a clearly straight, urbane waiter compliments you on your heels, you can’t help but love a restaurant. Especially when said heels are transporting you to the Benares chef’s table to gulp a fishbowl-sized gin-and-champagne cocktail and watch a Michelin-starred craftsman do his thing with an ocean of seafood.

Okay, not an ocean- but Atul Kochhar’s been down to Brixham and returned with a nice selection of tiny soft-shell crabs, their larger counterparts and scallops nothing short of humungous. He pops these monsters in a simple tandoori marinade, refreshingly devoid of neon colorants, and prepares a toothsome, coriander-laced lentil salad to sit them on post-char. The diminutive crab, meanwhile, is treated to a massage with a batter using rice flour for crispness and mustard oil for a distinctly Eastern pungency, fried and served with a salad of white crabmeat paired with- no, Atul laughs- not yellow cherries, but Lilliputian apples. It’s every man for himself as sampling is invited.

To the table, then. Dilemma- is it better to have a menu where you want to order each and every item, or nothing at all? My problem is resoundingly of the first category. Earwigging my fellow diners and calculating I’ll be able to sneak a few forkfuls, I decide to stick with the piscine option. Mackerel ki Kathi to start, followed by a dish which would probably have the moniker ‘Ocean catch’ in a low-rent boozer, but here goes by ‘Samudra Khazana do Pyaza’. High falutin’, indeed.

Benares starter

Atul’s got that refreshing attitude towards Indian cuisine- professing to have no real knowledge of the food of such a vast country embracing all religions, creeds and external influences. Indians, he says, have a wonderful ability to take whatever’s thrown at them and thoroughly ‘Indianise’ it- thus, the sub-continent eats omelettes thanks to the Brits and owes her love of chillies to the Portuguese. At Benares, Atul cooks Indian food his way- and offers, in his gentle, genial manner, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t come back!’

Good on him. The chef believes that a cuisine adapts according to the demographic, and that Indian food in the UK is less ‘bastardised’, more ‘augmented’ to the nation’s palate. Sadly, that’s  all too frequently reflected in bargain-basement curry houses, where enterprising Bangladeshis have mastered the tandoor and balti to cater to the boozed-up boor who knows what he likes and expects to get it without sticking his hand very deep in his pocket. A few more attitudes like Atul’s, a bit more regional pride, I reckon things could change.

And if ‘going out for a Ruby’ could one day mean eating off the plate currently set in front of me, the sooner the better. No sloppy brown sauces, no unidentifiable chunks of protein here. A mackerel fillet sits atop an ‘Indianised’ ratatouille and a sliver of crisp garlic naan, accompanied by an artful little ‘hard-boiled-egg-and- pipette-of-tomato’ affair. Green chutney’s always welcome- cutting the pleasant fattiness of the fish and piquing the tastebuds. Chicken tikka masala’s on the menu- hey, it’s a British-Indian classic- but this is a natty little pie topped with black and white sesame. See- it can be done.

Benares dessert

A startling agglomeration of seafood is presented next. King prawn? Surely I’ve got my neighbour’s lobster by mistake?! Nope- underneath nestles the scallop, marginally smaller than those beasties in the kitchen- a razor clam and a piece of squid. The ‘do Pyaza’ part is more like chunky tomato-and-onion compote- the decision of when and how much to apply left, gratifyingly, up to me. Slivers of gram-flour based missi roti are first-rate, but it doesn’t stop me hitting the bread basket running- Peshwari and cheese naans, roti, paratha… My dish is good, but the standout is to my right- lamb, baby artichokes and a legendary purple potato preparation. I manage a small mouthful without being stabbed by a defensive fork….Yup, that’s food envy right there.

Indian restaurant puds, runs the common consensus, suck. As The Mithai Addict, I beg to differ- but we’ve all suffered the indignity of the bought-in ‘Punky Penguin’, and wished we hadn’t. There’s none of that here- just good puds, tarted up with clever touches like shards of seed brittle or cumin marshmallows. Betel leaf baba lacks hallucinogenic effect, but packs an intense flavour punch. Rose and raspberry bapa doi unusually and ingeniously presents the steamed yogurt cut into chunks, and chocolate and peanut roll with jaggery cake and sugar cane ice cream just plain delights.

Okay, so for most of us, Benares is never going to be an everyday experience. But if a few chefs and restaurateurs at the other end of the spectrum could draw even a little inspiration and confidence in their cuisine from innovative approaches like Atul’s, the Indian restaurant industry would be in much ruder health… And those rude, curryhouse-dwelling boors would finally ‘phall’ into obscurity, replaced by customers who know their Assam from their elaichi. Atul Kochhar- a defiant, proud chef, refining and redefining Indian food to delicious effect.

Indian & Pakistani Global Feast supperclub

mapkins

Balls and tarts out on display in Stratford on a Friday night? Hardly a midsummer night’s dream, but not out of the ordinary, either. Okay, try this- a gigantic scale map of the UK has been erected in the courtyard of the Old Town Hall, functioning as the table for a series of world food dinners, aptly entitled Global Feast 2012.

The event is the joint brainchild of blogger and supperclub doyenne Miss Marmite Lover- aka Kerstin Rodgers- and globetrotting supperclub Latitudinal Cuisine. It’s all on offer, from Russian to Sichuan, but we’re here for a glorious Indian-Bangla-Pakistani fusion feed, rounded out with favourite-tipple-of-the-Raj G&Ts and rather fast and furious Kathak dancing from a duo of energetic young fillies.

Oh, and those balls and tarts? Despite the bawdy description, they’re nothing more than canapes- the former peppercorn-spiked chicken and cardamom koftas with mint raita, the latter a Southern-Indian spin on guacamole served in diminutive pastry shells. Like Pringles, all too easy to pop and not-so-simple to stop- especially when pretty waitresses keep wafting past proffering more.

Pukka Paki raita

So, where to seat oneself? Wandering the Isles and considering our position, we opt for North Wales. Nice. Up close, the table’s even more of a knock-out- adorned with origami flowers fashioned from aptly from maps, and a series of structures representing geological features which look like they’d be well at home in the ‘dinobones’ section of the Natural History museum.

Just as I’m about to start pounding my knife and fork on the table in a futile display of furious hunger, a plate of halved hard boiled eggs adorned with a Keralan tomato-and-onion preparation hits it instead, beating me to the destruction of Tenby. I don’t need any help demolishing the starter, though- cookery teacher and supperclub host Sheba Promod has done a stellar job. The main course is a joint effort, led by meaty morsels from Sumayya Jamil, also known as the ‘Pukka Paki‘.

Determined to differentiate Pakistani food from Indian cuisine, Sumayya‘s pulled out the big guns with rose-imbued garam masala lamb chops and a verdant, green-spiced chicken biryani, with a paneer version for the veggies. Cooked by Meena from Chai Lounge, a pretty legendary kadhi also makes a welcome appearance. South India appears in the form of tamarind-laced aubergines with peanut sauce.

Pistachio Rose

Already familiar with Rekha Mehr‘s talents, I’ve been waiting all night for dessert. With Gujerati-British heritage and the Pistachio Rose bakery, she’s on a mission to fuse elegant, French-style patisserie with the overlooked flavours of Indian sweeties. Which she does with great aplomb, setting before us a trio of tarts filled with dark chocolate and chai; milk chocolate, nutmeg and chilli; and white chocolate with sweet, fennel-rich paan. Pastry with panache.

Panache- also a particularly fitting epithet to describe the whole evening, actually. Some may dismiss Global Feast as a gimmick- but it’s undoubtedly a gimmick writ fabulously large and executed both cleverly and wryly. Any concept which shines a light on esoteric, unsung cuisines is alright with me. And really, where else can you sit off the coast of North Wales all evening and remain pleasantly warm and dry?

For more on the cooks, visit:

Namaaste Kitchen’s Olympic menu

Namaaste_Kitchen_restau

I have no tickets, I have no official merchandise, and what’s more, I have absolutely no inclination to spend my summer glued to a sporting event of any kind. But, like it or not, ‘the games’, like a particularly determined teenage boy, will touch us all in some way. And imbibing a rainbow selection of lassis and a hearty Indian feast is surely the least objectionable manner.

Namaaste Kitchen has taken the Olympic ideals and run with them (arf arf), offering a menu of balanced, healthful dishes alongside brightly coloured, themed lassis- each representing one of the five rings. As concepts go, it’s an easy sell- certainly easier to swallow than some of the misty-eyed, part-time patriotism exhibited by many of our fellow countrymen.

When it comes to lassis, though, no-one could accuse me of being a part-time patriot. So it’s the classic mango that takes the gold, with the pistachio a worthy runner-up. I’m not so sure of blueberry, a red cherry-pom-cran blend, or a startlingly inky blackberry and grape combo, but hey- they’re fresh, they’re fruity and they sure as heck are more fun than selling your kidneys for a lukewarm cup of The Real Thing at a packed stadium.

Those elite athletes are a fussy bunch, but I’d like to think they let their hair down and neck a few crispy-tangy-zingy pani puri now and again. They’d also enjoy the Goan mackerel, what with all that omega-3. I know I did. Chicken tikka masala might put the kaibosh on chances of beating that personal best- but at least Namaaste packs its version with organic meat and serves it alongside wild rice- aka the ‘worthy-but-worth-it’ grain.

I’m not sure what claims could be made for Lucknowi lamb shanks, what with all that unctuous, gloriously gelatinous meat, but it does make one feel in rather rude health. Healthy enough, anyway, to afford another few forkfuls of a fish quintet featuring seabass, mackerel, cod, tilapia and squid (there’s those rings again), packed with pak choi and sauced with a light coconut gravy.

The power of five persists with Namaaste‘s colourful dessert of ice cream served with rainbow fruits- mango, kiwi, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries- sprinkled with chaat masala (or farty salt, for those in the know). But don’t let that deter you. As all true Olympians would attest, even letting one go occasionally is perfectly healthy.

Bombay Palace

BP2

Arguably, everyone loves a curry. But, as any discerning fellow knows, there’s curry and there’s curry. There’s the huge vats of base gravy turned into sickly-sweet kormas; dull, derivative dhansaks; or vicious, volcanic vindaloos. Then there are scratch cooked, silky, butter-based sauces; bright green, spanking fresh herbal preparations; and thick, nut-enriched pastes.

And Bombay Palace are firm champions of the latter bunch. With a strong global presence and an excellent pedigree, August sees the welcome return of the restaurant to London. The original restaurant established itself as a high-end stalwart back in 1981, offering punters another, long-overdue option in the under-represented field of Indian fine dining.

Head chef Harjeet Singh earned his spicy stripes at legendary Delhi diners Bukhara and Dum Phunkt- and the influence is evident in the quality of the North West Frontier dishes on the menu. The standard stays with starters roaming the subcontinent; elegant mouthfuls of the well-loved street snack dahi batata poori; shikampuri kebabs with their pate-like consistency; and… what’s that coming over the hill, is it a lobster? No- just the hugest tandoori prawn ever.

Onto mains, a bit of a cabinet reshuffle required to do them justice. Green-marinated changezi champen lamb chops are a revelation for anyone fond of spiking their Sunday roast with mint sauce. Chunks of Goan kingfish are meaty morsels indeed, flattered into submission by tart raw mango and coconut; and juicy murgh makhni literally lives up to its unctuous name- butter-rich and smooth as silk.

As you come to expect from a nation with such a tradition of vegetarianism, vegetable dishes are both numerous and diverse. Shredded okra, battered and fried to an audible crispness, is a dish savoury enough to redeem the much-maligned bhindi, whilst tarka dahl is tangy, garlicky and tasty as you like. Karela may be a rather bitter pill to swallow, but Bombay Palace’s masala treatment takes it from astringent to astronomically good.

That tandoor works its magic on fluffy naans, flaky, potato stuffed parathas and the flavoursome, sunset-hued missi roti- an unusual treat on a restaurant menu. Although pud doesn’t venture into uncharted territory, kulfi comes as creamy and dense as you hope, and gajar halwa is served warm, oozing ghee and gratifyingly loose, rather than being compressed into the ubiquitous miserly disc of disappointment.

Glossy, muted glam and smart service puts the Bombay Palace experience up there with the likes of Tamarind, Amaya, Benares or Quilon- the few Indian elite who manage to pepper the good food guides only too lightly. The ingredients, technique, skill and expertise involved in executing Indian cuisine well can, and should, rival any Western fine dining experience. The new Bombay Palace may just widen a few eyes- and perhaps a few horizons to boot.

Carom’s ‘Indian summer’ garden

Carom

The summer’s turning out to be a damp squib. We, however, are tucking into perfectly dry, crisp fried squid, luxuriating in the warmth of a garden filled with palm trees. Yes, this is London, and no, we’ve not imbibed one too many Maharajah Fizzes- although the 200-strong cocktail menu is undoubtedly one of Carom‘s biggest lures.

As is the prospect of hanging out in a tropical climate furnished with flower gardens, lanterns and floating candles, propped up on a patterned cushion digging into Pan-Indian snacks. Particularly when it offers protection from the horribly erratic elements right through until the end of August.

The ‘pop-up’ Indian Garden may be attempting to evoke the debatable glamour of the days of the Raj, but Balaji Balachander’s menu is thoroughly modern- and, somewhat rarely for an Indian venue, confidently concise. Happily, the same can’t be said for the drinks list- a romp through the classics, as well as Carom‘s clever signature tipples- featuring ingredients you never knew you wanted in a drink.

Like the curry leaves in a Madras Margarita- which simply add a pleasant savour to the much-loved marg. The spices and exotics could well smack of novelty for novelty’s sake, but these drinks are well-judged, well-balanced, and well worth trying before casting judgement.

In common with nearby Imli, the menu focus at Carom lies with snacky, sharing dishes- making it an efficient proposition for a post-work, pre-shenanigans rendezvous. If you’re inclined to stay put for the evening, Carom has a more clubby vibe than its neighbour, with music until late most nights.

But, for us sensible types, it’s a schoolnight, so a brief pre-prandial dither in the garden is all we allow ourselves before getting ourselves some grub. That squid, unusually cut into half-moons, is spiked up pleasantly with a dunk into the accompanying salsa. It seems strange to eat it in a restaurant rather than on the hoof, but bhel puri is good enough to rival that from street food vendors Horn OK Please.

Prawns and generous hunks of paneer from the tandoor could benefit from a spot less charring, but hey, good on them. I’m just jealous that they managed to get a better tan than I will this summer. Rich dal makhani sopped up with wheaty breads and a pastry-sealed, aromatic lamb biriyani provide sorely needed bulk as we drain our glasses of the last drops of the appropriately-monikered Monsoon Season.

Warm, sated and lulled into a false sense of security by both the surrounds of the summer garden and a slight alcohol-induced haze, we step onto Wardour Street, only to be on the receiving end of a deluge from a passing rickshaw’s wheels. Forget schoolnight- within minutes we’re hudged up under a palm tree, another round of cocktails on order. As us sensible types do.

Namaaste Kitchen’s Jubilee Menu

Namaaste_Kitchen_grill

No matter what dizzy heights our ‘tropical’ weather might reach over the Diamond Jubilee Bank Holiday, a dollop of congealed Coronation chicken’s about as exotic as it’ll get at most of Queenie’s street parties. Do your tastebuds a favour, then, and skip the alfresco free-for-all in favour of Namaaste Kitchen‘s Jubilee menu. They’ll even chuck in a patriotic Union Jack napkin.

The debatable glory of the British Raj came to an end on 14th August 1947, when India finally gained her long-fought independence. Although human relations may have been less than convivial, the colonials had largely become deep and fervent fans of the native cuisine- a taste which was to pervade the British imagination back home, remaining undiminished right through to the present day.

Mulligatawny soup was, and is, an enduring favourite, the Raj rendition as far removed culinarily as geographically from its Tamil ancestor. Translating literally as ‘pepper water’, a fiery broth became a richly spiced, meat-based pottage, as at home in a bright red tin as on Indian restaurant menus from Edinburgh to Emsworth. At Namaaste, the mulligatawny is, indeed, almost tawny in hue- tarted up with slivers of chicken and quality Basmati. Nice.

Kedgeree might just be the best hangover cure ever- perhaps first realised by officers stationed in Calcutta after a night on that preferred Indian tipple, whisky. Starting life as Bengali kitchuri- a nutritious veggie dish combining lentils and rice, the addition of fish- smoked haddock, for preference, and perhaps an egg or two, turned it into a Raj gentleman’s treat. Sabir Karim’s version, meanwhile, is hearty with salmon and cod.

There’s more fishy stuff on the menu in the form of a decent mackerel Riechard. Although the Brits tried their hardest to deny the Portuguese presence in India throughout their rule, it was precisely this group of invaders they had to thank for the fiery seafood masala- as indeed for the authentic version of that boozed-up curry house favourite, the vindaloo.

The 1954 coronation was the perfect opportunity for newly returned and spiced-up memsahibs to demonstrate their nattiest store cupboard secret- curry powder. And what better way to please hubby than with a fruitily spiced, creamy sauce cloaking cold morsels of chicken? And lo, Coronation chicken was born, appearing on buffets from the ritzy to the low-rent ever since.

Mostly, admittedly, the low-rent end of the spectrum. So it’s with relish we tuck into the Anglo-Indian Captain’s favourite veal curry- tender meat in a sauce improving on, and clearly inspired by, the classic. And, contrary to the old adage, this is a dish best served hot. Masala lamb shanks also jazz up a hoary gastro-staple, and the ever-dire-sounding chicken liver pate delivers a coarse, meaty and thoroughly savoury preparation- a proper treat paired with grilled apple.

Bread and butter pudding may be perceived as belonging in the nursery, but historically it was a dish fit for kings in the Moghul Courts- under the alias of Shahi Tukra-where it was considered just a bit special. Fit for a Queen, one might say. For pud, I’m saying a warm ‘Namaaste’ to a nutmeg-gy, eggy Anglo-Indian hybrid, made all the more regal with a judicious application of pistachio kulfi.

During the Raj, we writers were considered somewhat disparagingly as mere ‘brush-wallahs’- impoverished, low status curiosities certainly not afforded membership to exclusive private clubs and parties. But I’m in at Namaaste Kitchen this Jubilee, mercifully spared the ubiquitous and dubious joys of bunting and cheese-and-pineapple on a stick. And that alone is accolade enough for me.

Bukhara pop-up

Chef_Manjit_S_Gill

I can’t stand the heat, but here’s no way I’m getting out of this particular kitchen. Not when Bukhara’s head chef JP Singh is busy threading mammoth prawns intricately onto five-foot skewers, and Manjit Gill himself is explaining the finer points of controlling fierce tandoor temperatures.

Delhi’s famed Bukhararestaurant has been a stalwart for almost 35 years, turning out the succulent meats and smoky breads so characteristic of Northwest Frontier cooking. Plus, of course, that legendary 18-hour black dahl. So little wonder I’m so chuffed to be privy to a cooking demonstration and sampling right here in Blighty.

The first floor of the Sheraton Park Tower has been given over to a fortnight-long pop-up version of Bukhara– the first restaurant to pioneer the concept of introducing Indian food to five-star hotels. Despite the setting and the fact the Delhi original has played host to a plethora of world leaders, there’s no ‘faihne daining’ rules here. Or cutlery, for that matter.

Bright gingham bibs are provided for those less adept at picking up tandoori morsels and dollops of that dahl with pieces of paratha, naan or roti. Cocky types can go without- but, caveat emptor, turmeric stains are a bugger to remove. The old white-wine trick won’t work with Bukhara Tea, either- a savoury blend of chai and whisky, strong on the cinnamon and perked up with orange slices.

Generosity of spirit extends from the drinks to the portions. Manjit explains that the average restaurant will offer a diner a scrawny 180g of meat. At Bukhara, your chunk of protein will clock in at a hefty 400g. Anything less will end up dry and unappetising. And it definitely won’t promote ugni.

Bukhara_-_Murgh_Malai_Kebab

Ah yes, ‘ugni’- the Hindi term for the digestive fire- or in layman’s terms, getting your juices flowing. And we all know the power of smoky, deeply pungent tandoor aromas in that respect. To Manjit, that pungency is the biggest part of the appeal- drawing a differentiation between ‘spiced’ in terms of flavour, and ‘spicy’ in terms of burning heat. He firmly dismisses the notion that food should ever burn in the mouth or the belly.

Manjit Gill comes across as a thoroughly affable chap with strong and somewhat maverick opinions. ‘All that stuff about marinating for 8, 10, 24 hours…. A load of crap!’, he asserts. Any longer and the natural juices are drawn out, the meat has less of its inherent character. JP Singh applies various thick ointments to prawns and chicken breasts, as Manjit explains that, post-marinade, all should adhere and little should be left in the bowl.

Tips include adding a little gram flour in fish marinades, and replacing infrequently-available malai with mild grated cheddar for malai murgh. Manjit sings the praises of pure Desi ghee, expressing infuriation over its mis-classification as clarified butter-consequently bad for the health- when in fact the wonderstuff is made from fermented buttermilk.

With the meat given its short, sharp marinade shock, it’s through to that red-hot kitchen, where the long skewers hang from a clothing rail. Not really, but near enough. Droplets of water dance and hiss as they hit the lid of the tandoor to cool the temperature slightly, then the skewers are lowered, excess moisture allowed to evaporate before the lid is sealed.

Manjit and JP allow the skewered items to cook halfway, then allow the protein to rest before finishing the cooking with a brief blast. A powdered green elixir- ‘kebab masala’, lemon juice and melted butter are sprinkled, then it’s onto the plate and served forth. Wham, bam, thank you Bukhara. Mint-sprinkled pudina paratha envelops creamy-rich chicken and perfectly toothsome prawns, heady with ajwain. Usually an ambivalent omnivore, I’ve come over all caveman.

Until the paneer comes round. Silky-soft with a texture almost of baked custard, each piece boasting a crisp, tangy crust. Star of the show- excepting, of course that dahl, which is meaty, unctuous, and a rare example of a signature dish thoroughly deserving every bit of the hype.

Manjit proudly claims that Indian cuisine has recognised the concept of six tastes for thousands of years- sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent and astringent. In India, people talk about food having ‘good taste’ rather than ‘good flavour’. The Sanskrit term ‘rasa’ refers to anything of quality, with exceptional taste. Bukhara? Definitely rasa. Manjit Gill? Resoundingly rasa. And me? Well, let’s just say both the chef and his restaurant have ignited the old ugni.

Shayona at the Neasden Temple

mandir_2

The incongruous splendour of the Neasden temple rising up from a nondescript London street is a sight to behold. Consecrated in 1995, the building covers 1.5 acres and is the largest outside India. By sheer serendipity, we’re here on a thoroughly auspicious day- it’s the birthday of both the temple’s namesake Swaminarayan, and Lord Rama. Celebration is in the air, along with the odd tantalising whiff from the mandir’s Shayona restaurant just across the bustling car park.

We’ve made quite a pilgrimage ourselves this morning, so it seems only sensible to get our hungry bodies fed before seeking spiritual nourishment. And one o’clock is definitely the auspicious time according to rumbling stomachs. Behind the attached superstore and cafe, the restaurant brims with tables full of huge multi-generational families and even huger multi-dish meals.

Joining us for lunch- well, after a fashion, is Krishna- one of Shayona’s founders and an all-round top bloke. He’s fasting today, but we mustn’t let that stop us- in fact, he’s insistent the two of us consume his share, too. A relatively modest order- Bombay bhel, a Rajwada thali and a masala dosa- quickly swells as he commands the kitchen staff bring aloo bhajia, spicy okra fries, chilli naan, a half-portion of mango lassi, just a little bit, a taste, please…

thali

And I’m always eager to please. Despite the vast quantity, the food goes down a treat. Tiny crisp pani puris are served atop a thimbleful of spicy mint water and gulped in one mouthful- shots for the sober. Bajri rotla, a millet bread consumed on ‘ekadasi’ fast days, is earthy and insanely moreish. Krishna insists it’s so healthful one can consume it with gay abandon. I let myself be convinced as I snaffle another piece.

Waiting on us is Tej, a Sikh. Krishna notes that Shayona strives to be inclusive and cross cultural barriers- and having Tej there helps symbolise this ethos. The fact he’s also a great host and jovial chap helps too. He presents my thali with a flourish- the tray groaning with dishes including okra and potatoes, kadhi, mixed beans and divine sweet lentil-filled puran polis.

The menu follows Hindu Sattvic principles, is free from onion and garlic, and the food is absolutely impossible to criticize. The restaurant is elegantly classy, with everything you see planned by Indian architects and interior designers and imported direct from the subcontinent. Shayona’s chefs and staff are volunteers, and all are unequivocally devoted to upholding the reputation of BAPS- the organisation behind the temple it supports.

sweetbox

Krishna is justifiably proud as he shares all this with us, telling us how the company grew from the ideas of a small youth movement 25 years ago, blossoming from food factory to fully-fledged restaurant three years ago. Casually, he lets slip that, along with his day job, temple activities and overseeing the restaurant, he happens to be climbing Kilamanjaro with his entire family in August. Blimey. His admirable motivation is to raise funds for a remote school near Mumbai. We’re fast approaching satiation, but this is food worthy of real thought.

Once we’ve digested Krishna’s altruism, he coaxes us to the sweet counter, plying us with honeycomb-like mehsoor kaju and chocolate bharfi. He also shows us his own favourite way to treat himself- carrot halwa and chickpea-flour fudge warmed up slightly and served with ice cream. Our growing discomfiture is dismissed with a brisk instruction to ‘find room in a different compartment!’ and somehow, rose-flavoured faluda, gulab jamun and rasmalai do indeed seek out a tiny nook.

Physical hunger displaced, we enter the mandir. Unwittingly, our entrance coincides with the bathing of the deity- and snaking single-sex queues line the corridors. Each idol is venerated with the presentation of offerings of food, which is then declared ‘prasadam’ and distributed amongst the faithful. In the year 2000, a grand total of 1247 dishes were offered as ‘Annakut’- a ‘food mountain’- to mark the New Year.

100_0814

Today, this takes the form of sweetmeats of every colour, shape and flavour- certain to appease even the most gastronomic god. The inscribed birthday cake set before each of the mind-blowing idols could almost be comical, but for the ever-present, palpable air of worship. The deities are ‘at rest’ for a given period each day, but happily, they’re wide awake for our visit, worthy of appreciation, if not adulation, by even the most secular.

The mandir interior is surreal in its intricate beauty, juxtaposed with the gaudy, gorgeous idols resplendent in finery which is refreshed daily. Each of the building’s 26,300 pieces of stone is an Indian import, and the pure white, carved stonework creates a solid foundation for a structure where use of metal is forbidden. It’s a place of awe, a place of community, a place of welcome- no-one bats an eyelid at the hapless newbies struggling out of their shoes and forgetting to declare car keys at the metal detector.

We leave with sachets of some alchemical herb, spice, and sugar prasadam and an uncommon sense of reverence for a fascinating enterprise benefitting followers, the underprivileged, discerning diners and just about anyone else who cares to visit and experience a first rate set-up. Seeing Shayona’s profits at work is a true feast for all the senses, in every sense. So hurry, Krishna, up that mountain- and I’ll hurry back to Neasden, post haste.

  • Shayona
  • 54-62 Meadow Garth, NW10 8HD
  • shayonarestaurants.com

Carom 

Carom_Restaurant

We’re treated like so many Shahs from the off, which is always nice. A table laden with cocktails greets us- with the appropriately-monikered Maharaja Fizz amongst their number. More often than not, ‘fusion’ and ‘cocktail’ are two words that have no business being in the same room, let alone sharing glass space. Curry leaves? Fruit chutney? You sure? As soon as you sip, though, all images of someone dropping your tea in your bubbly are dispelled. This works.

And food is no different. To the ambient strains of a languorously-strummed sitar, we scrunch pappadums into tangy pineapple chutney and gorkeri- a sweet, sticky mango honey-trap. Snacky, sharing starters are squabbled over; cream-marinated, succulent malai tikka; crisp vegetable potli; and top-drawer bhel poori- a beautiful, confounding sensory riot. Tandoor items- prawns and lamb chops- are crusty, smoky, primal.

Kerala_Sea_Bass_Curry

Flavours are all present and correct. Bang, bang, bang. Kewra scents the biryani so richly it smells like an Indian sweet mart when the dum phukt crust is pierced. Chat masala seasons squid with that distinctive, addictive sulphurous pungency. Butter chicken uses no such thing- this is sinfully, rightfully laden with pure ghee. There’s a little more of that fusion in a green bean and water chestnut poriyal- combining a Tamil cooking technique with the produce of the Himalayan foothills to great textural effect. Inspired.

Goan beef sukha, Keralan sea bass curry, green-marinated salmon hariyali- our culinary romp across the subcontinent continues. Breads are fluffy, chewy and perfectly placed for scooping up almost meaty dahl makhani. This is palatary dynamite, delivered by far more than simple chilli heat. Complex nuances abound- musky tumeric, the citrussy bite of curry leaf. Aromas, textures and tastes are, quite simply, consistently and resplendently on the money.

Desserts are almost superfluous- and that coming from someone who would often happily forgo a main course for an extra helping of pud. Nonetheless, pistachio kulfi, mango and cardamom brulee and a and fennel-spiked bread pudding- a riff on the classic shahi tukra- are all devoured. With a final swipe of a finger through the ginger custard, a meal fit for any Maharaja comes to an end. The sitar plays on, but this food speaks for itself.

Dishoom’s Holi menu

Dishoom

‘Hooray, hooray, it’s a Holi, holiday!’… For the uninitiated, Holi is one of India’s maddest, most colourful festivals- a chance for mad March hares to fling brightly coloured powders at one another, eat copiously and brilliantly, and in general, just have a rum old time.

At Dishoom, the rum makes an appearance pretty smartly. The self-styled ‘Bombay cafe’ is celebrating with aplomb, starting with ‘Naughty Holi lassis’ made sinful with spirit. A trio of pigmented powders- yellow banana-citrus, green pineapple-pepper, and pink strawberry-ginger- are supplied alongside, to be judiously added by the drinker to achieve the desired shade.

‘Judicious’ being the operative word. My willful companion takes no heed of our waiter’s caveat emptor, ‘if you ruin your lassi, it’s your fault’, and proceeds to do just that. I opt for a tasteful dose of banana-citrus, and am rewarded with the flavour of the medicine I had as a child. Make no mistake- that’s a compliment. For a bottle of that stuff, I used to go out of my way to get ill.

Thankfully, there’s nothing hands-on about the HoliBollyBellini, and the tasty Prosecco-topped lychee, rose and raspberry concoction is safe from any more meddling. We’re less sold on the spherified pearls on top. They do look pretty bubbling away. I’m just not sure on them popping in my mouth. ‘Dishoom‘ is literally an onomatopoeic sound effect, and could be employed to great effect to describe this sensation.

What I do enjoy popping in my mouth are little spoonfuls of the bhel- one of Chowpatty Beach’s best-loved snacks. It’s a scrunchy, munchy mix of puffed rice, coconut, pomegranate seeds, herbs and zesty tamarind chutney. Like revenge, a dish best served cold. Pau bhaji, on the other hand, is hot- a spicy, tomato rich vegetable puree perfectly engineered for scooping up with soft white rolls, or, as here, toasted muffins.

The main feast arrives in quick succession, obscuring the tabletop with dishes. There’s a thick, well-chilled raita, a biryani, house black daal and paneer besimal. To mop up we’ve opted for garlic naan and roomali roti- soft and wonderfully pliable although, to my chagrin, made with white flour rather than atta. A minor complaint, though, when it’s loaded with daal as rich and savoury as any Baluchi dish.

Dishoom lassi

The paneer in the besimal benefits from a smoky grilling, served in a smooth garlic and dill sauce. Biryani is the only let down- there’s evidence of it’s dum crust on the edge of the dish, but it’s been cooked a little too long, rendering the rice a tad mushy. A shame when otherwise the gentle spicing is well-judged and flavoursome- this dish should be the star of the show.

Pudding is a hearty serve given the preceding banquet. Pineapple and black pepper crumble arrives in individual dishes with almost cauldron-like proportions, crowned with a scoop of intensely spicy, dense cinnamon ice cream. Praiseworthy indeed, although the chunks of fruit in the crumble need cooking down so they offer unctuous goo, not fibrous crunch.

The smiley staff aren’t finished with us yet, though- delivering a small katori of chocolate barfi and tumblers of peppery masala chai, intense with the delicious tooth-aching sweetness of condensed milk. The mithai are so good I ask for their supplier- unsurprisingly, it’s that fine confectioner Ambala.

I’m also treated to a few of the staff’s other festive food-related recommendations- and the consensus seems to be that the real cream of the crop is to be found in the subcontinent. But then again, by staying put and celebrating Holi at Dishoom you’re far less likely to ruin your fancy threads- and you too can have the chance to ruin- ahem, colour- your very own lassi. Just remember, less is more.

  • Dishoom
  • Shoreditch: 7 Boundary St, E2 7JE
  • Covent Garden: 12 Upper St Martin’s Lane, WC2H 9FB
  • http://www.dishoom.com

Namaaste Kitchen’s Goan regional menu

Namaaste_Kitchen_grill

In London terms, it’s been a pretty mild February. If you’re a foolhardy type, you could just about get away with shirtsleeves in the sun. But the mercury is definitely higher in Goa- with regard to both climate and cuisine- and it’s that very region we’re off to tonight.

Culinarily speaking, that is. March sees Namaaste Kitchen and its sister venue, Salam Namaaste, roll their regional feast menus out West, where the weather’s hot and the cuisine is hotter. In Goa’s 50-degree heat, eating spicy food facilitates perspiration, perversely cooling you down, but here in Camden it’s just plain palate-searing.

So much so that I develop a strange vocal wobble instigated by an over-enthusiastic dollop of green chutney, making me sound remarkably like a pre-pubescent boy. Not a good look. A gulp of ‘Indian tea’- an innocent-sounding concoction of gin, blackberry and lychee- and balance is thankfully restored. But I’m undeterred- indeed, my enjoyment of the aforementioned relish renders me largely silent until the pickles are cleared away.

The menu is heavily proteinous- almost dauntingly so for a confirmed veg lover like myself. Luckily, Goa’s West-coast location means a wealth of fishy dishes, too- much more my bag. But from the off, I’m won over by a celebratory dish of meaty-yet-delicate, karai-fried beef and tongue- a twist on the classic celebratory dish ‘sorpotel’, which traditionally uses pork.

I’m looking forward to the grilled Mackerel Riechard and it doesn’t disappoint, showing a distinct Portuguese legacy in its use of chilli, garlic and vinegar. The four centuries of colonial rule are also evidenced in Galina peri peri- spiced chicken thankfully far removed from its ubiquitous high street counterpart.

Namaaste_Kitchen_restau

We’re delivered a selection of mains to fight over amongst ourselves. Gallina Cafrael, a whole green-spiced chicken leg with coconut chutney, requires one of us to reluctantly attempt to play Mum. Give it up, Ma, you’ll never please everyone- those pieces aren’t even! Other dishes are easier to divvy up, including gargantuan prawns in the Samarein Chi Kodi, served with a dried prawn balachao sauce.

That green chutney just can’t keep away from me- making a reappearance as the masala in a lively chicken curry. Lamb Xhacutti provides a rich foil for that herbal spicing, with its thick, aromatic peanut and sesame sauce. In fact, the entire menu delivers a multitude of tastes and textures, unsurprisingly given Goa’s own diverse cultural spectrum.

The trouble with a really good meal is knowing when to stop. That belt-loosening moment is fast approaching, yet delicious food remains a mere fork’s length away. What’s a diner to do? Take a deep breath, a vow of a long run and another hearty portion. I repeat the mantra as we struggle to do the feast the justice it deserves, hoping the ‘Cool As A Cucumber’ cocktail I’m sipping will imbue me with the same outlook.

Flavours continue to pique the palate; dry and smoky notes in the mushroom Amo-tik with its buttery-smooth sauce and crumbled paneer; tangy, slightly bitter tastes in the fenugreek and mustard cod Mashali Caldin. Rice is a simple and particular joy- fluffy-grained, ramped up with curry leaves, coconut, mustard seeds and a healthy dash of ghee.

Finally, we admit defeat. Namaaste Kitchen founder Sabir Karim pops out of the kitchen to hear the verdict, and hide a small knowing smile at our greedy discomfiture. The practically empty dishes speak for themselves, as do the small beads of sweat erupting on a few foreheads. Goa’s volcanic, enticing cuisine successfully recreated in North London. Now let’s have some of that weather.

Bombay Brasserie

Bombay Brasserie

Being more-than-familiar with Indian food havens like Ilford Lane, East Ham and Green Street- where bountiful Gujerati thalis and Keralan feasts are never more than two doors away, we were always going to be a tough audience. We arrive with big expectations and bigger appetites. Seated like Maharajahs in the chandelier-laden room at a table dressed as well as our fellow diners, we’re raring to go.

The restaurant is HOT, facilitating the judicious application of a cocktail from an extensive, nicely eccentric list. The signature ‘Bombay Breeze’ delivers a tangy, tamarind-based refresher, whilst the ‘Wild Raspberry’ fuses the flavours of cucumber and gin with its namesake fruit- an unlikely combo that works a treat. In fact, the cocktail menu is scattered with gems- amongst them a Strawberry and star anise mojito.

So, to the serious business of eating. The ‘amuse-bouche of the day’ arrives- a Chinese soup spoon houses a tiny portion of chaat sat atop a single sliver of potato. It does ‘amuse’ me, in that, for £1.50, you could have your fill from any of the snack kiosks along Green Street- and for mere pennies on the subcontinent itself.

When you’re privy to this sort of information, you can’t help but baulk at the prices. That’s not to say there aren’t many who are willing to stump up- indeed, plenty are flashing the cash on an unsavoury midweek evening in February. What they get for the money is opulent surroundings, hyper-attentive service (so frequently are our water glasses replenished, we’re in danger of drowning by the time we leave), and food presented in a refined French fashion rather than heaped on a steel tray.

And it is nice to have a sommelier recommend Pinot Noir to accompany a lamb chop main course, rather than wash it down with the cheapest BYO bottle of plonk. The chops in question are garnished with tiny paper chefs hats- a gently comic touch which is echoed in the presentation of Baingan saraf- a spiced aubergine puree- which arrives in its own hollowed-out shell, its cap sitting at a particularly jaunty angle.

Halibut curry displays an uncanny resemblence to Heinz tomato soup, with a thicker, silkier sauce than is typically found in Goan cuisine- almost like a fiery bisque. The halibut has imbued the sauce with good flavour, but sadly the majestic fish is overdone. Sacrilege.

In fact, it’s all very smooth, rich and refined, reflecting the location and clientele. I’m not adverse to biting on the odd cardamom pod, but I’m guessing biting (and spitting, for that matter) are firmly off the menu here- after all, betel nut-hued saliva stains would be a bugger to remove from the plush upholstery.

Standouts include Paneer soola- smoky from the tandoor and a world away from the rubbery polystyrene bricks from the supermarket. Sandwiched with piquant lemon pickle, it’s the star of a platter of veggie starters. Also good is the Sev batata puri- little savoury biscuits piled with thin, crisp vermicelli, yogurt, spicy sauces and pomegranate seeds- a study in flavours and textures.

And, with desserts, there’s real mastery at work. An egg-rich Masala tea brulee works particularly well, but the real dish of the day is the Almond Medjool date pudding- clever, clever clever. All the flavours of the Indian sweet mart are distilled into a trio of marzipan-like quenelles, headily aromatic rose ice cream and a fennel and black pepper sauce. Modern fusion at its elegant best.

The kitchen seems to have its strengths in these snacky, snappy starters and dainty desserts. Perhaps it’s expectations being set overly high- but main course dishes just seem a tad lacklustre, marred by easily-remedied niggles like a burnt garlic garnish on otherwise note-perfect Lasooni palak; a herb puree so bitter as to be unpalatable; slightly mushy rice; or the still-crunchy onions in that aubergine puree- which doesn’t quite live up to its high-falutin’ presentation.

So, a curate’s egg- good in parts- but that’s not to say, as in the metaphor, that this renders it all bad. Not by any means- dining at the Bombay Brasserie is an experience, the food almost a supporting player. People come to clink crystal and have starched linen napkins spread across their laps as they’re served prettily-portioned dishes by a courteous team of serving staff.

It’s where the heat of Bombay and the glamour of 1930s Bollywood feel closer than the bleakness of London and the harsh realities of recession. I even find a diamante in the loos, no doubt an errant gem from some Desi-princesses’ gown. But I’m no princess, Desi or otherwise- so I’m afraid it’s back out East for me.

Advertisements

2 responses to “Restaurants

  1. Pingback: The Sunshine Award – and the Indian foodies that brighten up my day | The Spice Scribe·

  2. Pingback: Indian food adventures 2014 – a delightful digest | Culinary Adventures of The Spice Scribe·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s