Almost two years in London and I’m still not a big fan of Indian food. I have tried the food at both dive and posh places and yet, it’s not at the top of my list when it comes to ethnic cuisine. Personally, I prefer Chinese food anyday over Indian, but I think I’m in the minority here in London. Indian restaurants are all over the place but finding a good Chinese restaurant outside of Chinatown is quite difficult.
Where Indian Cuisine Reaches for the Stars
New York Times, By HENRY SHUKMAN, Published: March 4, 2007
DID the Indian restaurant, with its flock wallpaper and piped sitars and tablas, its biryanis and vindaloos, save British cuisine? It was in the ’60s that Indian restaurants began to proliferate, and four decades later, in 2001, Robin Cook, the foreign minister, hailed chicken tikka masala as a true national dish of Britain. Previously, there was only fancy French food out of the reach of most, and the bland boiled nursery yuck that generations of Britons had had little choice but to swill, and tell themselves they liked.
Haute Curry India gave Britain chutney, mustard, pepper, curry and mulligatawny soup. It gave Britain flavor. It even gave us Jamie Oliver’s trademark “pukka.”
I remember discovering biryanis as a teenager. They were an incredible value. Your rice and meat came mixed together, with a vegetable curry on the side — two meals in one, in effect. And so good. So profoundly did those meals enter my psyche that even today I only have to hear sitar music and it brings on a Pavlovian salivation, with olfactory hallucinations of cumin.
Britain is now as cuisine-obsessed as anywhere. Chefs are big stars. Food has become a facet of fashionable style in England. So where does this leave the traditional Indian restaurant, with its menu of rich, variously colored curries that come in mild, medium and hot, usually with a film of oil swimming on top, and its clientele that swells after 11 p.m. when the pubs close?
Whatever beneficent effect Indian cuisine had on the British palate has doubled back. There’s a new generation of high-end Indian restaurants that argue with plausibility that their cooking is just as sophisticated as any others, and why shouldn’t they too receive Michelin stars, as four in London have, including three of the five below.
To investigate this new Indian cuisine, I set off with a couple of old friends to where it all started — a traditional hole-in-the-wall.
Hot Stuff has been winning rapturous praise for nearly two decades, since the Dawood family opened it in 1988. It sits in a row of little shops on a side street in Lambeth, south of the river (where “My Beautiful Laundrette” was filmed). It’s tiny — two rows of plastic tables and chairs, a kitchen at the back with hip-hop keeping the cooks lively, and a front window decorated with frosted glass flames. The air is thick with cumin and garam masala, the blend of spices endemic to Indian cuisine.
Personally, I love a place that looks worse than it is — somewhere special in disguise. Run by Raj Dawood, son of the original owners, Hot Stuff was recently included in a Times of London Magazine survey as not only one of the best cheap restaurants in London, but one of the city’s best Indian restaurants in any price range.
“We do home-style cooking just like my mum did at home,” Mr. Dawood said. If he grew up with food like this, he was a lucky kid.
First, little dishes of tamarind, tomato and lime chutneys arrived, along with a bowl of papadum, the Indian restaurant’s answer to chips and salsa. Various starters followed: excellent king prawns in garlic and chili, on a small dollop of tomato and onion sauce; jeera chicken wings cooked in ginger and cumin, whose flesh melted off the bone, served in a tamarind and date sauce sweetened with blocks of raw cane sugar; soft potato and spinach bhajis.
Oil can be the bane of Indian meals. So can sweetness. As Mr. Dawood puts it, curries are meant to be savory not sweet, but today many Indian restaurants add fruit and nuts to satisfy the British sweet tooth. The main dishes here are clean, dry, free of the ubiquitous film of oil.
We had three: lamb dopiaza, a staple of Indian restaurants, made fierce with black peppercorns, along with sweet peppers; kehrala chicken, another standard, but with not too much sauce, so you could pick out the individual flavors of the ginger, coconut and curry leaves; and king prawn masala, made with black tiger prawns, rich with onion, tomato and coriander. On the side, a dish of butternut squash with spinach, in which the bitter and sweet elements went well together; and a “Bad Boy,” a huge thin nan bread folding off the edge of its oversize plate.
Clean, bursting with aromatic flavor, at £15 a head, or $29 at $1.99 to the pound, this meal would be hard to beat.
Amazingly, this Michelin-starred “Indian grill” in the heart of international Sloaneland, between Knightsbridge and Belgravia, somehow did manage to beat Hot Stuff — admittedly at three times the price.
Amaya is a whole new concept in Indian. As the proprietors explain on the menu, they don’t do either starters or main courses. All dishes are small, something like Indian tapas — though the gorgeous presentation is more reminiscent of sushi.
The design is more Manhattan than London, with black tables and leather chairs, dark floorboards and a glass-countered kitchen at the side, where you can see the chefs in action. Bowls filled with floating candles abound. The lavishness of a traditional Indian restaurant has been transmuted into an elegant chic.
We started with interesting nonalcoholic drinks: mango lassi with mint (a traditional yogurt drink), and lime juice flavored with the exotic spice vetiver. Four little pots of spices and chutneys arrived in a neat row — the aesthetic here favors tidy rows — to enable you, as my companion Alice put it, to customize your own curry. Except the food here is beyond curry.
Amaya is all about grilling. First we had rock oysters on the half shell, flash-grilled without oil on a tawa, a hot iron skillet, served in a yellow coconut sauce — maybe the best hot oysters I’ve ever had — and scallops, also on half shells, in a green herb sauce. Both were superb, and made me wonder why I’d never had seafood cooked with these cogent spices before.
Next, sweet corn and sweet potato kebabs, skewered and fired in the clay tandoori oven — something like mini-tamales, resting on a square of banana leaf. The sequence of small dishes offered many opportunities for attractive presentation.
Chunks of monkfish followed — fish tikka — cooked with fenugreek and leaf turmeric in the tandoor. The nuances of the spices were noticeably more delicate than in a traditional Indian place. King prawns arrived dark and spicy with chili paste, followed by grouper on bamboo sticks cooked on the sigri, a charcoal grill, and wrapped in pandanus leaf. We next tried the black peppercorn chicken tikka, succulent, tender, spicy, with a dab of peanut sauce on the side to counterbalance the fierce dry flavor of the black pepper, and chicken chops, flayed chicken wings smoky with charcoal.
The whole meal was delicate, subtle, aromatic — something like the best barbecue you ever had. With its friendly and highly informative staff, Amaya was well worth the high ticket.
The brainchild of the chef Atul Kochhar, Tamarind was one of the first Indian restaurants in London to win a Michelin star, in 2001 (which it has retained despite Mr. Kochhar’s moving on). It has a welcome station at the door, beyond which stairs take you down to the spacious yet intimate dining room, decorated with distressed mirrors and tended by a large staff in black tunics. A half-silvered two-way mirror allows you to catch shadowy glimpses of the chefs’ gestures in the kitchen.
The meal began with an amuse-bouche of vegetable soup in an espresso cup, then a plate of chutneys — green apple; tart, dark berry; and tomato and cardamom — with a basket of papadum. Our first courses were wonderful grilled scallops on a bed of tomato, black pepper and cumin, and a rather tart tamarind salad of firm plums, kumquats and green leaves.
The main dishes were tandoori grilled monkfish with a little dish of mint and yogurt sauce on the side — tender and just a little chewy, with a hint of earthy smokiness from the tandoor — and perfectly grilled sea bass fillets over a bed of crispy spinach, flavored with coconut and garlic. On the side, sautéed mixed vegetables — French beans, spinach, baby corn, asparagus, cauliflower, peas — and mushrooms in creamy tomato sauce with cumin, ginger and chili was a traditional Indian sauce to be sure, but subtle and compelling.
For dessert, a mango crème brûlée and big chunks of tandoor-grilled pineapple that had first been marinated in saffron, which subdued its sweetness, and appealingly caramelized at the corners, served with rose petal ice cream. Finally, petits fours of frozen mint leaves dipped in white chocolate, and chestnut pieces coated in strong dark chocolate, closed an excellent and not too heavy meal. We left with none of that old feeling of heaving oneself from an Indian table laden with unparalleled doses of grease.
Michelin stars are big business. Chefs jostle and hustle and strive for them, are made and broken by them. Vineet Bhatia won one at Zaika the same year Tamarind did, and after moving on to his own place, Rasoi, he has finally gained one there too after some mixed responses. Meanwhile, Zaika actually lost its star a year ago, but for many it remains a restaurant justifying its prices.
It occupies a large old bank in Kensington, with giant stone-mullioned windows and an eye-catching modern iron chandelier somewhat like a tractor tire — or, as my poet friend Hamish accompanying me suggested, a massive air filter.
Again an amuse-bouche arrived in an espresso cup: this time, wild mushroom broth, slightly spicy with cumin and green chili, with a lid on which a tiny chicken pakora perched — deep-fried with a mint and coriander sauce. Highly promising.
Having ordered the tasting menu (six courses for £38), we started with scallops — two seared wonderfully with sesame and onion seeds, and two poached with lime leaves, served with spicy mashed potato. Then came three chunks of sublime tandoori salmon, half-roasted, half-smoked in the tandoor (a little like bradan rost but much more succulent), after marinating in mustard and honey. A trio of chicken tikkas fired in three kinds of marinade followed — green herb, masala cheese and peppercorns, and pomegranate seeds, the last two strong and delicate at once.
Next came an ingenious combination: foie gras served on a mushroom and truffle nan bread, with mango chutney. The whole was rich and smooth, and argued convincingly that French and Indian cuisine can be happily married. Innovative and exquisite, it got me thinking that two things have elevated Indian cuisine: the pulling back on sauces so just the spices remain, and the huge expansion of varieties of protein.
Then came that uplifting moment beloved of diners in fancy restaurants, when there are suddenly three people at your table, because in the theater of food presentation the main players are about to enter. Particularly good were the coconut shrimp in orange sauce with lime leaves, and the rare masala duck breast over black lentils with celeriac and parsnip mash. Duck with garam masala spices? The meeting of the Périgord and the Ganges was again inspired.
Fancy restaurants are always part theater, but some are more so. At Benares, Mr. Kochhar’s new venture — with his being a TV star and the tabs at a level to preclude all but bankers and soccer players — the theatrical element is high. Perhaps that helped it win its first Michelin star this year.
A stone-clad foyer leads up a grand stairway to the restaurant itself, awash with pools with flowers floating on them. I have to admit I couldn’t suppress a nostalgic twinge for the plastic seats of Hot Stuff as I was encouraged into my leather banquette.
The menu opened with a gush of prose about the holy city of Benares, a place of particular spirituality, but isn’t there something just a little off about allying any kind of spirituality with such brazen conspicuous consumption? I must be a Puritan at heart.
The John Dory over Jerusalem artichokes was exceptional, and the starter of soft-shell crab with crispy fried squid and passion fruit over slices of blue Peruvian potato was imaginative, tender, stunning. This was by any account a great meal.
Yet by the time I left, I couldn’t help feeling just a little fleeced. The mostly young staff was overattentive and underinformed, and seemed to have half an eye on the door not to miss a celebrity’s entrance. And the bill was monstrous (over £200 for two). While the chicken tikka masala that we were urged to try may have been as good as the dish gets, it was still the old chicken submerged in a bowl of sauce.
And come to think of it, something else was missing, too. Something that has been missing from all these meals: the music, the resonant tablas and whining sitars inseparable from Indian food. I hadn’t heard it all week.
Did I miss it? Well, if I did, I could always go down to the local curry house. At one-fifth, or even one-tenth of these prices, it’ll be there a good while yet, I suspect.
Prices are per person, without wine or tip.
Hot Stuff, 19 Wilcox Road, SW8; (44-20) 7720-1480; www.eathotstuff.com; £10 to £15, about $20 to $30 at $1.99 to the pound. B.Y.O.B.
Amaya, 15 Halkin Arcade, Motcomb Street, SW1; (44-20) 7823-1166; www.realindianfood.com; £30 to £50.
Tamarind, 20 Queen Street, W1; (44-20) 7629-3561; www.tamarindrestaurant.com; £35 to £50.
Zaika, 1 Kensington High Street, W8; (44-20) 7795-6533; www.zaika-restaurant.co.uk; £35 to £50.
Benares, 12a Berkeley Square House, W1; (44-20) 7629-8886; www.benaresrestaurant.com; £50 to £75.