In London, Flavors of India Without the Fuss
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MORE than 15 years ago, the first "upscale" Indian restaurants began appearing in London, including the now-famous Tamarind, which opened in Mayfair. The occasion was notable: in a city filled with curry joints, here was a white-tablecloth operation with Michelin star aspirations. It was eclectic, exciting, expensive and successful -- and yes, it got its star. It remains crowded and popular, and I don't have an unkind word to say about it.
Still, it isn't what I look for when I go to London. The great thing about the so-called "Indian" food scene here (I'm putting "Indian" in quotation marks because a more accurate term, I suppose, would be "subcontinental," which would include food from Pakistan, and the disputed land of Kashmir, among other areas) is that you can find it in every neighborhood and it's the genuine item. The white tablecloth spots are fine for people who are skittish about true subcontinental food. But those that offer the real deal are amazing, and frankly have more guts than those that cater to, well, a white-tablecloth clientele. And don't assume that good ingredients are restricted to the pricey places; every restaurant discussed here uses high-quality meat and vegetables.
For New Yorkers, and even more so for people from other parts of the United States, the opportunity to eat fine, authentic "Indian" food does not come often. Yes, there are such places, but they often don't last long, and, even more often, they stray from their roots in an attempt to cater to mainstream tastes. In London -- to use a British term -- brilliant choices abound. Here are four, more or less in order of my preference, though they are all very close. (One that did not quite make the cut, but which I will try again, is Malabar Junction, in Bloomsbury.)
Café Spice Namasté
Intricate, fascinating, different, delicious and unpretentious.
That should do it, though some details are in order. Café Spice in the East End has a casual, '70s, almost hippie-ish look, with bright colors and uniformed staff. It demonstrates not only how sophisticated real "Indian" (O.K., last time with the quotes) food can be, but how fine it can be, even in such a laid-back place.
Appearance aside, it is a terrific restaurant, very close to mind-blowing. The food was among the most intricate I ate during a three-week eating tour of Europe. The chef is the well-established and much-loved Cyrus Todiwala, at home with a variety of styles and able to discuss details of every dish at length.
Among my favorites were cheera wada, small patties of yellow split pea and spinach from Kerala; prawns, Parsi style, in a sauce of tamarind and sugar; and missal pao, mushrooms and chickpeas in coconut curry, served with crisp chickpea noodles.
Aside from the eclectic nature of the cooking, two factors stand out. First, the ingredients are superior. (You may be subject to a little spiel about the rare breed of pork or lamb you're eating, but it's worth it; British meat, when it's good, is very good.) Second, the menu includes Goan dishes, which are difficult to find elsewhere, and Mr. Todiwala's versions are wonderful. Goa, of course, was long a Portuguese colony, so you're likely to be presented with something you might find in Brazil -- like feijoada, replete with chorizo. Another excellent Goan dish showed up on the dessert menu: bebinca, a layering of coconut pancakes. Rose-flavored ice cream with cardamom was another winner
Café Spice Namasté, 16 Prescot Street, East End; (44-207) 488-9242; cafespice.co.uk. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about £50, or $77 at $1.53 to the pound.
This spot in Whitechapel serves Pakistani food, and, as my friend Jay Rayner, The Guardian's restaurant reviewer, says, it is "meat heaven."
It looks and feels like a cafeteria, although there's actually service. You can bring your own beer or wine (there is a package store next door), and you can see a neighborhood unlike any you'll find in the States -- one that's been home to a dozen of London's immigrant groups. Meanwhile, you can eat a magnificent lamb kebab, or quite possibly the best tandoori lamb chops you will find in the city (or perhaps anywhere else). Smashed thin, spread with a cumin-dominated yogurt marinade, grilled until crackly, eaten with fingers ... well, meat heaven.
There is more. Don't miss the dry meat curry -- so-called because the "gravy" is cooked long enough so that the dish is nearly dry, but the flavors are reduced and concentrated to the point where the flavor is astonishingly intense and the lamb ultra-tender. (I think there's a fair amount of ghee -- clarified butter -- in here; the dish fills you up in about five seconds.) There is also fantastic dal, especially the one with eggplant, and good breads. But everyone comes for the chops.
The place is tumultuous and usually crowded: City bankers rub elbows with women wearing hijabs. In fact, the atmosphere reminds me of nothing more than a Times Square deli, circa 1958: it's loud, there are sometimes lines, the food is more or less hurled in your direction. And everyone loves it.
New Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel; (44-20) 7247-9543; tayyabs.co.uk. An average meal for two is about £40, though that's because you'll over-order; you could easily spend less.
Maybe this is a Covent Garden tourist trap -- it sure looks like one -- but it worked for me: all-you-can-eat kebabs and curries served in a Bollywood atmosphere, filled with television screens playing music and movies, and, in general, noise.
The owners seem to specialize in kitsch. (They also run Chor Bizarre -- see below -- which would also meet that description.) But I actually found Sitaaray fun despite myself, in part that's because the food is so good.
You are --I was, at least -- kind of shocked when the waiter brings a menu and announces, "You can't really order anything, because we're bringing you everything." We were then treated to a version of the Brazilian steakhouse, where waiters bring, unbidden, a few things at a time, and return to offer you more, which you probably won't want, though there are a couple of dishes that beg for overindulgence.
First I was brought dahi batata puri -- crisp little chickpea flour pockets with potatoes, yogurt and tamarind -- and a lamb kebab with mint and chiles. It continued with grilled fish, also with mint, then moved on to amritsari fish, a Punjabi specialty done nicely: super crunchy and mysteriously seasoned.
There are a total of four chicken dishes, including an amazing tandoor-cooked boneless leg marinated in beet juice, which gives it the red color you might associate with tandoori chicken without the use of anything artificial. (This was so good that I eventually set up a time to go back later in the week to learn a few things from the chef.) There are also three lamb kebabs, of which I liked the seekh best, a straightforward stick of spicy grilled chunks. (One of the other kebabs is kakori: super-finely ground meat that was originally prepared, I've been told, so that men who'd lost their teeth could still enjoy it. I think it's the kind of thing you have to grow up with to love.)
There are vegetables, creamy dal and a good assortment of chutneys and raitas and pickles and whatnot. Desserts are à la carte; you won't need them, but the carrot halwa is unusual and lovely.
Sitaaray, 167 Drury Lane, Covent Garden; (44-207) 269-6422; sitaaray.com. An average meal for two is about £50 (considerably less pre- or post-theater).
If you think the heart of Mayfair is too classy for a crass commercial operation, think again: here is Chor Bizarre, just as wacky as it was in its original location in Delhi. A "chor bazaar" is a thieves' market -- what we'd call a flea market, although the ownership of the items for sale may be more dubious. This restaurant, whose name is an obvious pun, looks like a mock fancy antiques store, and everything can be bought, at a price. Most of the tchotchkes are fun to look at, including the four-poster bed frame that dominates the room and serves as a table.
Chor Bizarre doesn't take itself too seriously, and the generally pan-subcontinent food, which ranges from Pakistani to Kashmiri to Keralan, is very, very good. The menu is vast (the wine list isn't bad, either), and it would take four people five visits to get through it all. I've been twice to the London location and twice to the Delhi original, where the menu is pretty much the same, and I've accumulated some favorites.
Though most of these restaurants -- clearly understanding their clientele -- focus on meat, dal is at or near the heart of much of India's cooking, and Chor Bizarre serves the most delicious and authentic dals that I've ever had in the West. Dal makhni (black lentils with tomatoes and cream) is especially dreamy; pindi chhole (spicy, sour chickpeas, the sourness coming from dried mango), is addictive. A couple of other vegetarian dishes: baghare baingan -- eggplant with tamarind and sesame -- shows yet another side of the world's most delicious vegetable. Zeera aloo, a spicy potato dish, is equally enjoyable.
There is, of course, meat: a tandoor platter is ideal for four, a Keralan chicken-coconut stew is sweet and rich, and lamb yakhni, the yogurt-laced Kashmiri specialty, is oddly sour and a little sweet.
Chor Bizarre, 16 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, (44-207) 629-9802; chorbizarre.com. An average meal for two is about £60.
First Published February 12, 2012 12:00 am