Back in the early 1990s, when a young and impecunious Gannet was scraping a living making latex puppets in Spitting Image’s Whitechapel workshop, the highlight of my day was lunch at Tayyabs, the local Punjabi café. I spent many blissful hours there, before returning to work, where I drilled holes in fibreglass moulds of politicians’ skulls.
There were a few Formica tables, adorned only with jugs of water and saucers of green chillies, a short menu of hearty curries – “saag meat” was probably my favourite: lamb cooked with spinach and joyously aromatic spices, mopped up with fluffy naan – and mango lassi in pint glasses.
Tayyabs has flourished. It now comprises three adjoining buildings and offers a longer menu, glitzier decor and queues along the street. But the saag meat is still on the menu and as good as ever, as are the sizzling lamb chops, the daily specials (try nihari, robustly spicy lamb shank) and seductively silky chana dal. Tayyabs is a boisterous, great-value joint with excellent food.
If my taste for the food of the Indian subcontinent was forged in the tandoors at Tayyabs, it has been invigorated by all the places that have opened since. It was unthinkable back then that seven Indian restaurants in London would boast Michelin stars: Indian food belonged to curry houses and cafés, not temples of fine dining. These days, smart Indian restaurants abound.
Which brings me to Jamavar, just off Berkeley Square, the first restaurant outside India to be opened by the Leela Palace hotel group. It is a handsome room, apparently modelled on Lutyens’ spectacular Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, decked out in marble and mirrors, dark wood and ornate lighting. The chef is Rohit Ghai, formerly head chef at the Michelin-starred Gymkhana, Trishna and Benares, and his pan-Indian menu is outstanding: beautifully presented, but still punchy in flavour.
Witness kid goat shami kebab, scrupulously smooth in texture, fragrant with black cardamom, sitting in a glorious puddle of bone marrow-rich sauce, anointed with a blob of mint chutney and partnered with scrunched-up paratha, a magnificent version of a Mughal classic. Or chunks of lobster and aubergine in a sauce for chilli-dusted idlis, or Chettinad-style beef uppu, dry and spicy, served on uthappams, rice pancakes, or buttermilk-rich strips of guineafowl fried with curry leaves and served with mango pachadi, a South Indian pickle.
And there is Sindhi gosht: slow-cooked lamb with spinach, cinnamon and methi (fresh fenugreek leaves), soured with yoghurt. Wonderfully warming and piquant, with expertly crafted layers of flavour, it brings back nostalgic memories of the first “saag meat” I ate at Tayyabs all those years ago. I would happily award Jamavar a Michelin star for that dish alone.