Why do so many Indian restaurants lack atmosphere? There are slightly scruffy curry houses and solemn, Michelin-starred dining rooms: in both, the food may be exotic, but the experience can be dull.
A few places, however, fall between the flocked and the formal. One such is Bukhara (second picture) at the ITC Maurya Hotel in New Delhi. Here, dishes from the North West Frontier are heaped on cloth-free wooden tables, cutlery is eschewed in favour of giant naan breads, and diners feast as though they have just tethered their elephants outside a Mughal tent.
Try the richly flavoured sikandri raan: spiced leg of lamb braised with vinegar, then threaded on a long skewer and burnished in a tandoor. It’s perfect with dal Bukhara: black urad dal simmered with tomatoes, ginger, garlic, butter and cream.
Delhi’s favourite street food – gol gappa – is rather lighter. It consists of a crisp shell of deep-fried puri filled with chickpeas, potato and tamarind, and topped with spiced water. The idea is to eat them whole, in one gushing mouthful, flooding the senses. My record is a dozen.
They are also on the menu at Gymkhana (first picture), a new Indian restaurant on London’s Albemarle Street, whose design harks back to the days of empire: dark-wood booths, cricket memorabilia, ceiling fans and hunting trophies. Unusually, downstairs is just as convivial as the ground floor.
The gol gappas are superb, with a jug of the sacred liquid on the side. The menu leans towards game: keema naan stuffed with venison, for instance, with a big hit of green chilli, tempered by cumin-spiked cucumber raita.
Raan is here, too, in the form of a leg of goat – at £75, it’s presumably enough for four. Instead, I ordered the wild-muntjac biryani, cooked under puff pastry, dum-style, and a perfect version of this dish: every basmati grain separate and fluffy, the venison well-spiced and tender and the heady aroma of kewra (screwpine essence) perfuming each forkful.
And the suckling-pig vindaloo, in true Goan style, was more pickle than curry, lavishly seasoned with garlic and vinegar. The wild tiger prawns? Huge, sweet and distinctly perky. And the sleekly comforting chicken-butter masala, another Delhi dish, was reminiscent of the butter chicken at Moti Mahal in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj district, and about as nobly removed from chicken tikka masala as a maharaja from a street urchin.
My only regret is that I did not have room to try the whole menu; that, however, is something I shall rectify on future visits. Now, who wants to share the goat with me?