The best city in the world for Indian restaurants, I think, is London. A bold statement, but one I have researched assiduously, as a glance at my waistline will confirm. Not street food – Mumbai or Kolkata might claim that crown – nor home-cooked food, the laurels for which should be divided between millions of Indian housewives, but specifically restaurant food, something at which London has excelled for 25 years.
Indian food in a pub, though, is still something of a novelty, despite the British tradition of drinking copious amounts of beer before and during Indian meals. Now Darjeeling Express has “popped up” in The Sun and 13 Cantons, in Soho, where chef Asma Khan will be in residence until next March, serving beautifully spiced food in a comfortable side room.
Snacks include Calcutta-style puchkas (panipuris or golgappas elsewhere in India) – crunchy shells filled with potato and chickpeas, drenched in tangy tamarind water – and crisp lamb samosas, with more tamarind and a chilli and coriander chutney. Main courses feature gently spiced khosa mangsho, a Bengali goat curry with potato, and tamatar gosht, a Pakistani beef and tomato curry with red chilli – neither especially hot, just perfectly balanced and well-flavoured. Vindaloo zealots will loathe Darjeeling Express; food lovers will adore it.
Back in 1990, Chutney Mary opened in the King’s Road with the revolutionary idea of having seven chefs from various regions of India, cooking their own food for a pan- Indian menu. It was as far removed from a flocked-wallpaper curry house as Le Gavroche was from Café Rouge, and it won legions of admirers.Chutney Mary has now relocated to a smart corner in St James’s, where Wheeler’s once was, and its glamorous rooms suit the area perfectly. Cocktails in the bar have a distinctly Indian theme – try the Rangpur gimlet – and the bar menu is extensive enough (squid bhajias, venison samosas, chilli cheese toast and several lightly spiced salads) to make it an ideal lunch venue.
Diehard Indophiles, however, will venture into the dining room. The menu features great chaat – Chutney Mary has never neglected street food – as well as more high-flown dishes, such as lal maas, originally a spicy mutton curry, here reinterpreted as osso buco and lamb in a complex crimson gravy; and kid gosht biryani, each grain of rice scented with kewra (screwpine essence), the meat tender and fragrant.
The Indian food scene has changed dramatically since Chutney Mary opened, but it is still one of the biggest cats in the London restaurant jungle – the Indian leopard, perhaps. It may have moved, but it hasn’t changed its spots.