It’s all the Raj: the rise of posh curry

Cheap-as-chips beer and vindaloo at your local curry house is becoming a thing of the past

Wine & Food

20 Sep 2017

A couple of years ago, our local curry house closed its doors for a few days, then reopened with a new chef, new menu, new general manager, new wallpaper and new prices.

On our next visit, we asked for the normal ‘two chicken jalfrezis, one pilau rice, dal, spinach and three poppadoms, please,’ only to be told that jalfrezi was no longer available. We hardly had time to recover from the shock before a waiter presented us with an amuse-bouche served in a hideous little egg-cup contraption.

Yes, dear old Kishmish on the Fulham Road (always packed when Chelsea played at home) had gone all posh, offering cocktails, ‘chef’s specials’, awful descriptions of the wines and prices that had doubled overnight. Six months later and Kishmish is no more. Or, at least, it has closed the restaurant and now operates a delivery service from new premises on the Fulham Palace Road. We, along with hundreds of hungry Chelsea fans, are, at the end of the day, gutted.

I should have warned the restaurant. Actually, I did but no one listened. I suspect the owner’s head was turned by the rise and rise of the British upmarket Indian without taking into account that the only place where they survive for more than five minutes is Mayfair and its immediate environs.

That’s why Chutney Mary moved from the not terribly smart part of the King’s Road to St James’s Street, where diners aren’t too bothered when a garlic naan costs a fiver.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the new artsy Indians with trendy interiors and famous chefs (more of which later). But spare a thought for the traditional curry houses that are fast slipping off the radar in the capital. Take Great India in Lower Sloane Street, which has been around for almost 60 years. The house wine comes in at £13.90 and most of the main courses are under £10.

Last time I was there, Lord Fellowes popped in to pick up a takeaway far removed from a Downton delicacy, and generally there’s a terrific mix of moneyed locals, astute tourists and people like me who like to feel there are still some restaurants in Chelsea that we can afford. Gloriously, Great India’s pudding menu still features pretty pictures (actually not all are pretty: some look as weary and disfigured as the plastic folder they inhabit) and you are normally given a limoncello along with some toothpicks and candy spices shortly before the bill arrives. But Great India’s prospects are not bright. How can they be when the rates are so astronomical?

Indian is meant to be the most popular food in Britain. How anyone knows this for sure is unclear and, of course, we’re talking anglicised Indian. Let’s not forget that chicken tikka masala (right up there with chicken korma as one of the great culinary stayers, on a par with prawn cocktail and shepherd’s pie) was invented in Glasgow, not Goa.

But now there has been a shift. In fact, Bloom-berg Briefs quoted a ‘celebrated Indian chef’ as saying that Indian food in London is better than anything available in Mumbai and New Delhi. I wouldn’t know about that, but I was offered a freebie the other day at Jamavar on Mount Street, almost next to The Connaught. It was stupendously good and not, I hasten to add, because I avoided paying the £100-a-head bill at the end of the evening.

Jamavar is the Leela Palace group’s first premises outside India. It’s a glorious space over two floors with all sorts of colonial flourishes: mother of pearl-framed mirrors, brown Emperador marble, hand-cut marquetry — and waiting staff clearly chosen for their looks as much as their table manners. It claims to take as its reference the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi.

What’s more, at this end of the Indian restaurant market there’s an element of premiership football culture, whereby clubs trade or lure away players with promises of fame and fortune. Jamavar’s executive chef, Rohit Ghai, transferred from Gymkhana on Albemarle Street, possibly the most expensive Indian restaurant in the country, with decor that unashamedly apes the British Raj. Just up from Gymkhana in the same street is the wonderful and infinitely cheaper Chor Bizarre. Or, rather, this is where Chor Bizarre used to be. It’s been closed for a few months but Rohit Khattar, its affable owner, plans to open Indian Accent here in late November, following success with branches in New Delhi and New York, where New York magazine voted it the best Indian in town.

‘The posh Indian is a natural development,’ says Mr Khattar. ‘Despite Britain ruling India for so many years, there is still genuine affection between the two countries. We love the British and the British love our food.’

No question. Throw into the spicy mix the likes of Tamarind in Mayfair, Gunpowder (great name) in Spitalfields, Kricket (clever) in Soho, and the revamped Vineet Bhatia on Lincoln Street, SW3, and you can see why these new Indians are cooking up a storm. At Vineet Bhatia, there isn’t even an à la carte menu. You go for the £105 a head, 11-14 course tasting menu (£175 to include ‘matching’ wines) or you don’t eat at all.

How very different to a traditional night out with the lads, accompanied by 12 onion bhajis, six rogan joshes and 18 pints of lager.

DRINKS ORDER

COBRA BEER
The classic. Lord Bilimoria created this smooth beer in 1989 to fill the gap between watery lager and bitter, heavy ale, both of which stopped him eating as much as he’d like. On sale in 98 per cent of licensed curry houses.

BEAVERTOWN NECK OIL SESSION IPA
A light, easy to drink craft IPA. Its crisp, citrusy taste contrasts well with trad spices without overpowering the main event.

THATCHERS KATY APPLE CIDER
Cider and curry? If you pick a drier cider, the pairing works well, adding sweetness while not being too sickly.

CAMDEN HELLS
A fairly inoffensive alternative for the lager fan. Significantly nicer than standard pub swill.

BLUE MOON
A Belgian-style wheat beer wouldn’t normally pair with a curry, but the hints of orange make it an interesting choice.

BUXTON AXE EDGE
A fruity IPA which goes well with subtle curries.

FULLER’S LONDON PRIDE
The stronger flavour makes it a good flame-douser for those who struggle past a korma.

–Jake Hurfurt


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