Indian Accent is an Indian restaurant in Albermarle Street, deepest Mayfair, on the site of Rohit Khattar’s Chor Bizarre (‘thieves market’). It follows branches in New York and New Delhi, which featured at no. 9 in the 2016 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List, sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Apparently you have to mention that, or they shut the water off. The chef is Manish Mehrotra, praised in the New York Times, and a man of growing fame.
Indian Accent offers ‘progressive’ Indian cuisine, which, translated, means you cannot summon the waiter and ask for a secret chicken balti. I call this the Howard Jacobson Experiment, because he does this with more success than I do. The last time I sampled ‘progressive’ Indian cuisine was at Gymkhana, also in Albermarle Street, deepest Mayfair, in 2014. I didn’t like Gymkhana, because the chicken was semi-cooked, there was no secret chicken balti and the decoration was a glut of Raj Chic: there was an engraving of wilting English people carried around by Indians, as if they were chairs.
I am not a woman to pull a portrait of Theresa May off the wall of the geography department in Oxford because I feel oppressed by her smile — that would make me an idiot, and I like my political acts to have more meaning than rearranging furniture. But Gymkhana was too oblivious to the past to do well in the present: if you don’t care about people, how can you care about food? It felt like Madame Tussauds with papadums, and the food was scarcely better than wax. I was trolled online for writing that, possibly by bots, and I was pleased.
Indian Accent is very different to Gymkhana, thankfully; I would spend my own money here, and I would bring my friends for lunch. It does not look like a Wetherspoons pub, and the chicken is well cooked. The thieves market, which was red, expansive and corrupt, is all gone, because it is unfashionable. Even the Curry Paradise in Hampstead, where I bend my knee, has become demure and understated. Here then is a subtle, muted restaurant; there is nothing crazy, nothing weird, nothing to protest against. The floors are pale wood, the bar is pale marble, the chairs are velvet and moss green. The orchids are white and well behaved, curling prettily out of Mayfair-clean glass. Even the solitary gold wall — the reassurance that you are in an Indian restaurant — feels understated. A restaurant decorated thus trusts its food, and its confidence is fair.
We are given, first, pumpkin and coconut soup in a small black cup, with a naan bread, the tiniest I have seen, a naan bread for Borrowers or ants, stuffed with blue cheese. It is delicious, and I eat it so swiftly they bring another, unasked. Then comes meetha achaar ribs with sun-dried mango and onion seeds, fantastic, so sticky; potato sphere chaat with white pea mash, which falls apart gloriously; chicken kofta with punjabi kadhi and onion pakora; and deep, rich ghee roast lamb with tiny roomali roti pancakes. This is not fusion, or molecular gastronomy, or pig’s bladder, or any profound weirdness — the usual highways to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. This is imagination, taste and feeling. I am not used to leaving an Indian restaurant without being felled by my own greed, but Mehrotra’s subtlety has enchanted me. I do not eat too much, and that is notable.
But I do try it. I must. I say, or rather whisper, to the waiter, who is kindly: ‘Do you have a secret chicken balti?’ ‘I do not have a secret chicken balti,’ he replies, kindly. No matter. Indian Accent doesn’t need one.