One of the great sorrows of the pandemic has been India. Its own harrowing experience of the virus has been dreadful to see. And less importantly but still poignantly, India’s disappearance from the list of possible destinations for travel for the foreseeable future has created a sense of morose yearning among those itching to get back. So long as we’re barred from going, London is perhaps the best city on earth to recreate some of the finest ambience, tastes and smells of the subcontinent and with that in mind I set out to experience the best of India through a clutch of sophisticated restaurants only a Tube ride away.
Gykmkhana, 42 Albemarle St, Mayfair
No stroll through the best Indian cuisine in London is complete without dinner at this rollicking Michelin-starred outpost. Gymkhana openly models itself on the ‘elite clubs of India where members of high society socialise, eat, drink, and play sport’.
Upstairs is airy with banquettes of dark wood and straw lattice and framed photos from the Raj glory days while downstairs is sultry and thickly upholstered with a low red ceiling and tables snugly pitched. For true raj spirit, the cocktails are essential drinking: I had the ‘silver sip gimlet’ with gin, jasmine and sage cordial, followed by excellent house white and red.
Food is all elbows, but sexy, perfectly formed elbows: naan is offered with venison and cumin raita; dill raita goes with Amritsari shrimp and so on. We were dazzled by a bright yellow, creamy duck egg bhurji with lobster and Malabar paratha, a beautifully flakey fried flatbread identical to those I once gorged on in Calcutta. Wild muntjack (baby deer) biryani comes with pomegranate and mint raita and a delectable pastry hat dusted with sesame seeds: I was tempted to wear it, but ended up eating it all instead. Tandoori masala lamb chops with walnut chutney are expensive and exquisite: a meaty scream of spice and savour.
Time flies in this opulent place because it’s boisterous good fun as well as being posh – just like a club in Delhi, in fact, only with better food.
Tamarind, 20 Queen St, Mayfair
A fleet of impeccably masked and suited all-male waiters and bar staff underscore the traditional seriousness of Tamarind, the first Indian restaurant in the UK to get a Michelin star back in 2001. Refurbished in 2019, it now features an elegant first floor with big windows over street and gardens. Confronted by delicacies of complicated make-up, we opted for the relatively affordable tasting menu (£79 per person), and matched wines (an extra £65), preferring to have Tamarind make all the hard choices. And so it did, and made them well. To start, beautifully sweet-sour, crunchy Rajasthani churi chaat, a street food, was paired inventively with ‘Copenhagen tea’, a pot-pourri-tasting Riesling flavoured with tea in Denmark and cut down to 5 per cent ABV.
Melting coconut and chilli seabass came out next with creamy green pepper chicken tikka, and did not blot out a smooth and enveloping Puligny Motrachet premiere cru from 2019. Crispy lobster was sweet and naughty, more like a bar snack that came smothered in red chilli jam, while char-grilled lamb chop in a close and bristly suit of pistachios was the best version of that meat I have ever tasted. More tender chicken curry and two explosively flavoured peppered skewers of fowl stuffed with raisins saw us to the finish line, where somehow space was made for a bitter chocolate fondant with a liquid cardamom caramel centre.
Tamarind evokes India in a distinctly Mayfair fashion: hushed, with plenty of businessmen seriously nibbling, and we didn’t see many Indian clientele kicking back and having a good time. But with food as serious as this, the focus is all on the plates anyway.
Jikoni, 19-21 Blandford St, Marylebone
This Marylebone ‘no borders’ charmer I’d never heard of frankly knocked my socks off with food whose Indian base draws on more wide-ranging Middle Eastern, north African and far-Eastern flavours. It’s so jolly and tasty, so friendly and chic and creative, that all moroseness at realising you’re still in London evaporates as soon as you sit.
No wonder: its creator, Ravinder Bhogal, is a radiant young stylist and writer as well as a TV chef and cookbook writer. Born in Nairobi, this khol-eyed beauty clearly knows how to fuse delight in mouth and soul: cocktails are bright-coloured flavour-bombs (I had no fewer than three mango and curry leaf margaritas), and food is the likes of two globes of prawn toast-rimmed scotch egg with banana relish; ‘scorched’ sugar snap peas to nibble, and grilled peaches with tofu, lime leaf gremolata and, for extra decadence, peanut brittle (somehow still savoury - just). Kimchi royals were not a party but a rave in my mouth as the tang of cabbage wound its way around the nutty sweetness of the fried potatoes, while Orkney scallops with yuzu and avocado served in oyster shells did not evoke India perse, but at that point, nobody was asking. Jikoni isn’t too cute for meat: smoked pomegranate quail exuded tender flavour, while a whole lobster ‘moilee’ drenched in coconut chutney kept us quiet for a while.
The high point of the whole excursion, surprisingly, was dessert: tahini parfait sandwiched between baklava and a treacly banana cake with miso butterscotch, (more) peanut brittle, and something I won’t forget in a hurry: a little pot of purplish fudge sauce that turned out to be ovaltine kulfi. This is a deeply playful take on India that will have you forget your woes, and the fact that you're not going to Asia any time soon, at least while it lasts.
Brigadiers, Bloomerg Arcade, Mansion House
From the same group as Gymkhana, this is a far more raucous set-up than the others, located in a once-dead-on-weekends part of the City. Yet on a Saturday night it was rambunctious and fun, with the rugby on and great cheers wafting through a thick red velvet curtain to the dark and gleaming dining room looked over by a giant portrait of a turbanned gentleman. Brigadiers is the perfect City indulgence: modelled on the army mess bars of India, it invites blokey camaraderie and, one imagines after a particularly good day on the trading floors, the odd bit of jiggery pokery.
But the food is serious, mostly riffing on different forms of Indian barbeque. Impeccable pappadums with starburst-flavoured chutneys, vibrant and intricate chilli paneer lettuce cups and sourish bbq butter chicken wings delighted us as we worked our way through a cocktail list that features espresso martinis and old fashioneds on draft. Next came a plate of unctuous kid goat shoulder rimmed with paratha and studded with lacha onions, a plate of beef shin and bonemarrow biryani as aggressively delicious as it sounds, and two guinea fowl kebabs that exploded with musky flavour.
Entering Brigadiers is to sink into a trance of ribaldry, luxuriant libation and unabashedly greedy indulgence of almost obnoxiously good flavours that yell: go meat or go home. Going home was the hard, and slightly sad part.
Other top picks:
Jamavar (Mayfair): Fiercely glamorous take on Indian street food in a dining room inspired by the colonial Viceroy’s Delhi house.
Attawa (Dalston): Cool Punjabi food in a pared-back, hipstery restaurant that opened during lockdown, with subtle wholesome dishes and an already-famous daal.
Kutir (Chelsea): Elegant favourite in a Chelsea townhouse serving expert food from different parts of India, with a particularly evocative ‘expedition’ tasting menu.
Kricket (Soho): Buzzy spot with shared tables and a very long bar, Kricket evokes the best upstart eateries of the Mumbai and has won serious culinary regard.