“There’s a new life force to Indian food in London” wrote the esteemed Evening Standard restaurant reviewer, Fay Maschler recently, after visiting Indian Accent. It’s one of the pre-eminent fine dining Indian restaurants among a slew of exceptional new openings that have launched, to high acclaim, in the capital over the last year turning up the dial.
The new restaurants, redefining and expanding London diners understanding of the breadth of Indian cuisine are centered around affluent Mayfair and Chelsea. "There’s a readiness for Indian hoteliers/restaurateurs and their backers to invest in London knowing they have a discerning market among the wealthier Indians who have residencies in London. There’s also clearly a growing appetite among multi-cultured Londoners who have an increasingly sophisticated understanding and an insatiable curiosity for Indian cuisine". Says Samyukta Nair, co-founder of Jamavar restaurants part of the luxe Leela Hotel Group, whose first London outpost received a Michelin star within eight months of opening: “It’s incredible to see the choice and appreciation of Indian cuisine here. The British resonate with Indian cuisine in the same way as Indians do.”
“Indian food in London is now more exceptional in its finesse, creativity, and diversity than Mumbai and New Delhi’s restaurants,” says Manish Mehrotra, executive chef of Indian Accent disarmingly when we meet over an exquisite dinner at his pearlescent walled Mayfair dining room several months into its stride. It is the third outpost of Indian Accent. A New York outpost of the original Delhi restaurant has been phenomenally successful and Indian Accent is now elegantly recalibrating expectations of fine dining in Mayfair with its dazzlingly inventive menu and presentation.
The sense of a very special journey begins with a delectably intense amuse shot of pumpkin and carrot soup, served with a miniature bite of blue cheese. The menu is full of surprising dishes that are earthy, elegant, even witty, such as the umami-rich duo of Kashmiri morels dusted with truffle and walnut dust served on a parmesan papad raising the bar of sheer culinary brilliance. Makhan malai made with an ethereal cloud of aerated saffron milk topped with rose petal jaggery brittle and almonds is extraordinary.
16 Albemarle St, Mayfair, LondonWebsite
Notably very contemporary, the most interesting openings are the first solo ventures of Indian chefs who’ve already built up stellar reputations helming the first wave of the London’s fine Indian dining. Rohit Ghai, who launched both Gymkhana and Jamavar has opened his restaurant Kutir, significantly in the former Chelsea home of Vineet Bhatia’s trailblazing restaurant. It is within a three-floor period townhouse. Ghai’s inspiration is the Indian heritage hotels within wildlife sanctuaries where he started his career. His menus interpret traditional recipes through a more contemporary lens such as a 24 hour slow cooked Rogan Josh, and there’s a good choice of vegetarian/vegan dishes including truffle and mushroom khichadi. Says Ghai: “We hope Kutir will introduce diners to a new experience of Indian cuisine. Whilst there is lots of creativity and quality in Indian restaurants here at all prices, I think there is still much more to come from fine dining.”
Close Chelsea neighbour is Kahani, Peter Joseph’s first independent restaurant inspired by his upbringing in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. Joseph was previously executive chef at Tamarind for over 10 years where he maintained its Michelin star, the first awarded to an Indian restaurant in London back in 2001. At the stunning Kahani with its orange walls and exposed wine cellar (stellar wine lists are integral to the fine dining offering), Joseph’s approach is to showcase seasonal British ingredients whether vegetables, fish or meat cooked on the robata grill and prepared using the most modish techniques.
Besides the cuisine itself, the style of service has been recalibrated to suit sophisticated London restaurant goers. Explains Joseph: “We know that many of the customers of Indian fine dining restaurants have a real knowledge and deep interest in regional dishes. It is important to ensure our staff our thoroughly versed in the history of the dishes and the provenance of the ingredients, it all adds to the restaurant experience.”
The Sethi family (JKS group) contribution to the higher profile of Indian dining has been enormous. Karam Sethi first stormed onto the scene opening the chic Trishna in Marylebone. Specialising in Keralan coastal seafood Trishna was one of the first to have such a distinct niche. The Sethi’s Gymkhana cleverly combined nostalgia with decor inspired by the clubs and ground-breaking dishes such as the iconic munjac biriyani. Most recently, the Sethi restaurateurs have extended into the City’s brand new Bloomburg Arcade. Brigadiers, inspired by the army mess bars of India, is a large, luxurious Indian barbecue restaurant that reflects the current London food climate with slow roast shoulder of goat and a broad choice of vegan kebabs.
The original culinary siblings, Namita and Camellia Panjabi of MW Eat (Camelia is author of the world’s bestselling authoritative bible of Indian Curries and ran the marketing of Taj hotels and launched Bombay Brasserie in the UK) and Namita Panjabi have decades of research behind their family restaurant business. They opened Chutney Mary in King’s Road back in 1990 which first changed Londoner’s appreciation of Indian dining. They started the trend for Indian chefs who’d trained in top Indian hotels to come to the UK. They initially specialized in Anglo-Indian cuisine dishes familiar from their childhood like salmon kedgeree and a spiced Welsh rabbit. Very much, the trailblazers, the Panjabis were the first to extend their menu to encompass coastal and regional dishes back in the nineties serving dishes in fine dining style. Chutney Mary recently re-located to a dramatic new Mayfair address and continues offers notably sophisticated takes on their signature recipes from Cornish crab in garlic sauce to a carrot halva souffle.
Starting with the forward-thinking Panjabi sisters, female restaurateurs have played a significant role in the development of the Indian fine dining scene in London. Samyukta Nair of Jamavar has instigated a women’s networking club whose evenings are invariably a sell-out. Explains Nair: “I’m from a strong matriarchal line of restaurateurs. Mayfair is traditionally associated with Gentleman’s Club, this is our antidote bringing strong and inspiring women together to support and elevate each other.”
73 St James's St, St. James's, LondonWebsite
Exceptionally dynamic, driven and philanthropic, trained lawyer Asma Khan who will become the first British chef to appear on Netflix's Chef’s Table early in 2019 would always maintain her Soho restaurant Darjeeling Express has a homely feel to it, but it is by no means lacking in finesse. The Calcutta-Hyderabad-Rajput cooking is boldly spiced and thoughtfully prepared, whilst Khan herself has become a key spokesperson for putting London’s Indian food scene on the international culinary map.
Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.