I have never lived in London, but have been visiting the city at least once a year for the past 40 years since I was 16 – as a student, on work, to visit family and friends. In a way, I have grown up alongside London’s Indian restaurant evolution. And I firmly believe that right now, and for quite a while, London offers the best Indian food in the world. From Hong Kong, my residence of the last 25 years, I continue to travel the globe, usually seeking out the finest Indian restaurants – in India, Bangkok, Singapore, New York, San Francisco – and have had many memorable meals. But London beats them all. It’s South Asian (not just Indian) dining scene straddles every regional cuisine, all strata and budgets, and is at the cutting edge of global culinary trends.
I grew up in Bombay in a catering family – we managed restaurants and even an ice-cream factory, and then my father worked for the Taj Hotels group for over 3 decades. Dining out at restaurants and hotels was our family norm. At 16 I went to boarding school in England to study for my A-levels; overnight, my access to appetizing meals, let alone Indian or Chinese cuisine, came to a halt. I looked forward to weekends or school holiday breaks spent in London with family friends and on occasion my father arranged for complimentary meals at restaurants that were part of his global catering diaspora. Circa 1980, the high-end Indian restaurants in London were offshoots or franchises of their domestic counterparts. The two I frequented were Gaylord and Copper Chimney, both close to Oxford Circus. Featuring tandoor ovens and tasty Northern Indian cuisine, they also exhibited Indian decorative artifacts and a lingering scent of the kitchen that became a mainstay of Indian restaurants all over the world.
Next, more eclectic and “London” originals: Chor Bizarre, Chutney Mary and Bombay Brasserie, among others. Out with brass lamps, in with kitsch from Bombay’s thieves’ market and chandeliers. The food, too, expanded beyond Punjab, and most importantly, these restaurants led to Indian restaurants establishing their own identity, not generically clumped together as were so many Asian restaurants. Celebrity glamour also arrived, with Faye Dunaway a frequent diner at Bombay Brasserie. And elsewhere, family-run local favourites like Salloos and Lahore Kebab House built their own loyal clientele via authentic expressions of Pakistani cuisine.
The first wave of luxury Indian dining in Mayfair and Belgravia – Tamarind, Benares, Amaya – left me a little cold. The combination of modern Indian cuisine, spare or stylish interiors, small portions and astronomic prices was novel yet perhaps ahead of its time. Was this Indian food for foreigners, or could expats like myself find a way to embrace this Michelin-endorsed revised vision of Indian food? Instead, in the Noughties, my preferred venues – Trishna and Quilon – both had Coastal cuisine in common. Trishna was a pioneer in the renaissance of Marylebone’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Mixing a neighbourhood Bistro vibe with specialties like Hariyali Bream, here was an East-meets-West that I felt worked. Quilon was a more staid hotel experience, but I am a sucker for Dosa in a fine dining setting, not to mention its broad coverage of dishes from Kerala and Goa. Now, I would add Hoppers in Marylebone to round out this trio of delicious food from the sub-continent’s southern half.
Finally, on to the current state of affairs, which exhibits two distinct themes: the arrival of more casual and trendy “street-food” and “cafe cuisine”, and the emergence of the second phase of Mayfair Michelins. Dishoom led the former path, and as a former Bombayite (or Mumbaiwala), I fell for their nostalgia and comfort food such as Chilli Cheese Toast and Keema Pau, less so for the no reservations policy that has become so prevalent in millennial dining. Faced with myriad competitors (or copycats) in London, I feel Dishoom is at a crossroads. Will its formulaic expansion into a “chain” diminish the initial quirkiness that I found attractive? The crowds are not complaining, so I guess economics will win the day. I have tried several times the new high-end restaurants: Gymkhana, Indian Accent, Jamavar, Kutir, and I would recommend the well-priced lunch menus to all. What they have in common (apart from rotating chefs) is a successful approach of marrying traditional cuisine across many regions with a contemporary, lighter and innovative touch. This is some of the best Indian food in the world, and amongst these, I think Jamavar succeeds in the least pretentious way. They have a perfect balance between North and South, making it hard to choose between Alleppey Sea Bass Curry and Old Delhi Butter Chicken. Try both!
Every time I visit London, I find 2 or 3 new restaurants I haven’t yet tried. In recent times, the biggest issue for these new Indian restaurants has been finding an original name. Cities were rapidly appropriated – Ooty, Lucknow, Kolkata, Darjeeling, followed by references to the British Raj – Gymkhana, Gunpowder, Kricket, Brigadiers! Catering has remained in my family’s blood, and my Delhi-based nephew’s restaurant group in India (Mamagoto, Dhaba), of which he is a co-founder, was about to open a restaurant in London. In many ways I feel my long experience with London’s Indian restaurants has come full circle. The venue they chose was the space in Fitzrovia vacated by Gaylord after half a century. And the name they selected, Pali Hill, is home to many Bollywood celebrities, a suburb of my home town. It’s hard to predict what will be the prolonged impact of COVID 19 on London’s Indian dining scene, but I hope this thriving culinary environment will survive and remain resilient and diverse.