I challenge anyone to step into the hallowed oak walls of the Great Hall at The LaLit London and not let out an involuntary ‘oooh’ because this is a truly splendid space. The high ceilings and windows let light bounce around the room, the distinctive blue chandeliers add the requisite level of grandeur. Once the dining room of the boarding school, it seems fitting that this is now home to Baluchi, The Lalit London’s fine dining Indian restaurant. Although I suspect that is where the similarities end; I am sure the food served then is a million miles apart from the delightful Indian delicacies served now. A room like this could serve as the backdrop to any special meal, but on this particularly evening we were in for a real treat… but that’s what you expect when you’re here to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Indian Independence!
I know that for much of India and neighbouring Pakistan, the last seventy years may hold some bittersweet memories but many will now also agree it’s still a milestone worth toasting to. We certainly thought it was, and decided to raise our glasses to the occasion. The Indian-inspired cocktails served in the old Teacher’s Room were a fantastic way to ease our palates into the meal ahead. The delicate spice of my saffron gin martini to start was wonderful, but the Kashmir: Valley of Flowers with Earl Grey infused gin, lavender syrup and lime juice was definitely the cocktail of the day! With a drink in hand and the dulcet tones of the sitar floating through the room, it was hard not to get into a celebratory mood before moving back into the Great Hall for dinner.
A few weeks ago, I found myself embroiled in a discussion about the office tea club, rummaging through my bag for an umbrella, and harbouring a deep hankering for a curry. This seemingly innocent combination made me stop mid-rummage in a state of shock; after almost three and a half years of living in London, was I turning just that little bit British? Back in Wellington, I never had lengthy debates about the tea round (we just made our own), umbrellas were destined to be discarded in a bin partway down Lambton Quay, and the only curries I had a stomach for were Malaysian curries… But look how London’s changed me. By about 3pm that day, I was actually looking forward to, craving even, our dinner at Mango Indian because I hadn’t had my dose of curry and roti in quite some time.
The restaurant is at one end of a less than enticing street and round the corner from Borough Market; as a result, we both instinctively pitied it for its seemingly unfortunate location… I honestly couldn’t imagine many people bypassing Borough Market and then finding their way down to this derelict looking lane. But I would be wrong. From our window table, we got a front row view of couples and groups making a beeline for this cosy little curry house… as we sated ourselves on the poppadoms and chutneys, we mused that this was not such an unfortunate location after all, and definitely not the undiscovered gem we had chalked it down as.
“Come for the experience, not the hype”. That’s what Gaggan suggests his guests do when they dine at his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok. Seemingly sound advice, a reasonable request even, but my problem was that regardless of whether I came for one or the other, neither stacked up. The hype is unavoidable. Even if you don’t have a Netflix account and an unhealthy obsession with current food culture, the chances are you’ve still at least heard of the runaway hit Chef’s Table. For the viewers, it’s an insight into the lives and inner workings of some extraordinary culinary minds, and for the chefs themselves, I imagine it’s ticket to celebrity chef stardom and a guaranteed full house for the next few years.
If Chef’s Table lured me in, it was the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards who sealed the deal when they awarded Gaggan the top spot for the third year running. Upon reading that, I decided on a whim to make a booking; with only a couple of weeks until our Bangkok visit, I wasn’t holding out much hope but imagine my elation when they confirmed our table for two. So yeah, I fell for the hype; hook, line and inspirational-sob-story sinker, but after embarking on this twenty-something course journey at Gaggan, I was disappointed to say that I did not fall head over heels for the experience.
When I walked through the door of a quaint little café in Greenwich to meet Rani, the self-titled Spice Angel, before her inaugural supperclub, I was greeted by her wide grin and immediately bowled over by her enthusiasm. She was chatty and friendly, and I warmed to her instantly. Which should have comforted me but being the weird person that I am, it actually made me a touch anxious about the evening ahead. I like passionate chefs, which also makes me want to really like their food. The menu also consisted of some of Rani’s favourite family dishes which just made me salivate with further excitement.
All this culminated to create quite high expectations, and the relief I felt when one of her beautifully put together Chowpatty dahi batata puri exploded with bursts of flavour and texture was immense. Just like her sunny personality, this combination of potato, chutneys and pomegranates inspired by her upbringing in Mumbai’s Giragon Chowpatty was an uplifting mouthful. How Indian chefs manage to jam pack the delicate cases and not have them disintegrate into a crumbly mess, I’ll never know!
Most days, I trawl through an obscene amount of (non-work) emails. I know most of them are destined for the trash folder and I should be better at unsubscribing, yet I find myself tied to my ritual of scroll-skim-delete, scroll-skim-delete, until the occasional one pops up which makes me stop, re-scroll and actually read the thing. It’s usually a catchy subject line which lures me in for the read, and hands down the best example I’ve had lately was one asking if I ‘fancy trying my hand at spinning rotis?’. I mean, does this person know me or what?!
This was clearly an offer I had to investigate further, which is how I ended up in Hankies, a Delhi street-food inspired restaurant in the heart of Shaftesbury Avenue, watching a chef transform dough to rotis with nothing but a bit of flour and some fancy flipping skills. Before I arrived, I was more than ready to roll up my sleeves and spin a few of these Roomali rotis (or hankies as they’re commonly called because of the way they’re folded and served) myself but after catching a glimpse of Head Chef Ani in action, I wasn’t so sure… My confidence dwindled with every flip and spin and I’m embarrassed to say, I chickened out.
I didn’t realise how deeply the Brits loved their curry until I moved here and witnessed their devotion to the curry house with my own eyes. Each neighbourhood in London has a bit of a food niche, but every one of them also has a curry house or three so it’s safe to say, the love is real. Which makes calling your restaurant ‘Pure Indian Cooking’ a rather bold statement. Whether that was all part of the master plan or the creative juices weren’t quite running when it came time to settle on a name; I like the promise it makes. Unlike many other weird and wonderful restaurant names, this leaves nothing cryptic to ponder, only a hope that it lives up to the claim.
We immediately had a good feeling about its purity when we ran our eyes over the surprisingly succinct list of offerings. I’m usually overwhelmed by the tome-like menus I get presented with at Indian restaurants but there was no such trauma here, just a tidy list split into starters, meats, fish, and vegetarian dishes, and a knowledgeable manager to explain any dishes we weren’t sure about. Though we needed no help in deciding on the chilli fried squid or the pepper shrimp. I have no idea how traditional the delicately spiced and battered squid rings are but I liked them; almost as much as the succulent shrimp enveloped in that peppercorn sauce. It was a touch on the salty side for me, but I still couldn’t resist the richness and generous spicing of the sauce.
One of my most frequented areas in London is that grid of streets surrounding Carnaby Street; not really an original choice I know, but I’m content with joining the masses who adore this part of town. It’s famed for being a great shopping destination – slightly less crowded than Oxford Street and a lot more interesting in its offerings – but I actually love it for the plethora of restaurants dotted in between the shops. No matter what I find myself hungry for, these streets never fail to deliver me something scrumptious.
I have my go-to senõr for ceviche, that slick American for barbeque, and even the trendy Korean for a bibimbap and a cocktail… oh, and I can’t forget the belly-warming ramen bar or the place where I finally found a kebab that I liked. That’s more than enough to keep me going back again and again, but it just had to go and outdo itself and give me another reason – a gem for those times I’m craving an Indian curry.