Friday, October 17, 2014

Gymkhana London - An unpolished diamond

Indian food in Britain can be very good. Indian food has a slightly different look and feel in Britain as compared to back in India. You have Bangladeshi Indian food, Pakistani Indian food, Gujarati and Panjabi from East Africa Indian food, Sri Lankan Indian food, the usual Indian food made by Indians [Gujarati, Panjabi, and South Indian] and the upmarket Indian food being the domain of the Michelin boys. Over the last 20 years we have had just three meals at Indian restaurants that we have ourselves chosen to go to. These were Karahi King [a Pakistani place in Wembley] Three Red Chillies [also Pakistani] and a few days ago Gymkhana which has just got a Michelin Star.

We have been taken to or been invited to some others, most notably by Atul Kochar, who is HRH The Queen of Kutch’s friend, to his Michelin Starred Benaras [very good]. We have also eaten at Camelia Punjabis Amaya [horrid - which also has a Michelin Star] and Masala Zone [also horrid]. New Asian Tandoori [very middling] Tayyabs [quite good] and Lahore Kebab House [quite good] are others we have eaten at.

By and large the Indian food in the non Michelin star places is variations of the masala laden oily rich food available at Delhi Durbar and Persian Durbar and others like this in Mumbai. The quality of the meat and the spices being better, results in the food being better, but it is nothing unusual or exceptional. This food is best described by Vineet Bhatia [who is a far better chef than he a TV host] as being `macho’ – i.e. greasy spicy and overly rich.

The Michelin starred Indian restaurants – Amaya, Rasoi, Tamarind, Quilon, Benaras, Trishna and now Gymkhana all serve versions of standard Indian food but with either luxury ingredients or with unusual plating combinations. None of them have the Gagan Anand / Masala Library type of so called Molecular Gastronomy where the height of gastronomy is variations of Gol Guppas and Papri Chaat treated with Sodium Alginate. Gimmickry is not part of these UK based chefs repertoire. They all generally have traditional food. And, thank God for that. Also the spicing and oil is under control, and the food is not, as so aptly described, `macho’.

Gymkhana is the second restaurant by Karam Sethi. Sethi is a self taught chef who has had some professional experience at Zuma, the Oberoi in Delhi before becoming a caterer. His first restaurant was Trishna in London which, when it opened, had an extremely confusing story as to whether it was part of Trishna Mumbai or not, and, what exactly was the connection. Anyway, that seems to have been sorted out over time, there is no connection.  Then, last year Sethi opened, Gymkhana in the heart of Mayfair. The restaurant was reviewed by Giles Coren the respected food critic for the London Times who gave it absolute rave reviews. I quote –

So that’s 3 visits in 5 days. I’ve now eaten 25 of the 34 savoury dishes. Every one was out of this world that’s three times in five days. I have never done that before. Never ever gone back twice to a new restaurant within less than a week. And do you want to know why I did? Because Gymkhana is the best restaurant I have ever been to.”

High praise indeed.

With this kind of review, we had to go to Gymkhana. So, as is our wont, we booked and arrived there on time. We could smell the restaurant [the Kasoori Methi, the grease, the Masalas] a full 50 meters before we arrived. What an arrival! To be assaulted by, frankly, India. Noise, smells, confusion, everyone running about helter skelter. Soon we were seated. The din and cacophony in the restaurant along with the clatter, yes, clatter of knives and forks falling to the un carpeted floor were such a contradistinction to the previous night at Le Gavroche. Here it was all shiny reflective surfaces and uncoordinated service staff adding to the din.

We looked at each other took deep breaths and steeled ourselves. Menus were handed out and drinks ordered. We had decided that we would not drink any wine or Champagne. So we stuck to Gin & Tonics, a Sipsmith with Fentimens Tonic and a slice of Orange for the Queen and a Gordons and Schweppes Tonic for me.

The din was fairly loud. Looking around we saw (i) lots of UK `Desis’ with their gelled hair and their gals (ii) everyone in casual clothes, jeans, T Shirts and so on. Out of respect for the Michelin Star I wore a suit and HRH the Queen was dressed in her finest. The Captains/Stewards in the restaurant were dressed like Jeetendra or Amitabh - trousers, white shirts with no ties, open at the collar and jackets. Do you not take yourselves seriously? The manner of speaking was part aggression, part pride and totally Desi. At one point an obvious regular walked in to be greeted with `Welcome Yaar’... I mean what the fuck. Really!

Teeth gritted, we ordered. For starters we asked for 3 dishes. Kheema Sali and Pao, Amritsar Shrimp & Queenies and lastly, Dosa Chettinad Duck and Chutney. Queenies are small Scallops. So the Fried Shrimp and Queenies was basically Amritsar fried fish. This was delicious, truly good. Great shrimp and scallop, good batter, fried at the correct temperature so was not oily. A very good dish served steaming hot. It was irresistible. Probably the best Amritsar fried fish I have ever eaten, including in Amritsar.

Amritsar Shrimp & Queenies with Dill Raita

The Kheema was lukewarm, Tragic. Very tasty but lukewarm. Karam Sethi had shared his recipe for Kheema in the London Times a few months ago. We had followed it and found that the results were excellent. We now always make Kheema using his recipe. The problem here was, though very tasty, the dish was not served at the correct temperature. I must say that the whole dish was as authentic as one at a Irani Cafe in Mumbai. The Dosa with Duck Chettinad was similarly lukewarm. Once again tragic.

Dosa with Duck Chettinad and Coconut Chutney

The Duck Chettinad uncovered from under the Dosa

Kheema Sali

The Pao and Kanda to accompany

I believe that this goes back to the problem with Indian food. Everything is pre made and kept in a vat. We simply have not learnt how to adapt our cooking techniques to enable food to be pre made partly and finished on order. The problem is further compounded by the over intellectualisation by these hot Chefs. In most Indian restaurants in India you have vats of pre made gravy – a Makhni, a Brown and a White. These are added to the semi finished dish and the dish finally made and served fire hot to you. In fact, Amarpal Singh Gandhi the owner of Great Punjab has said that the most boring part of his job is, tasting the gravies every morning. This style of cooking is looked down on by the hot chefs. So, what do you get, vats of food, all lukewarm. Sad sad sad.

For our main course we had ordered a Wild Muntjac Biryani, Pomegranate & Mint Raita and Partridge Pepper Fry. Muntjac is a Barking Deer that is native to England. The Biryani was very good. It was steaming hot, it was flavourful, aromatic and the rice cooked perfectly. The Deer was lovely and soft and, being robust took the spicing very well. The Biryani was served with a `Purdah’ made of not the usual `Aata’ but Puff Pastry with a sprinkling of Rose Water, Cucumber Seeds and Kallonji. Very well done. I took a few bits of the `Purdah’ to taste and it was perfectly edible. This was a good dish by any standards. The Partridge Pepper Fry was also very good, though, once again, suffering from the lukewarm problem. This was a South Indian Style dish with lots of whole Peppercorns and was served with a Malabar Paratha. This was one of the better Malabar Parathas I have ever eaten, it was crisp, flaky and chewy all at the same time, as it should be. 

Wild Muntjac Biryani

The Biryani after removing the Purdah

Pomegranate & Mint Raita. The Rose Petal were a delightful touch

Partridge Pepper Fry

Malabar Paratha

Leaving aside the lukewarm issue, the food was really very good. It was flavoured and spiced really well. The food was not `macho’ by any standards, nor was it bland. Simply imagine cooking at home with all spices lowered in proportion. The food smelt great and tasted wonderful. I must point out that like all Indian food, it looks and photographs, literally, like shit. Sorry about this analogy, but I am sure you will agree, our curries look like s**t. 

Alas, despite the good food, we could not bear the cacophony, the confusion and the general nuttiness of the service. We asked for the bill and left. We bought an ice cream on the way home from the supermarket, had a couple of more Gin & Tonics at home and retired.

All in all, good food. The service was nuts, the noise and clatter also nuts. Frankly, food apart, it was like being at Olive or Indigo Deli for the noise with good non `macho’ Delhi Durbar food.

Worth a Michelin star. Most certainly not. Is Benaras better, oh yes, much better? Far better food and far less noise and confusion.

Possibly the Michelin Star and the adulation is resulting in this confusion. Hopefully it will settle down and he will get rid of the Indian staff and install some carpeting. Then Gymkhana will be ready. Today it is an unpolished diamond.

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