In some London suburbs, it seems there’s an Indian restaurant on every corner, and don’t get me started on Brick Lane. I hope they last post-pandemic. But my issue with Indian has always been that while many offer delicious, flavour-packed dishes, there’s a lot of repetition. You’ll find korma, vindaloo and butter chicken on almost every menu.
Of course, there are some Indian restaurants taking it up a notch – Tayyabs is well-known for Punjabi cuisine (their peshwari naan is to die for) and Tamarind was the first Indian restaurant in London to receive a Michelin star. Then there’s Amaya, Trishna and Veeraswamy, the current Michelin-star-holders specialising in Indian cuisine. A Michelin star, though, is not the only way to find delectable dining Here are four starless-yet-superb Indian restaurants that should be on your hit list once dining out is back on the menu.
Quote from the Chef: “Great food tells its own tale.”
Chennai-born Chef Peter Joseph played a major role in Tamarind’s Michelin star, but after a decade at the helm, he decided to strike out on his own. Kahani is the result.
"Kahani" is the Urdu word for “story”, and the flavours at this basement establishment in Chelsea are crafted as skilfully as a literary masterpiece. Indian flavours even shine through in the cocktails, the Tandoori Ananas, a concoction made from home-made spiced rum, pineapple juice, lime juice, Tandoori pineapple, cinnamon powder and honey. Do the flavours work? Oh yes. Think pineapple cordial for grown-ups.
The elegant, 90-cover dining area features white walls, wooden floors, funky light fittings and blue-hued armchair seats. There’s one rather special table that looks through a window into the semi-open kitchen and the dance of the chefs.
Dishes include delicacies such as soft-shell crunchy crab with Mangalorean spices and tomato chutney; smoked Malabar prawns with fresh turmeric, coconut and curry leaves (this should come with a warning that it leaves you wanting more); and an intriguing venison keema, tossed with shallots and fenugreek leaves and piled on a truffle naan. This might sound overwhelmingly rich, but it doesn’t settle heavy in the belly. Months after this meal, my boyfriend still has a Pavlovian response when I remind him of this dish.
What about dessert?
There are all kinds of interesting flavour pairings at play here, including a Chilli chocolate mousse bomb with gulab jamun bits and Tandoori pineapple with coconut flavoured steamed yoghurt. My pick, though, is the raspberry and cardamom cheesecake ‘melt in the middle’ – this ball of cheesecake comes with a surprise raspberry coulis centre (should I have included a spoiler alert?).
Don’t miss: The succulent Somerset lamb chops with Kashmiri chillies and Nagercoil clove.
Quote from the Chef: “All food is created to be enjoyed.”
South Woodford, the East London home of Grand Trunk Road, may be a little way from central London but Head Chef Dayashankar Sharma, another Tamarind Group graduate, spent his own time travelling before winding up here. The Chef, and restaurateur Rajesh Suri, spent three months on the road that gave the restaurant its name, taking inspiration from the ancient 2,500-mile trading route between Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The duo travelled from Lahore in the North to Kolkata in the Bay of Bengal, picking up recipes along the way to formulate the menu; a menu that takes diners on a mouth-watering culinary journey.
The décor in this 60-cover restaurant is Asian-inspired and deliberately simple, sticking with neutral wood tones and greys. Carved wood panels adorn the walls and a bar with seating runs around half the length of the room, leaving a cosy nook in the rear right-hand corner.
The ever-evolving menu ranges from Banarasi Grilled Stuffed Paneer to Lucknow Ki Nihari – slow-cooked lamb shanks in an aromatic sauce. Vegetarian options are generously dotted throughout and there’s a host of unusual spices doing their part to elevate the offering, like timur, Marathi mogo and panch poran, a five-spice blend. Best of all, there’s a tasting menu to eliminate the hard task of decision-making. Think tandoor-grilled baby squid, stuffed with mixed seafood, with a green and sweet mango salsa; a palate cleanser of lychee and ginger sorbet; spiced roast lamb loin, leaning on a cube of masala mash with mustard and cumin and a Rogan josh sauce.
What about dessert?
What’s better than a dessert? Three desserts. The finale of the tasting menu when I visited was a trio including a small pot of creamy yoghurt with Madagascan vanilla topped with fresh berries; a scoop of lime and thyme sorbet; and chilli Mandarin cake with chocolate truffle sauce. The latter is the highlight, melting in the mouth like a refined version of a Terrys Chocolate Orange.
Don’t miss: The boneless tikka-marinated rabbit with timur, kebab chini and long peppers
Quote from the Owner: “There's more to (Indian) cuisine than just that in a typical curry house.”
Saffron Summer may be an outlier geographically – it’s at least an hour out of London, with restaurants in Chessington and Reigate in Surrey – but given that it can take more than an hour to cross London, it deserves a moment to shine. The menus showcase the diverse range of foods from across the sub-continent and there’s a number that are out of the ordinary. This includes game dishes from places like Coorg in Karnataka; seafood specialities from the coastal belt of Goa, Kerala and Malwan; and more traditional Moghulai, Awadhi, Rajasthani and Punjabi dishes.
We visited the newer Reigate branch, which has a casual vibe. Turmeric-coloured padded benches run down both side walls, picking up the colours in the vibrant pictures hanging above. There are simple wooden tables, including a couple of prime window tables (where we sat) under mellow slumped glass lighting.
For the less adventurous, all of the standard dishes are on the menu (and done exceptionally well – the tandoori lamb chops coated in Rajasthani spices and freshly ground herbs still make me drool). It’s worth sampling the chef’s signature dishes: Guinea Fowl Banjara and Kabuli Gosht. The scents emanating from these dishes as they are delivered to the table are heavenly. The guinea fowl is a colourful dish of grilled breast chunks in a peanut and dry mango marinade with egg masala, while the Kabuli Gosht sees slices of smoked rump of Romney Marsh lamb resting on a bed of chickpeas, with a disc of spiced lamb mince and green peas. We didn’t try it, but the wild boar vindaloo is also making a name for itself. Be sure to order naan to mop up the sauces.
What about dessert?
The dessert menu contains offerings from both east and west. Ramalai and pistachio kulfi sit alongside sticky toffee pudding and ice-cream. As much as I love sticky toffee pud, it felt a bit too heavy after the number of dishes we'd already devoured. We went for a simple, refreshing lemon sorbet, with two spoons.
Don’t miss: The Sev Batata Puri. It’s a light, tangy starter dish of spiced chickpeas, potatoes and wheat crisps, with yoghurt and tamarind chutney topped with a sprinkle of sev – thin gram flour noodles.
Quote from the Chef: “You need to be an artist but also a taskmaster’”
Dishoom has been around for a while (and hopefully will still be extant after the latest lockdown). It’s a bit of a London institution with five outlets across the city and outposts in Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. It may be a mid-market chain, but everyone I send there comes back raving, so it’s still praiseworthy. Don’t necessarily expect authentic Indian food though. By and large the flavours are there, but there are some unusual twists.
All of the Dishooms are modelled on the old Irani cafés of Bombay, albeit with a hipster’s eye. My local-ish hauntu is Dishoom Shoreditch, which is surprisingly large and belnds Persian and Indian artefacts. It’s so shabby chic that it comes out the other side and arrives at artfully trendy. Think black and white tiled floors, framed family photographs and an eclectic mix of seating.
The main menu is the All Day Dining Menu, which features a range of rolls, tapas-sized plates, grills, side dishes, biryani and a few curries. The okra fries come highly recommended and the Dishoom House Chaat is lush – think delicious golden-fried sweet potato with yoghurt, pomegranate, beetroot, radish and carrot, a drizzle of tamarind drizzle and green chutney. You won’t want to share it. If you’re looking to branch out, there’s the Indo-Chinese chilli chicken. Save some room for the mains though. There’s still biryani and grills to come, and you’ll want at least one portion of the blackened spicy lamb chops and some of the creamy house black daal. You’ll need some Roomali Roti – super-thin griddled bread – to mop that up with, too.
What about dessert?
You probably won’t have room for dessert, but you could choose to wash lunch or dinner down with a chai chocolate. If belly space permits, there’s a range of kulfis, but the real pick is the gooey-in-the-middle chocolate pudding served with a scoop of Kashmiri chilli ice cream.