In London, Flavors of India Without the Fuss
Article by Mark Bittman | NYTimes
MORE than 15 years ago, the first “upscale” Indian restaurants began appearing in London, including the now-famous Tamarind, which opened in Mayfair. The occasion was notable: in a city filled with curry joints, here was a white-tablecloth operation with Michelin star aspirations. It was eclectic, exciting, expensive and successful — and yes, it got its star. It remains crowded and popular, and I don’t have an unkind word to say about it.
Still, it isn’t what I look for when I go to London. The great thing about the so-called “Indian” food scene here (I’m putting “Indian” in quotation marks because a more accurate term, I suppose, would be “subcontinental,” which would include food from Pakistan, and the disputed land of Kashmir, among other areas) is that you can find it in every neighborhood and it’s the genuine item. The white tablecloth spots are fine for people who are skittish about true subcontinental food. But those that offer the real deal are amazing, and frankly have more guts than those that cater to, well, a white-tablecloth clientele. And don’t assume that good ingredients are restricted to the pricey places; every restaurant discussed here uses high-quality meat and vegetables.
For New Yorkers, and even more so for people from other parts of the United States, the opportunity to eat fine, authentic “Indian” food does not come often. Yes, there are such places, but they often don’t last long, and, even more often, they stray from their roots in an attempt to cater to mainstream tastes. In London — to use a British term — brilliant choices abound. Here are four, more or less in order of my preference, though they are all very close. (One that did not quite make the cut, but which I will try again, is Malabar Junction, in Bloomsbury.)
Café Spice Namasté
Intricate, fascinating, different, delicious and unpretentious.
That should do it, though some details are in order. Café Spice in the East End has a casual, ’70s, almost hippie-ish look, with bright colors and uniformed staff. It demonstrates not only how sophisticated real “Indian” (O.K., last time with the quotes) food can be, but how fine it can be, even in such a laid-back place.
Appearance aside, it is a terrific restaurant, very close to mind-blowing. The food was among the most intricate I ate during a three-week eating tour of Europe. The chef is the well-established and much-loved Cyrus Todiwala, at home with a variety of styles and able to discuss details of every dish at length.
Among my favorites were cheera wada, small patties of yellow split pea and spinach from Kerala; prawns, Parsi style, in a sauce of tamarind and sugar; and missal pao, mushrooms and chickpeas in coconut curry, served with crisp chickpea noodles.
Aside from the eclectic nature of the cooking, two factors stand out. First, the ingredients are superior. (You may be subject to a little spiel about the rare breed of pork or lamb you’re eating, but it’s worth it; British meat, when it’s good, is very good.) Second, the menu includes Goan dishes, which are difficult to find elsewhere, and Mr. Todiwala’s versions are wonderful. Goa, of course, was long a Portuguese colony, so you’re likely to be presented with something you might find in Brazil — like feijoada, replete with chorizo. Another excellent Goan dish showed up on the dessert menu: bebinca, a layering of coconut pancakes. Rose-flavored ice cream with cardamom was another winner
Café Spice Namasté, 16 Prescot Street, East End; (44-207) 488-9242; cafespice.co.uk. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about £50, or $77 at $1.53 to the pound.
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