Gymkhana has been on my wish list for a while now, ever since it opened its elegant doors on Albermarle Street last year to resounding praise from even the harshest of critics – according to Jay Rayner, a meal there is an education.
When this level of hype usually surrounds a restaurant, over time the reality often doesn’t match up. Finally making it there earlier this week, I was happy to discover that was not the case here – our experience more than lived up to our high expectations…
As its name suggests, the restaurant evokes a feel of the gymkhanas of old, the sports and leisure clubs in India tracing their heritage back to colonial times. Think booths panelled in rich oak with dark leather upholstering, rattan chairs and brass-edged marble tables. Fans whir lazily overhead, hanging from a dark-laquered ceiling, while cut glass lamps from Jaipur and hunting trophies (from the Maharaja of Jodhpur, no less) add character.
A table proved impossible to book five days in advance. Faced with the alternative of a 5.30 p.m. slot for dinner on a Monday evening, we took our chances with finding a space at the small brass bar downstairs (it serves the full dining room menu). Success.
Turns out that Gymkhana is good for a cracking selection of cocktails too. We loved the Air Mule, a twist on the classic vodka-based Moscow Mule with fresh lime, bitters and an airy ginger beer foam. While the Regiment took on the champagne cocktail with gusto, adding a gentle warmth of Amrut Single Malt, marmalade and Indian bitters.
To the menu next, extensively divided across several categories – bar snacks; nashta (small plates); kebabs and tikkis; game and chops; curry and biryani; and sabzi (veggies) – with a fair level of choice for vegetarians.
We started with the paneer tikka – large succulent chunks of cottage cheese, warm from the tandoor (the focal point Gymkhana’s kitchen) sandwiching a spicy green chutney, textured with cashew nut and a crunchy corn chat…
… Before deciding to order with the six-course vegetarian tasting menu, kicking off with cassava, lentil and potato papads served with mint and mango chutneys.
Followed by a samosa papdi chat, an avalanche of sweetened yogurt, tamarind and green chutney on a bed of flattened samosa, that made for a scrummy appetiser, both sweet and savoury all at once.
Next up, was a choice between rajwa chawal (a rice and a kidney bean curry that is usually one of my favourite meals to have) and a beetroot shami kebab. Wanting to try something different, we went with the latter. Delicious – the kebab was perfectly crisp, with an almost creamy centre, while the tomato-based kasundi chutney added another layer of flavour.
For our third course, tandoori gobhi. Delicate tender pieces of cauliflower from the tandoor, with a dollop of fiery green chilli raita on top.
We were filling up fast but there was no passing up on the chola batura (a childhood favourite) for our penultimate course, even though the alternative – paneer pepper fry – did sound (slightly) lighter. Fluffy yet crisp, perfectly golden deep fried batura (unleavened bread), accompanied by spicy finger-lickingly good chola (chickpea curry). Faultless.
And then for our final main course: a flavourful mushroom & pea pilau with cucumber & cumin raita (it was the first time that I’ve had mushrooms in pilau, and I had to wonder why this winning combination isn’t pulled off more often); a generous bread basket, rich dal maharani and baingan masala. The last was actually the only dish that disappointed, I found it a tad too sweet and heavy on its use of tomatoes – a shame, as it obscured the more earthy tones of the aubergine.
I have no idea how we had still room left over for dessert, let alone three. The choice on the tasting menu is usually between mango kheer and strawberry rabri. The good people of Gymkhana brought us both to try and threw in a creamy ras malai for good measure! All lovely but the kheer may have been better served chilled. While Gymkhana’s English take on the classic rabri (reduced milk) stood out, the meringue and puffed rice on top adding a sweetly crunchy texture.
Gymkhanas of India today centre around comfort food. What I liked most about London’s Gymkhana is that while decadent, it doesn’t stray too far from this path.
Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4JH
For more on Indian comfort food, my previous recap of favourites for Indian street eats in London may be up your street! Read more here.