I have to confess. When I first moved to London – once upon a long time ago – Indian was never my first (or even second or third) choice for a meal out, spoilt as I’ve been with ghar ka khana.
Fast-forwarding to present day, I don’t have much say in the matter. By popular choice, my dinner plans often revolve around my native cuisine, currently (and somewhat unexpectedly – for me anyways) “on-trend” in London’s melting pot of a foodie scene.
I have plentiful reason not to go against the grain either. Redolent of the regionally-diverse and vastly-vibrant cultures within India, the new-age choice of Indian restaurants in London is legion.
Speaking with some authority, here are a few that I’m partial to, favourites passing my family’s simple but effective litmus test: home food that’s not really home-cooked…
Particularly new & noteworthy
Topping my current list of go-to’s, is this debonair restaurant on Mayfair’s Mount Street from The Leela Group in India.
Helmed by Chef Rohit Ghai (previously of Gymkhana), the menu here is reassuringly-restorative (we’re talking unpretentious soul food), whilst strewn with a few thrilling surprises. The dal chawal aur achaar for instance, saw this humble Indian staple cloaked by a glossy arancini-like finish and was yet deeply evocative of simpler childhood days with just the first bite!
A trio of kulfi is a triumphant way to finish, with flavours running the gamut from luscious rose petal, to a startling kick of pink peppercorn. Did I mention it’s almost too vividly beautiful to eat? Almost.
Jamavar, 8 Mount St, Mayfair, London W1K 3NF
Talli Joe, Seven Dials
Meanwhile: the former chef at Benares Sameer Taneja, has opened a relaxed all-day restaurant on Shaftsbury Avenue, majoring in small home-style plates as varied as the vast diversity of India’s myriad of regions and sub-cultures.
Highlights range from a truffle ghee kulcha and Kathal biryani (made with jackfruits), to the gajar halwa. The milky carrot pudding is unlike any other version of this Indian sweet which I’ve had before, thanks to the use of purple heritage carrots and nutty speckles of peanut brittle. And to top it off, there’s cutting masala chai and nostalgia-invoking Parle G biscuits! More on Seven Dials, here.
Talli Joe, 152-156 Shaftesbury Ave WC2H 8HL
And then there’s the young British chef, Will Bowlby, who’s offering a modern British take on classic Indian elements and dishes. His journey began with a stint working in Bombay (incidentally at a restaurant in my favourite part of town, Kala Ghoda), leading to a wildly popular 20-seater pop-up restaurant in a shipping container in Pop Brixton, and subsequently a larger permanent space in Soho complete with a theatrically open-plan kitchen.
Kricket’s now-iconic samphire pakoras are a good way to start, before you move onto dishes like the Delica pumpkin served in a beautifully-textured pool of paneer makhani. In no time at all, you’ll be tearing up chunks of the boisterously-buttery masala kulchas (buttery enough to put the dhabas of Amritsar to shame), in a bid to greedily mop up every last inch of the rich gravy!
Kricket, 12 Denman St, Soho, London W1D 7HH
Cinnamon Bazaar, Covent Garden
For someone born (and still spending a great deal of time) in Bombay, sometimes nothing hits the spot quite like a colourful and well-textured plate of chaat (a sweet-and-savoury street-style snack)…
For this one reason alone, I found myself instantly at home at Cinnamon Bazaar, although there was plenty else to get stuck into at this welcoming new establishment from Chef Vivek Singh (of the much-extolled Cinnamon Club).
Full review, here.
Roti Chai, Oxford Street
Speaking of chaat, this laid-back canteen-style eatery is usually my go-to for chai and sev puri – a crispy flat cracker of sorts, festooned with all the right trimmings from sev (delicate deep-fried sticks of gram flour) and batata (boiled potatoes), to an avalanche of sweetened yogurt, tamarind and green chutney.
Tucked away behind the frenzy of Oxford Street, Roti Chai also serves up some fuss-free, flavour-packed plates including manchurian – a spiced-up, devilishly deep-fried take on Indian-Chinese food, that’s usually so difficult to find outside of India!
For more of my favourite Indian street-eats in London (including a kati roll fix), do have a read here.
Painted Heron, Chelsea
Venturing really off the beaten path, you’ll be led to an unassuming but relatively longstanding establishment in genteel Cheyne Walk.
Under the creative direction of chef Yogesh Datta, both traditional and contemporary dishes are executed with finesse and versatility – making for a meal that is at once offbeat yet incredibly hearty and successful in hitting all the comfortingly right notes!
Full review here.
While it’s nothing like the rickety (but endearingly-so) gymkhanas of today, this eponymous Mayfair-based restaurant evokes an old-world feel of these sports and leisure clubs in India, established during colonial times.
If you have the appetite for it, my suggestion would be to go for the all-consuming tasting-menu. Our vegetarian experience covered all the classics, from a samosa-papdi chaat, to a chola-batura (a spicy chickpea curry scooped up with a deep-fried unleavened bread) as good as you’d hope to find in the sensational street-side eateries of Amritsar in Punjab.
For comfort-food at its decadent best, I’ll undoubtedly always lay my hat at Gymkhana.
Full review, here.
Quilon, St James
Then there are my South-Indian cravings, so exquisitely satiated at the Michelin-starred Quilon. The crisp dosas here (fermented savoury rice pancakes) are among the finest I’ve had in London, while the sunshine-filled mango curry is quite the star attraction too…
And of course there’s that all-too-familiar feeling of “Tajness”, which is reason alone to draw me back to this quietly elegant restaurant which is part of the Taj hotel in St James.
Full review, here.
And last, but not least.
The gradual shift in perception and execution of Indian cuisine in London owes much to the original wave of fine dining restaurants such as this Berkeley Square institution from Atul Kochhar – the first Indian chef ever to receive a Michelin star.
Benares was awarded its own Michelin star back in January 2007 too, and has since maintained it’s high standard and modern approach to traditional Indian flavours. Think passion fruit “chutney” martinis, parsnip and Jerusalem artichoke tikkis, and a peanut butter parfait punctuated with cumin marshmallows!
While it’s very much an East-meets-West affair here, what’s striking is that the restaurant stays clear of resorting to the obvious gimmicks so typical of fusion restaurants today.
Full review, here.
With no signs of abating any time soon, the Indian takeover of London’s foodie scene is set to continue with several exciting new openings slated for this year. I’ll be regularly updating this guide, so do check back for new recommendations!