London's Indian Food
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London's Indian Food

Mark Molloy
Hooray for Bollyfood: in London, a new wave of Indian restaurants is raising curry, biryani, and vindaloo to a higher level. Peter Jon Lindberg samples some of the best

If you've spent any amount of time in London, chances are you've spent a portion of that time eating chicken tikka masala, or at least smelling chicken tikka masala on every corner. If you've lived in London, no doubt you have a favorite Indian restaurant—or two, or seven. The curry house has replaced the chip shop as England's canteen, a humble yet beloved neighborhood icon. Tandooris, biryanis, and samosas are sold at every Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's. Indian food now accounts for two-thirds of all meals eaten out in the U.K., feeding 2.5 million people per week. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways even serve fragrant curries on flights—much to the chagrin of those who neglected to order them.

London alone is home to 800,000 southern Asians, and one could compare the role of Indian food in the city to that of Cuban food in Miami or Moroccan in Paris. But that would understate how popular the cuisine has become among non-Indians. Like McVitie's biscuits and Earl Grey tea, Indian food is now a byword for "British." The theme for England's 1998 World Cup team was a rousing anthem called "Vindaloo," in honor of the vinegar-and-garlic curry cherished by football fans. ("We're off to Waterloo/Me and me mum and me dad and me gran / And a bucket of vindaloo!"). Would French fans have countered with an ode to tagine?Likely not.

Curry was only the beginning. The U.K. has lately been swept by a fascination with all things Indian—from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, a Bollywood-style musical, to The Kumars at Number 42, a brilliant BBC2 sitcom about an Indian family in Wembley, to films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Lagaan, and Monsoon Wedding. In 2002, Selfridges transformed its Oxford Street flagship into a Bollywood fantasia, with fashion shows by Indian designers and a "spice market" set up in the Food Hall. Even the stodgy Victoria and Albert Museum held an exhibition last fall titled "Cinema India: The Art of Bollywood."

There are now some 8,000 Indian restaurants throughout the U.K., most of them indistinguishable from one another: flocked wallpaper, chutney-stained menus, waitstaff describing dishes as "spicy" or "not so spicy," all-purpose gravies added to lamb, chicken, or vegetables—a one-sauce-fits-all approach that would scandalize any trained Indian chef.

Lately, however, a new wave is redefining what an Indian restaurant can be, with inspired interiors (designers finally got the flock out), smooth service (did you ever expect a sommelier?), and imaginative cooking that emphasizes clean textures and clear flavors. Entrées arrive individually plated, in contrast to the old family-style service, wherein diners piled a bit of everything on their plates—like mixing coq au vin with coquilles St. Jacques, chefs say. In lieu of a 40-ounce bottle of Kingfisher, you're offered a $40 Cab Sauvignon. Rather than a tinny sitar sound track, you hear the tabla-trance beats of Talvin Singh.

The haute-Indian newcomers have had to struggle against type. "Indian food carries a lot of baggage in England," says Namita Panjabi, founder of London's Chutney Mary. "For decades, it was the cheap, quick nosh you had after the pub. You might take your mother-in-law, but never your bank manager." Yet Londoners are increasingly willing to spend more time and money on a top-grade Indian meal. And the cuisine is finally gaining due respect. In 2001, London's Zaika and Tamarind became the first Indian kitchens in the world to earn Michelin stars. Cyrus Todiwala, chef at the Parsee, was short-listed for an Academy of Excellence prize at last year's London Restaurant Awards, and the Painted Heron in Chelsea was nominated for Best New Restaurant.

Vineet Bhatia, head chef at Zaika, works on a broader canvas than the typical Indian cook, conjuring dishes out of the "bet-you-never-had-this" school: "black chicken" marinated in squid ink; sea bass with raw mango over a creamy, polenta-like "Indian couscous." I doubt you'd find a grilled lobster and curry leaf risotto in Calcutta or Madras, but here it was—not necessarily Indian, but deliciously exotic, given a tableside dusting of unsweetened cocoa. And with vibrant sari colors glowing against mahogany walls and brocade curtains tumbling from 40-foot ceilings, the soaring space is as dramatic as the food.

The look couldn't be more different at the Cinnamon Club, a sober marble-and-stone, leather-paneled dining room housed in a former library. What's striking is the lack of Indian details, except for a few photos of Rajasthan. Founder Iqbal Wahhab, a former editor of Tandoori Magazine—yes, there's a Tandoori Magazine—seems determined to transcend the "Indian" label at every opportunity. He's hired a French consulting chef, along with two French managers. No desultory baskets of pappadums here; instead you get an amuse-bouche of white-lentil fritters. Chef Vivek Singh works best with seafood, coaxing subtle flavors from tandoor-seared tuna with mango and tamarind, and giving nice, smoky undertones to the Parsi-style stir-fried squid. His cooking is clear and focused, never a barrage of spices. I found myself missing the fire associated with Indian food, though the restraint of the dishes fit the surroundings. Despite its subdued interior, the Cinnamon Club (and its sleek downstairs bar) is red-hot these days. It's even open for breakfast now, serving potato parathas along with your scrambled eggs.

As upstarts move in, the old guard is also sprucing up. Soho's Red Fort was part of the first upscale Indian wave, in the mid eighties. After a $2.5 million overhaul in 2001, it has been reinvented as an ultra-chic club-restaurant. Red sandstone, brass urns, and Moghul archways set the Eastern tone. The menu now includes more creative dishes, such as a starter of tandoor-roasted pears, nectarines, green apples, and star fruit, paired with some knockout chutneys. Lightly smoked monkfish tikka is outstanding, as are grilled lamb chops finished in a star anise and pomegranate jus. And, unlike most nouvelle Indian, the food packs serious heat. So does the sexy cellar lounge, Akbar, with intimate podlike booths, Indian hors d'oeuvres, and exotic drinks such as lemongrass vodka and holy basil-infused gin.

The Panjabi sisters are the doyennes of London's Indian scene: Camellia founded Bombay Brasserie in 1982, making tandoori acceptable for celebs and Jaguar owners; Namita followed in 1990 with Chutney Mary on Kings Road. A 2002 renovation ditched the old Raj-nostalgia theme for a contemporary but still sumptuous look: teak paneling, wall mirrors, glass candelabra. There's now a sommelier, an impressive wine list, and a much improved menu. Seven chefs, each from a different region of India, head up their own kitchen teams to focus on a specific style. Loch Fyne oysters, paired with a lime-and-chile salsa, are a takeoff on a roadside bite in Goa. Slow-roasted cod is prepared in the Hyderabad manner, in a saffron, poppy seed, and yogurt sauce. Tandoori crabs, all the rage in Bombay at the moment, are cracked and baked in a spicy marinade.

Meanwhile, stylish new arrivals keep coming. The Painted Heron took up residence on Chelsea's posh Cheyne Walk—hardly a bastion of curry houses—in a whitewashed dining room outfitted with abstract art. Chef Yogesh Datta breaks the mold by serving departures like haddock in pumpkin sauce along with the more familiar chicken tikka and minced-lamb kebabs.

Cyrus Todiwala put Goan food on the map at the renowned Café Spice Namaste in the nineties. He has opened a new place in North London, the Parsee, where he delves into his native Parsi cuisine—it's less fiery than most Indian food and is instead centered on fresh herbs like mint and coriander. Atul Kochhar, who earned a Michelin star for the more traditional Tamarind in Mayfair, recently left to open Benares, another haute-Indian temple, on Berkeley Square.

Creative Indian food isn't limited to expense-account dining rooms. The Panjabi sisters' latest, Masala Zone, is an Indian answer to the Wagamama noodle-shop chain—a sleek, modern cafeteria dedicated to light dishes and snacks. Soho office workers pack in at lunchtime for southern Indian specialties like pau bhaji (a spicy potato-and-vegetable mash that's a street-stall favorite in Bombay) as well as chicken tikka sandwiches on ciabatta. The result has been so popular that the Panjabis have added a second outpost, in Islington.

Indian recipes began turning up in British cookbooks during the Raj, but the cuisine didn't reach the public at large until the fifties, when some 500 restaurants were opened by immigrants from Punjab displaced following India's independence. The Punjabi and northern Indian dishes they prepared—tandooris, dal, naan, and other regional specialties—are still what most of the world considers "Indian food." In later years, Bangladeshis moved in on the scene (today, 9 out of 10 Indian restaurants here are Bangladeshi-owned), though chefs carried on in the familiar Punjabi style.

Such cooking wasn't always genuinely Indian. As with Tex-Mex food in the United States, Anglo-Indian cuisine took liberties with the original. Chicken tikka masala—the spicy tomato-and-cream stew that was in 2001 named a national dish by Britain's then-foreign secretary—was based on a recipe from Delhi but conceived in Glasgow. The balti, another popular "Indian" entrée, was created in Birmingham. The term curry is itself a British creation: possibly derived from the Tamil kari, a piquant relish used to flavor rice; perhaps from korai, a type of cooking pot; or simply from the curry leaf.

Authentic or not, the Anglo-Punjabi hybrid became the default menu for Indian restaurants high and low. "The cooks stuck with a narrow set of rules," says the Cinnamon Club's Iqbal Wahhab. "They might posh up the décor, but the bowls of brown stuff just became posher bowls of brown stuff." Few kitchens bothered with dishes from, say, southern India or Bengal. "It's a shame, because India has at least thirty-five distinct cuisines," says Namita Panjabi of Chutney Mary. "There's really no such thing as 'Indian food.' It's like saying 'European food' when you mean Greek or Swedish."

But more and more restaurants are incorporating exotic regional flavors—Rajasthani-style venison at the Cinnamon Club, Goan green curry at the Parsee. Today London has the best and broadest selection of south Asian food anywhere, including India. I've eaten at street stalls and high-end dining rooms across the subcontinent and have never encountered such a range of inspired, assured cooking as in London. "In many ways this is the epicenter of Indian food," Panjabi says. "There's a variety of styles here now that you'd never find in Delhi or Bombay."

Capitalizing on that trend is Chowki, an unassuming storefront near Piccadilly that's among the best of the newcomers. The spare, industrial interior—plain hood lamps hung from aluminum ceiling pipes, communal rows of wooden tables and leather cube-stools—hardly prepares you for the intensity of the food. Each month Chowki showcases three regions of India, taking diners on a grand tour of the subcontinent. Highlights on a recent visit were minced-lamb dumplings from the North-West Frontier, in a savory gravy; Karnataka-style prawns tossed with delicate mung beans, coconut, mustard seeds, and caramelized onions; and, from vegetarian Gujarat, a crunchy onion bhaji mash with roasted peanuts and coconut-mint chutney. But you'll also find familiar dishes done supremely well, including the best dal I've ever tasted, made from split gram lentils. And, just as you'd get on Bombay's Chowpatty Beach, some deliciously sweet coconut water, served in the shell to be drunk with a straw.

Does your curry house do that?

PETER JON LINDBERG is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.

Tamarind 20 QUEEN ST. 44-207/629-3561; DINNER FOR TWO $114
Zaika 1 KENSINGTON HIGH ST. 44-207/795-6533; DINNER FOR TWO $110
Red Fort and Akbar 77 DEAN ST. 44-207/437-2115; DINNER FOR TWO $142
Chutney Mary 535 KINGS RD. 44-207/351-3113; DINNER FOR TWO $100
Painted Heron 112 CHEYNE WALK 44-207/351-5232; DINNER FOR TWO $92
The Parsee 34 HIGHGATE HILL 44-207/272-9091; DINNER FOR TWO $73
Benares 12 BERKELEY SQUARE 44-207/629-8886; DINNER FOR TWO $133
Masala Zone 9 MARSHALL ST., SOHO 44-207/287-9966; 80 UPPER ST., ISLINGTON 44-207/359-3399; DINNER FOR TWO $33
Chowki 2-3 DENMAN ST. 44-207/439-1330; DINNER FOR TWO $50

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