A chef change since my last visit here; the new chef cooked previously at the Sheraton in Delhi. My starter of boneless tandoori quail (£12) was excellent, the meat marinaded in ginger, mustard and chillies, and served on a served salad of endive. The meat had taken on the flavours of the marinade well and was cooked through well, the spices lifting the quail but not overwhelming its natural taste (14/20). Bharwaan aloo (£8) consisted of little cylinders of potato stuffed with raisins and cashew nuts, ginger and a little mint, then cooked in the tandoor. What sounds like an odd dish worked quite well, and the potentially dominating mint flavour was kept in control; the potato had good texture and its stuffing was surprisingly well balanced (13/20).
A “Hyderabad murgh biriani” (£12) did not have the pastry case that a true biriani from Hyderabad would have. Thigh meat was used, a good idea since breast can dry out more easily, the meat cooked with yoghurt, onions and chillies. Despite a smart choice of chicken cut, I found the chicken still rather over-dried out, and the rice was nicely cooked but lacked the fragrance of a top biriani (12/20). Malabar chilli prawns (£20) were tender, seared with red chillies, peppercorns and cooked in coconut milk. This dish worked well, the spices nicely controlled, the sauce not crushing the flavour of the prawns (13/20). Aloo rai wale (£5) was cubes of new potatoes tossed with mustard seeds and curry seeds, and was properly cooked, though in this case an extra flavour or two would not have gone amiss (12/20). Chatpati gobi (£5.50) had cauliflower cooked with coriander, chilli and tomatoes, the cauliflower not overcooked and the spice well balanced (13/20).
Naan (£3.50) was superb, light and fluffy (14/20) while paratha (£3.50) was also well made (13/20). Plain rice was absurdly priced at £4.50, but was at least properly cooked (13/20). Service was fine, and the main issue here is the price. A glass of sweet lassi (yoghurt, water, sugar: liquidise) was £7, a mind-boggling price. I enjoyed the meal very much, but Haandi has the edge, is not that far away and is half the price. This is quite a premium to be paying for the smart decor.
What follows are notes from a meal in September 2006, by way of comparison.
The restaurant is tucked away at the bottom of Haymarket, and is a basement. It is very reminiscent in its décor of Hakkasan, though the design is in fact done by Julian Taylor Associates. If I was the designer of Hakkasan, I would be having a quiet word, as this looks a clear rip-off of its design. The effect works very well, with an intimate feel. It is a very large (4,000 square feet) venue that can seat 140. The dining split up by hard-wood screens into more manageable areas, each with a few tables. There is also an extensive, attractive bar. The lighting is superb, the directed hanging lamps and spots illuminating the tables very well while retaining a dark, romantic overall feel.
No popadoms here, but methi murgh was a dazzling starter, four delicate pieces of chicken flavoured with fenugreek around a central compote of onions, with a drizzle of mint sauce in a ring. The meat was extremely tender, the fenugreek in careful balance. This was one of the very best chicken dishes I have eaten outside of India (15/20). Also excellent was tandoori salmon, the fish carefully cooked (14/20). The only blemish was two jumbo tandoori prawns cooked in their shell. Although correctly cooked, there was a faint hint of chlorine, the tell-tale sign of farmed prawns, and none too well-farmed at that (11/20). Better was jeera aloo, though the texture of the potato suggested just a hint too much softness, though the cumin was well judged (12/20) while tarka dhal had a good, thick consistency and nicely judged spices (13/20). My duck was excellent, wild duck slices lightly cooked (still pink in the middle) and served in a pool of tamarind sauce, the slight sweetness of the tamarind an excellent foil for the duck; this was served with a cylinder of competent peas pulao (14/20). Naan breads (the only choice) were pleasant rather than inspired (12/20).
Desserts are also much better than one expects in an Indian restaurant, with panacotta flavoured with passion fruit having excellent texture and nicely judged flavour, served with a fine tuile. Halwa was in itself excellent, and probably did not need to be stuffed into filo pastry cases, but was served with excellent ginger ice cream in a firm biscuit tuile (14/20) desserts. A comfortable 13/20 overall. Service was brisk and efficient, if not very friendly. The problem is the price, with Hildon water at £4, a glass (half) of Cobra £4 and the main course prawns at £28, with service of 12.5%.