The Bombay Brasserie has a seminal place in the history of Indian restaurants in London, as it was really the first to bring top-end chefs from India over to London, and serve regional specialities in a smart setting when it opened in 1982. I used to be a regular there, but somehow the cooking seemed to drift a little downwards as the prices drifted up, and it started to seem dated. In 2008 the restaurant closed for a major refurbishment, and it has now reopened. The room is much improved in my view. As before there are two dining areas, a large room with grand chandeliers and thick carpet, and the conservatory. The latter has been greatly updated, with a central bar/cooking demo area, and a much more modern feel. The restaurant still has vast capacity, able to seat 200, and there is now a private dining room in addition.
Crucially, the revamp has extended to the kitchen. The menu is completely different, and there are some new chefs from India in addition to the old team being retrained in India. The new wine list starts at just £14, and has choices such as Peter Lehmann Weighbridge 2007 at £19.50 for a wine that costs about £8 retail, the excellent Jermann Pinot Grigio 2007 at £45 for a wine costing £14 or so in the shops, and Marques de Riscal 2004 Reserva at £41 for a wine that costs £12 to buy. For those on expenses, the list extends upwards to a Margaux 2002 for £465 for a wine that will set you back around £150 In the shops.
Here are brief notes from a recent meal.
Starters were £5 - £11, main courses costlier e.g. Goan John Dory was priced at £23, home-style chicken curry at £19. Excellent Hyderabadi dhal (tempered yellow lentils) had a pleasing hint of smokiness and was priced at £4.50. A pair of scallops (£11.50) was served on a bed of peppered crab meat and garnished with curry leaves. The scallops were very lightly cooked, and the crab with its carefully controlled spices was a good foil (4/10). Mango flavoured king prawns (£11.50) was even better, the prawns good quality and very nicely cooked through, again with well-balanced spices (5/10).
The “home style” chicken curry was the worst dish for me, the chicken moist but the sauce a little one-dimensional (2/10). However a mushroom curry was excellent 4/10) and a special order of aloo gobi was superb, the cauliflower and potatoes both retaining their texture and having absorbed an interesting and complex mix of spices (5/10). Naan bread was light and supple (4/10). Service was excellent throughout.
Gulab jaman was simply the best I have eaten. These balls of milk solids in sugar syrup can often have a grainy texture or be dry inside, but here they were delightfully moist, and the sugar syrup rich but not sickly sweet (5/10). Kulfi was attractively served in a properly made tuile basket (4/10).
What follows are notes from a meal in May 2010.
As you browse the long menu a tray of mini-popadoms appears with a pleasant tomato chutney. We began with some tandoori dishes, chicken tikka “doodhia” (£10) and tandoori salmon (£9.50). The chicken tikka was what I would have termed malai style i.e. with a marinade for the chicken involving spices and cheese, which softens the chicken before it is cooked in the tandoor. It was served on a slightly odd plate in three large pieces, and was terrific. The chicken was very tender, the spices nicely coming through, the texture of the chicken attractively soft (4/10). Also excellent was a piece of tandoori Scottish salmon, the fish remaining moist through the cooking process (often tandoori salmon can end up dried out) and having a hint of spiciness from its marinade, served with a little mint chutney on the side (4/10).
For the main course I had a black pepper chicken (£19), which had a generous slab of chicken, properly cooked, but with a sauce that I found rather bland, despite the addition of plenty of black pepper at the table (2/10). However my wife fared a lot better, with a trio of very large char-grilled king prawns (£23.50). The prawns, despite their size, were perfectly tender, the marinade really lifting the flavour of the prawns, the spices in balance and well judged. I have to think back to India to recall a comparable prawn dish, as I have not eaten a better one in the UK (6/10). On the side naan (£2.50) and paratha (£2.75) had quite good texture (3/10) while yellow dhal was pricy at £8 but had pleasantly thick texture, avoiding wateriness (3/10).
Another dish that impressed me was bhindi (okra) with sesame seeds (£10); bhindi is almost always disappointing in restaurants, who make it with either too much tomato or don’t cook it from scratch, either way ending up with a soggy mess. Here it was cooked really well, without a hint of sogginess and showing off its inherent taste (5/10). For dessert we tried a home-made kulfi, which I actually found a little grainy in texture (2/10) and an excellent mango sorbet (4/10).
I was really impressed with the meal tonight. The tandoori cooking in particular is superb, and the careful handling of the bhindi showing a kitchen that really cares. This is a triumphant revamp of a grand old restaurant, and it was noticeable that on this mid-week evening almost every table was taken in the vast dining room.
On Sunday lunch there is an all you an eat buffet, which was completely full on the day that I visited. Curries are that rare thing that do not really suffer from waiting around for a while, and the skill with the vegetable dishes in particular was impressive e.g. aloo methi had excellent potatoes with a nice hint of fenugreek, and a mushroom and pea curry had good spicing. Breads are, sensibly, brought to the table fresh on request.
At lunch during the week The Bombay Brasserie offers a “Tiffin box” for £22. This consists of a trio of nicely presented small starters (such as a very delicate piece of chicken tikka) then a further trio of curries (a bhindi avoided any hint of greasiness). There is a vegetarian option (the one today included good paneer), and the choices vary daily. Also included are light and supple naan breads, and a pair of desserts, of which I really enjoyed a rich shrikand.
What follows are from a meal in July 2008, just before the refurbishment.
It is many years since I have been to the Bombay Brasserie, which opened in 1982 and was the first restaurant to bring up-market Indian cooking to London. Part of a hotel owned by the Taj Group (the leading hotel chain in India), the Bombay Brasserie lifted Indian cooking above the high street tandoori that was all that most of us were used to in the UK. I used to be a regular here, but somehow fell out of the habit of coming about a decade ago. It is tempting to review only the latest, trendiest restaurants, but I thought it would be interested to see how a long-established place was keeping up with the times. The décor is certainly little changed, with a grand “last days of the Raj” feel to it. We ate in the large and airy conservatory this evening, which adjoins the main dining room. Tables are large and generously spaced, with white linen tablecloths and napkins. It does feel rather dated now in terms of decor.
I’m not sure of the exact capacity of the restaurant but it can certainly seat well over 100 people at a time, and was pretty busy this evening. There is a short but decent wine list, with wines mostly in the £20 - £40 range and including some good New World choices. The menu spans the different regional cuisines of India, from Punjabi dishes through to snacks from Gujerat and seafood from Goa.
Popadoms are served with chutneys that are not from a jar: tomato, a lime pickle and a slightly sour mango chutney. I didn’t find these to be especially great pickles, but at least they took the trouble to make them. I began with fenugreek chicken tikka, a pair of large pieces of chicken marinaded and then cooked in the tandoor. The chicken was cooked through properly, and indeed a little longer than idea, leaving the meat a bit dry. The marinade was subtle but there was a hint of fenugreek; personally I could have done with a little more use of spices. The little salad next to the chicken was past its best (1/10). Much better was sev batata puri, poori, and mixed up with potatoes, sprouted lentils, gramflour straws, yoghurt and tamarind chutney. This was excellent, the pooris crisp, the spicing immediate (again, perhaps a little more chilli would have been beneficial) and the yogurt and tamarind keeping the dish moist (3/10).
Chicken biryani was reasonable, the rice nicely fragrant, flavoured with saffron and mace, but the chicken was a little dried-out (1/10). Prawn balchow was better, a Goan dish with four large prawns cooked with chillies and vinegar, the prawns very nicely cooked and tasting a little of charcoal, suggesting a traditional tandoor than the gas one used more often these days (2/10). A gobi mattur was good, with both peas and cauliflower retaining their texture properly (2/10). Most main courses are offered with a yellow dhal and a potato curry, which unfortunately both were distinctly tepid, presumably because they are kept separately and brought round by a waitress rather than being freshly prepared in the kitchen. A garlic naan was a little hard, and a regular one served at the next table looked much better.
Service was a rather mixed bag, with plenty of staff around but a few elements of clumsiness, at least at our table. The prices are the big problem here. Main course dishes are mostly around £23, starters £11, vegetables side dishes a scary £10, though breads are just £2.50. With two beers, some lassi and two courses only the bill still weighed in at £61 per person. The conservatory is a pretty spot, but with places like Haandi only a short distance away at a fraction of the price, I can now recall why I fell out of love with the Bombay Brasserie. I was rather dreading that the food might have declined, but in truth the food is not bad, and good in places (though they need to fix the vegetable side dishes getting cold, something I remember being a problem a decade ago). Unfortunately the bill has headed inexorably upwards, and I suspect that injecting change here will be like turning around an ocean liner. This was visit was interesting from a nostalgia perspective, but you can find better value, high grade Indian food elsewhere.