A lesson in elephant polo

CHOR BIZARRE: 16 Albermarle Street, London W1X 3HA. Tel: 0171 629 9802. Open Mon-Fri from noon-11pm. Sat noon-3pm, 6pm-11pm. Thalis start from pounds 19 each. Average a la carte price, pounds 35 including wine. All major credit cards accepted
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"Chor Bizarre Opens Windows to India", proclaims the menu. Well, I suppose it does, in rather the same way that the chain of Cafe Rouge restaurants opens windows to France. A French wheeler-dealer mate of mine happens to supply a lot of the Gallic bits and bobs that transform the ever increasing army of Cafe Rouges into mini French theme parks. The last time I was in France, he was doing a nice line in bin-end art exhibition posters, to paper walls the length and breadth of the British Isles. However, for all the genuine artefacts and tat, the fact remains that you are unlikely to come across much that resembles a Cafe Rouge in a small town in France. The fact also remains that the last two times I've eaten in one, the food has been lousy in a sloppy British kind of a way. The view from their windows doesn't look much like the real thing either.

The artefacts and antiques in Chor Bizarre are a good deal classier and more covetable (they also happen to be for sale, and I very nearly went home with my first Christmas presents). In fact, as you open the door, you might be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into an exotic furniture store. Each table is unique and beautifully wrought (the top of ours was made of sandstone crochet, covered with glass, set on a sewing machine base), its chairs matching no others in the room. The walls are laden with carvings, mirrors, tribal hats and mystic paintings. In fact, the name Chor Bizarre is a rather awkward piece of wordplay on the chor bazaar, or thieves market, that is to be found in every Indian city.

Sarah lusted after the embroidered canopy that shadowed a table for six while I hankered after painted wooden figures, wooden spoons and an animal- headed bench. Luckily the parking meter curbed our zeal for possession, otherwise we might have left the premises considerably poorer, or been tempted to join the thieves themselves. However, for all these delicious curios, the view from this window seems no truer than that from a Cafe Rouge. It feels like a Westerner's collection, not some magical corner of India.

The menu makes for lengthy and fascinating reading with information about anything from elephant polo to the saris of the fisherwomen of Maharashtra. Most of it is about food, however, ranging from the pure vegetarian diet of the Jain community, to the 72 courses of the Kashmiri Wazwan. The dishes on offer are a far cry from the average curry house selection, but with just enough familiar names to reassure. The staff, all smiles and helpfulness, are anxious to ease customers in. They offer to reduce the spiciness of the shikanjvi, when actually all I wanted to know was what went into it. A great deal of effort seems to be put to softening the blow of aromatic Indian dishes (the menu rating of two chillis, or red hot, turned out to denote a rather mild whisper of heat), which can be irritating. Don't they know that half the British population pride themselves on being able to down a brazen Vindaloo in one?

As it turns out, it wasn't the spiciness that dimmed my initial enthusiasm for the cool long drink, shikanjvi. It has a curiously sulphurous scent donated by its Indian black rock salt seasoning, that wafts up the nose as you drink, drawing your attention away from the refreshing sweet sharp liquid. The fulsomely recommended Gazab Ka Tikka, best-selling item at their sister restaurant in Delhi, turned out to be chicken nuggets in cheesy disguise. No spices to be scared of there. The fruit chaat was a fruit salad by another name, and a rather dull one at that, with chunks of granny smith and unripe strawberries, seasoned with lemon juice and a fleeting waft of spices. More spices, choicer fruit and it might have made the grade.

My rather pricey red hot Kerala prawn curry was unremarkable - mild heat, mild flavour, mildly pleasant and eminently forgettable, but the undisputed gems of the meal were fleshless. Al Yakhni came as a swamp of soupy yoghurt gravy scented delicately with fennel with rafts of green squash floating around - a dish too subtle and light, I suspect, to ever make its way to any high street Taj Mahal. Top of the bill, straight from Hyderabad, was the stunningly good Baghare Baingan, sauteed aubergine (or egg plant as they insist on calling it on the menu - I wonder if they originally intended to land in New York, which might perhaps account for the heavy tempering of the spices), swathed in a thick sauce of peanuts, tamarind and sesame seeds. I'd have scraped the bowl clean if I hadn't already been rather full.

As they cleared the dishes, profuse and polished apologies (by then I think we'd been allocated the manager) flowed forth. Why? We hadn't complained. We weren't being awkward. The rice was wrong, he assured us. That bowl of pulao rice with what looked like freezer pack mixed veg scattered on top was not what we had ordered, even if we hadn't noticed and didn't mind. Free puds all round and not a word more.

Only quarter of an hour left on that parking meter, but we didn't want to let the restaurant down in their flurry of attrition. One mango kulfi - remarkably phallic in shape but as cool and creamy and redolent of mango as you could wish - and one gulab jamun, twin spongy balls afloat in a slick of syrup, flew down at the speed of light.

"You must try the Kashmiri tea," he said. So we did, and very odd and interesting it was too, green, bitter and almost soapy, with shards of almond congregating in the bottom of the cup. With a little sugar and perseverance, it became increasingly refreshing and soothing. By the time I'd exposed the almonds, I was a convert. It was then that the crowning glory was wheeled on: an enchanting metal toy car, with a roof that opened up to form a lid over a glass tray of supari - sweet aromatic spices to scent your breath and ease your stomach. It could have been mine. They offered me a price, but I didn't know whether you are expected to bargain when the name is Bizarre instead of Bazaar. As if to save me from this uncomfortable dilemma, the siren voice of the over-run parking meter called me away. I looked through the windows to Mayfair, and legged it.

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