An elegant mulligatawny

THE BOMBAY CYCLE CLUB; 95 Nightingale Lane, SW12 8NX. Tel: 0181-673 6217. Open Monday to Saturday from 7pm to 11.30pm. Average three-course meal, pounds 20 per person. All major credit cards accepted, except Diners
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE SPENT the first half hour in The Bombay Bicycle Club speculating about the proprietor. Not having read the law reports which indicated his financial backing came largely from Sting's accountant, we merely wondered about his social status: he was obviously very posh. My companion, a sophisticated Lady of Title I risked asking out to dinner in the absence of my wife, had already arranged to meet her brother-in-law in ultra-fashionable Clapham, and we found ourselves therefore a trois on a wet night in Nightingale Lane.

The Bombay Bicycle Club is a high white restaurant with fans turning in the ceiling, an attentive European staff in clean white jackets, and the implication from the picture on the menu - of an Indian waiter in a turban carrying a covered silver dish while riding a penny-farthing - that some kind of nostalgic juice is being extracted from the old days of the Raj.

This, it turned out, was far too unsubtle an interpretation. The original club, according to a note on the large, green-printed menu, was even older. It was "a gathering-place where the first colonial officers and soldiers used to gather before the Raj was properly established". The menu is "designed to suit the European palate, spicy but not searing hot".

Which brings me back to the proprietor: in a green Lacoste shirt, white trousers and with a mop of grey hair, he was clearly Indian, was being gracious but authoritative to his Euro-pean staff, and was, according to my sophisticated friend, very grand indeed. She thought he was probably a deposed maharajah.

Her brother-in-law, an equally sophisticated painter, knew his way round the menu and ordered for starters a speciality of the house, king prawns Arabi - "marinated in mild northern spices and cooked gently in the tandoor" - and Tellicherry squid - "deep-fried in a lightly spiced batter". Always ready to go out on a limb for the Independent on Sunday, I asked for the mulligatawny soup. I remembered it as an amazingly disgusting brown goo that was on the menu at the old British Restaurant on the site of the bombed public library in Eastbourne in 1953.

We then ordered the wine. For such a posh restaurant the wine list is impressively restrained, with almost everything well under pounds 20, whether it comes from France or Chile, New Zealand or South Africa, though they do push the boat out with the Grand Hermitage, Penfolds 1988 at pounds 59.50: "Australia's most sought-after wine... intense, burnt, port-like mouthful with hints of leather, creosote and tar, backed up by an enormous thwack of luscious blackberry and blackcurrant".

We settled for the slightly less enormous thwack of the house white, a bottle of Bord-eaux Blanc sec at pounds 8.90. It was, as the menu promised, "drinkable", and we drank two.

The mulligatawny turned out to be the ideal from which the brown goo had gradually degenerated through English kitchens to what I had tasted after the war. It was very elegant and aromatic, and lived up to the gastronomic history on the back of the menu about Greek and Persian influences and "the impact on Indian cuisine of the Mughal Empire". It did not, I am afraid, stop me from tucking in to the king prawns Arabi and Tellicherry squid, both of which evoked some lost Mediterranean civilisation of Atlantis, somewhere off the coast of France rather than Greece.

The main courses at The Bombay Bicycle Club look very much like the main courses in any other Indian restaurant, but with an accent on more recognisable ingredients. I should perhaps say from my rather limited recent experience of Indian restaurants in general that this idea seems to be catching on, and that more familiar cuts of meat and identifiable fish, even fresh vegetables, have begun to appear above the surface of the curry.

At the Bombay Bicycle Club, however, the lost ingredients are well and truly up from the Flood, high and dry, with the gastronomic dove fluttering about with the olive branch in its beak: dishes like monkfish choila or Bombay mushrooms are, as the menu promises, Indian dishes "to suit the taste of the European palate".

They ordered murgh jaisalmar - chicken cooked "in the dopiaza style" (in yoghurt, as opposed to korma, which is cooked in cream) "with coriander and tamarind with our own ingredient 'X' to make it special"; shahi bagyan - fresh aubergines cooked with onion and garlic; and aloo gobi - potato and cauliflower cooked with exotic spices. I ordered Meerut noodles - "delicately spiced, tossed with fresh vegetables, served with a separate sauce". I became very expansive, suggesting they both should taste them, and tossing them a good deal further than the vegetables, but they and the discreet European staff were gracious enough to overlook the hooliganism, and we settled down to enjoy the food.

I must confess that what with one thing and another I didn't keep too close a note of what we had for pudding, though I do remember some delicious ice-cream, as refined as the rest, but I know we spent a lot of time on where such a balance of style could have come from.

At that point, fortunately, the proprietor came over. I asked him about the European staff. The difficulty about Indian waiters, he confided in carefully modulated English, touched if anything by a hint of French, was that they always wanted to work with people from the same part of India. The cook was actually Nepalese, though he had worked for many years in Bombay. He himself came from Mauritius. After that everything made sense. Mauritians are probably the most gracious hosts in the world, and I was more impressed than if he had been a practising maharajah.

My aristocratic friend enjoyed it so much she sent me a humorous postcard of herself as an enormously fat elephant god signing what might have been the bill. It came, for three of us, including coffee and the tip, to pounds 88.