Currying no favours; eating out

Dockmaster's; West India Dock Gate, Hertsmere Road, London E14, 0171 345 0345. lunch Mon-Fri 12.30pm-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 6pm-10.30pm. Dinner with one drink, pounds 25 per person. Service not included
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE few things I enjoy more than a decent curry, and I haven't had one since my honeymoon two years ago in India. I've begun seriously to doubt whether it's possible to enjoy a lovingly made, reasonably priced curry anywhere outside the Indian subcontinent.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about a very pukka new Indian not too far from my home. Though it's by Canary Wharf - a truly evil place, as all who have ever worked there can testify - it's in one of the very few nice bits, where all the atmospherically Dickensian warehouse architecture has somehow survived the creeping blue-glass and steel menace of the rest of the Docklands.

Dockmaster's (for such is its extraordinarily un-Indian-restaurant name) is housed in a perfectly proportioned, porticoed Georgian house. It has a glorious willow-shaded terrace which I imagine is hugely popular with Docklands wage-slaves in summer. In fact it's probably one of the most brilliantly located restaurants in London - lovely building, surprisingly pretty surroundings, bang next to a captive audience of suits with expense accounts to burn.

Only a total incompetent, you might think, could fail to make a fortune out of an establishment so felicitously placed. But unless it gets its act together pretty sharpish, fail is exactly what Dockmaster's Indian Restaurant deserves to do.

Inside it doesn't look quite so special as it does outside. Though it's elegant and clean, the interior has been buggered up slightly since the days when the Dockmaster lived there and it is now redolent of a provincial hotel. The clientele is a bit off-putting too: boring men in suits entertaining boring clients, hardly any women - in fact hardly any real people at all. But that's the Docklands for you.

I might have been less bothered by this had the lager and poppadoms which I ordered on arrival turned up in reasonable time. They didn't. Ten parched minutes later I went to berate the maitre d'. It wasn't really his fault. There was only one other waiter available to serve about 20 covers. And he did apologise and give us a free extra beer. But it wasn't a good start. Also I could have done with some Cobra or Kingfisher rather than the weird- tasting Sunny Beaches they offered.

You can tell the menu has pretensions to poshness because there are none of your usual Madrases, vindaloos and chicken tikka masalas, the fish they serve is red mullet and noble halibut rather than smelly Ganges river fish, and there are several items you've never seen on an Indian menu before like raan-e-sikendari (Indian roast lamb).

I've nothing against Indian cuisine that secretly wants to be French; nor do I care how expensive it is. All that matters is that the dishes work properly and that their prices do no more than reflect the skill and ingredients that have gone into them. In these terms, the stuff they serve at Dockmaster's is gastronomically incorrect and a massive rip-off.

The vegetable side dishes just about passed muster. The bhindi was a bit dry and yucky; but the sludgy dall dilwalli was perfectly OK and the potato and cauliflower in the aloo gobi were delicately spiced and hadn't been overcooked. Then again, they cost pounds 4.50-pounds 4.75 each - about what you'd pay for a main meat course in your cheapo local - so they jolly well should have been a cut above the average.

X foolishly insisted on ordering the raan-e-sikendari because she thought that "roast leg of lamb marinated in whole spices and cooked in a red wine and dark rum sauce" sounded refreshingly different. Remembering that it's a restaurant critic's job to try the dishes you know are going to be a disaster, I didn't attempt to stop her. Some sinewy bits of not very well hung lamb had been sliced off the leg, as with some horrid school roast, and drowned in an emetically creamy, reddy-brown sauce which reminded one of cheap alcohol. It cost pounds 12.50 and was the most pointless curry dish I've ever eaten.

I wasn't much more impressed by the quality of the breast chunks in the Rat's blandly forgettable chicken (sorry, nilgiri) korma. And I got mightily pee'd off with my king prawn balchao, the quality of whose "fresh catch from the Billingsgate Market" prawns and "spicy Goan marinade" was nullified by some heinous over-salting.

If Dockmaster's were to put somebody in charge who genuinely cared about Indian cooking - me, say - they could easily become the best curry house in London. What's so depressing is that, as they're probably well aware, they don't need to. They already have the three main virtues any new restaurant needs: location, location and location. With advantages like that and a vast potential clientele with more money than taste, why bother with irrelevances like decent cuisine?

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

Richard Ehrlich's selection

Not a particularly exciting list, but this is an unusual Champagne. Duval-Leroy is the unsung hero behind many of Britain's best own-label Champagnes. The vintage is great, the price pretty good. Worth a stab

Duval-Leroy Blanc de Noirs 1990, pounds 35

Beyerskloof Estate Pinotage, pounds 14

Good estate, good grape for those who like chunky, meaty reds. The mark-up is stiff, but then mark-ups at the lower end of any wine list always are

Macon Villages Chardonnay, Cave de Lugny, pounds 13.50

The Lugny co-op is better know for good-value fizz, but this still wine should be drinkable - especially at

this price

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