EATING OUT: A posher sort of poppadom

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The Independent Culture
TAMARIND

20 Queen Street, LondonW1X 7PJ. Tel: 0171-629 3561. Lunch, Mon-Fri 12-3; Sun 12-3; dinner, Mon-Sat 6-11.30, Sun 6-10-30. Set three-course lunch pounds 16.50. Average a la carte for three courses, pounds 30. All credit cards accepted

IT'S ODD, when you think about it, how one country's cuisine - or even an entire contin-ent's - can be associated so exclusively with a particular type of evening. When a posh meal is on the cards, a posh Indian is often dismissed: it's bound to be just be an overpriced version of poppadoms, saag, vindaloo and lager for a tenner, followed by pavement- chilled diced carrot. But the poshest Indian restaurant can be to the most basic what the River Cafe is to Pizza Hut.

The Tamarind, opened in Mayfair a year ago in the basement that used to be the smart Italian restaurant Tiberio, sounded very posh indeed. Voted best newcomer by the Taj Good Curry Restaurant Guide, it also appears in the new Time Out Guide's "Critic's Choice" section, the Good Food Guide and the Evening Standard Guide. The Tamarind's chef, Atul Kochhar, was lured here specially from the Oberoi hotel in Delhi.

India drifts in an out of vogue as an inspiration for interior decor: no sooner have bedspreads with bits of mirror in them and brass joss-stick holders been widely dispensed from car boot sales, than smeary pigmented walls, wiggly-rayed metal suns and tin lanterns are all the rage. The Tamarind is very much India meets latter-day Conran shop. You descend a staircase, past a distressed dead tree protruding from the wall, into a glamorous and welcoming room: intimate yet spacious in feel without being at all large. It is painted in sun shades, with gleaming gold pillars, dark wood floors, metal suns on the walls, distressed metal chairs and - de rigeur for the fashionable restaurant - a see-into kitchen with large glass windows giving on to two tandoori ovens. A sneering reference to flock wallpaper could seem appropriate here - but flock wallpaper is so rarely seen in Indian restaurants these days that there's a danger it will turn up any second as the most sought-after postmodern design feature possible, and make one feel stupid.

The service, attentive yet relaxing, began with a greeter standing outside in the cold in grey wool Indian garb, to make sure that - in its exquisite subtlety - you didn't miss the entrance. Greeted and divested of coats, we were ushered down to a smart, pale wood cocktail bar at one side of the room, and given drinks and menus. Then, with graceful timing, we were taken to our table, where gleaming brass plates and metal cutlery in various states of emotional breakdown were awaiting us.

It is not really standard form for Indian restaurants to list Louis Roederer Cristal vintage champagne at pounds 139 on the first page of their drinks lists. But house wines begin at pounds 9, and lagers are available - albeit at pounds 3.50 a half pint. The food menu is simply and unbewilderingly divided into tandooris, curries, rice, breads and accompaniments. The starters included some exotica - such as "coconut coated dumplings of kidney beans and mint", and spiced chicken livers - but the general idea is traditional north Indian dishes, exquisitely done.

I began with shakarkand ki chaat - roasted sweet potatoes with fresh spices and ginger. Call me Virginia bloody Woolf, but the word "roasted" somehow associates itself with "hot" for me, so I was initially startled by the coolness and salad accompaniment of my dish. The taste, though, was quite, quite exquisite. My date's sunheri khasta - Indian spring rolls with mint chutney - were equally superb, and we were delighted by the emphasis on peas. The pea, we agreed, has been most unfairly spurned in the vegetable fashion stakes. Watch out for it usurping the turnip in the New Year!

As our clean-scraped plates were removed, my friend remarked that the clientele were behaving as you always hope your fellow diners will, but never do - laughing and enjoying themselves so as to dispense with the nervous chink of cutlery, but without creating nuisance noise. He liked the ambience so much he likened it to being in the Ferrero Rocher ad. There were some smart, thin young people; a wealthy but nice-looking family; a middle-aged man with strange long hair who looked like the Earl of Longleat; even some couples in jumpers. The waiters' dress code was hard to interpret. Chinos and pale blue shirts with belt pouches seemed to be saying yuppies visiting Rajasthan with portable phones, but we were unable to fathom the Disney-themed ties. Our waiter's had Donald Duck on it.

The main courses reassured us that an extra few quid spent on a curry has the same gratifying effect as on a bottle of wine. The pilau rice could have been a meal in itself; the nan was fantastic, the saag so rich and creamy that it might have come from a spinach cow. My friend thought his rogan josh was "a triumph" - really great pieces of meat, very tender, spot-on sauce. My chicken cooked in the karahi (another name for balti) was a dainty, aromatic advert for the virtues of top-class ingredients and accurate (as we critics say) spicing. In our gucchi mattar we were delighted to see our friends the peas again, and charmed by the morel mushrooms which, we were most interested to learn, are native to India.

Portions were carefully judged to avoid bloating, but we still felt unable to take on such dessert offerings as "cheese dumplings poached in saffron- flavoured condensed milk" or "deep-fried bread chunks soaked in sugar syrup", and plumped for a cafetiere of superb coffee instead.

Our meal, with drinks and wine, came to pounds 79.50 plus 12 per cent service, which was a little bit startling - pounds 6 for an ordinary whisky and pounds 4 for a bottle of water had rather shoved it up. We worked out that, if you shared half a tandoori chicken, pilau rice, saag, raita and poppadoms, and had half a lager each, you could get away with 30 quid between you. Then again, on that kind of night, you would probably be happier with 11 pints, a vindaloo and some pavement carrot.

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