Eating Out: On the north-west frontier

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The Independent Culture

263 Willesden High Road, London NW10 2RX, tel: 081-459 0340.

Open for lunch daily (booking is essential), and dinner every night except Monday.

Average two-course lunch pounds 6 per person, set dinner pounds 9. No credit cards.

MY REGULAR companion has gone on strike; he refused to accompany me to a restaurant in Willesden last week. The prospect of yet another free meal just couldn't sway him.

The problem was I'd been far too honest. If I'd pretended we were headed for Aberdeenshire, perhaps, or Oxford Circus . . . if I hadn't been so rude about his rusty car the last time we went on a restaurant outing . . . if I hadn't told him the restaurant was, well, vegetarian, perhaps he would have come. But he wouldn't. It was the prospect of meatlessness, I think, that was the killer blow. Meatlessness and the bloody, never-ending World Cup. There was no moving him.

So I was much more wily with the next person I approached. He's one of my oldest friends, and I thought it would be fine to be a little economical with the truth. 'Patrick,' I said. 'What are you doing tonight, then? Howsabout a freebie dinner on me?' He said: 'Yes, but where?' - and I pretended not to hear him. 'It's supposed to be the best Indian restaurant in London,' I said. 'It's won millions of prizes.'

And indeed it has. After a meal at Sabras you are given a small leaflet with the bill which tells you about the endless accolades (LBC, Gault Millau, Curry Club . . .). It then asks whether customers would like to invest money in the business ('Sabras Presents MIPP - More Interest Per Pound scheme') to help fund the restaurant's relocation to a more salubrious part of London.

Sabras, we learn, has been open for 21 years. Since then, the leaflet adds, its 'home-style food, cooked with love and care' has been 'the subject of write-ups for every food critic (except Jonathan Meades of the Sunday Times)'. So there I was, unlike Jonathan Meades, yet another food critic in Willesden High Road. Have you been there? I hope not. It's not a cheerful place. Actually Sabras makes a brave attempt to brighten up this ugly corner of north- west London, by covering its front door with fairy lights. It's a ploy that helps, but not enough.

And poor Patrick. He'd put on a jacket. He knows I usually write about luxurious dining rooms and was expecting the best. How was he to know that my editor and I, after a little tete a tete, had decided it would be friendly to cater for the more impoverished among our readers this week. Patrick and I had gone to Willesden specifically in search of something cheap.

We were fighting off the clouds of gloom which normally surround one in ugly places, grinning inanely at each other and pretending we were having fun over a Formica table-top in an otherwise deserted vegetarian restaurant in Willesden. We admired some sweeties ('designer' sweeties, according to the waiter, 'not marzipan') which lay behind the brightly lit glass counter beside our table. They looked like miniature water melons. We decided to eat quickly and go for a fashionable drink in the West End.

The walls of Sabras are plastered with complimentary press cuttings and certificates of general excellence. The food is very cheap and, before I make any more snobbish remarks about the poor restaurant's location and its slightly desperate lack of congenial ambience, I must stress that the food was excellent. Honestly, the best and most prettily produced cheap Indian food I've ever eaten.

We ordered quickly, but the service was still slow. Patrick wanted a laambi thali involving rice, raita, dal, four puris (delicious hot oyster-shaped hybrids somewhere between bread and chapati), a subzi, a collection of designer sweets and a poppadom, all of which, and especially the dal, were exquisite. The sweets were spicey, starchy and sweet - more like an oriental fudge than the dreaded marzipan. Even the poppadom was outstanding in its crispness and taste. The thali cost only pounds 8.50. Portions were generous. He couldn't finish it.

I ordered the Sabras deluxe thali - similar to Patrick's, but larger and yet more glorious. It cost pounds 11 and I couldn't even begin to finish it. Mine also came with the delightful oyster-shaped puris. I had more dishes to choose from (or to leave behind, I'm ashamed to say, on my enormous and beautiful plate). The dal was excellent, but best of all was the ravaiya - a curry involving banana, baby aubergine and sweet potatoes. I gather Sabras is the only place in London where such a ravaiya is available.

Pudding came on the same plate, as it always does with a thali. I wish it wouldn't, because ignoramuses such as myself - like most people, I suspect - never really know what they're eating in a thali situation. It happens every time: there I am mixing and matching and blissfully forgetful of the danger, when I combine the pudding with the poppadom in one mouthful.

I've never really been able to appreciate Indian puddings. They're an aquired taste, I imagine, and one which I suspect I will never aquire. Mine, called shrikand, was a mixture of curd cheese, saffron, cardamon and pistachio. I didn't like it. It made me feel slightly sick.

I think it's a sign of a good vegetarian meal when you forget to notice the lack of meat. We did. By the end of the meal we'd cheered up, in spite of the appalling High Road. The elderly waiter - who wore horrible, pale blue fitted summer trousers - was dry and quite jokey about the 'designerishness' of his puds and the remarkable lack of customers in the restaurant.

We drank a couple of bottles of beer and a couple of cups of coffee, and the bill came to pounds 29 including tip. Nothing. But Sabras, I'm afraid, is only vaut le voyage, so to speak, for the true gourmand. For the rest of us, good food - even excellent food - is not enough. Willesden High Road, the deserted Formica tables and the electric organ music make the experience something closer to a struggle than a Great Night Out. Even for poor people.