Banyan, restaurant review: 'A lovely setting but the owners need to spice up the menu'

The Kings Arms, Midhurst Road, Fernhurst, Surrey, GU27 3HA (01428 644090)

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

My search for a high-end Indian restaurant outside the metropolis goes on. In London, the brothers Karam and Jyotin Sethi have set the standard with Trishna, near Baker Street, which specialises in south-west Indian food and which picked up a Michelin star in 2012, and its sister restaurant, Gymkhana, off Piccadilly, a gorgeous tribute to a Raj-era gentleman's club, with marble table-tops, lots of game dishes like muntjac biryani, and the kind of cocktails you could imagine Julie Walters necking in the recent Sunday-night drama Indian Summers. Last year it became the first Indian venue to be named national restaurant of the year at the National Restaurant Awards.

Outside London, I've heard excited reports about Myristica in Bristol, the Viceroy in Carlisle, Prithvi in Cheltenham and the Shampan in Westerham, Kent. All are places whose chefs take pains to make dishes individually characterful rather than generic. So when I heard about Banyan, in the Surrey countryside, I grabbed the memsahib and directed the rickshaw-wallah to take us there pronto.

It's a barn standing beside a pub, the Kings Arms, a 17th-century watering hole that's been through more makeovers than Katie Price. It was the Kings Arms for 300 years but in 2010 became the cumbersomely-titled Marco Pierre White at Wheelers at the Kings Arms in Fernhurst; two years later it was The Handsome Pig, before it reverted to its original name.

The conversion of the barn into Banyan seems to have resulted from the pub's owners clambering into the sack with the people from Meghdoots in nearby Petworth (or to give it its slightly idiotic full name, Meghdoots Mystique Masala). The website for this popular local joint promises authentic Indian dishes "prepared by fourth-generation chefs flown in from Mumbai", as if the cooks represented some kind of emergency service. Would their joint brainchild be a credit to them?

The interior is immensely appealing. Your eye travels up to the ancient roof, the huge, original, unplastered wall of stone and brick, the sturdy crossbeams, the fat lamps. A cool terrace stretches away outside towards rolling hills and grazing horses. The furniture is bog-standard wood-veneer tables, upholstered chairs and shining floorboards. There's nothing remotely Indian about any of this, except the elephant motifs on the curtains and brass fitments – but you don't need statues of Ganesh and Lord Vishnu to appreciate good Indian food.

The poppadums were exactly what you'd expect, but their accompanying dips were a cut above your high-street curry house: onion mayonnaise with chilli and pepper was pungent, yoghurt with mint was cooling, but the mango dip was too smooth – better would have been chutney. The chef's special of diced chicken infused with garlic chutney with coriander resembled classy, bright-red chicken nuggets: the chicken was soft and juicy, egg-battered with ginger and garlic. So why did they have to slather it in szechuan sauce? Did the chef not trust the subtlety of his flavouring?

Khatte jheenge was a piquant mix-up of shrimps, spring onions and half-moon slices of near-raw mango, a sour'n'spicy combo that worked ok but made you wish they'd peeled the mango: the skin's far too hard to eat. Tilapia fillets, marinated in "pickle-flavoured spices", whatever they might be, was as delicate as vintage lace, but it lacked much taste.

Under "lamb and pork", the menu offers nine lamb dishes and one pork. My lamb choice was hyderabadi gosht, a Mughal delicacy prepared with fennel and star anise. This is a lovely combination, not a million miles in flavour from the classic French dish of lamb with Pernod and herbes de Provence. Here, the lamb came in an orange-brown sauce of the sort you've seen a million times in Indian restaurants, but it had a nice liquorice tang.

Angie's murgh methi was basically chicken tikka cooked with fresh ginger, garlic, lemon and fenugreek leaves. It arrived sizzling like a vengeful serpent, the chicken as dry as a cobra's coccyx, an accompanying salad utterly wilted by the angry heat. A side order of palak ke sang sang – pureed spinach with mushrooms – was pleasant but under-seasoned.

From a tiny pudding menu, my nariyal ladoo combined fresh coconut with milk in a hot ball served with mango or pistachio ice cream. It was like eating a hot Bounty bar with cold Ben & Jerry's – not bad, in a baked alaska sort of way.

Banyan was a lovely setting for a slightly disappointing meal, in which promising-sounding dishes didn't quite escape traditional modes of presentation. A touch more boldness and originality would spice things up no end.

Food ***
Ambience ****
Service ****

The Kings Arms, Midhurst Road, Fernhurst, Surrey, GU27 3HA (01428 644090). Around £32 a head before drinks and service