Bengal Lancer, 253 Kentish Town Road, London
On the trail of authentic curry, our critic heads to Kentish Town's Bengal Lancer...
I've looked it up in the archives, and it seems to have been around 1993 that curry was appointed our country's favourite cuisine, an allegation that instantly entered the realm of cliché. It has appeared without much challenge in endless books, radio and TV shows ever since. That it is palpably absurd has been no impediment to its ubiquity.
It may well be that most of us would opt for a night of dopiaza over dauphinoise, a balti over a bolognese. But calling it curry is criminal. Most of what passes for subcontinental cooking in British curry houses is over-salted, under-nurtured gastronomic vandalism, marinated in monosodium glutamate, and gushing out more oil than Deepwater Horizon.
While slivers of Leicester, Bradford, Manchester and Birmingham in particular boast one or two decent institutions, we are constantly told that London is the curry capital of the world – but it is in fact exceptionally hard to find decent curry in the capital. Even areas known for their curry houses, such as Brick Lane and Tooting, long ago gave up on proper subcontinental food, and it is mostly a sorry saga.
Except, that is, for the exceptions. Being so rare, each of these is precious. Woodlands in Marylebone is the best of the vegetarian options. Didar on Caledonian Road is outstanding value. Tamarind in Mayfair deservedly has a Michelin star. Tayyabs in Whitechapel is justifiably legendary. And Bengal Lancer in Kentish Town is the best of the lot.
About five minutes' walk from the Tube station, and safely distant from the depredations of Camden, it has been recently refurbished. Out with the green, in with the red. This gives the main room, which is adjacent to a bar, a spacious if dark ambience, which seems suited more to evening than day. Bengali Akram Ali founded it 27 years ago, taking the name from the Indian regiment that served with distinction in the dog days of Empire.
Mr Ali made an early decision to emphasise freshness of ingredient, creativity, and precise execution. As a result, this menu contains some dishes you might not have tried before. The sublime liver hazri starter (£4.95), for instance, is chopped and fried chicken livers in a spicy, citrus sauce, while the cumin parsnip (£3.95) comes stir-fried with tomato and cucumber. Both the samosas and onion bhajis (£2.95 each) are lighter than is customary in these establishments, which means the spice can be detected without countervailing grease acting as a distraction.
All the usual curries are on offer – it's a long menu – but some specialities have been virtually perfected. A lamb pasanda (£8.95) is beautifully cooked mini fillets in wine and infused with almond and pistachio nuts; the gosht Hyderabadi (£9.95) is cooked on the bone with coconut, cream, and red chilli – almost Thai in its compendium of flavours. So, too, is the adventurous and house-unique chicken chasnidargh, which has a sauce made of honey, lime and balsamic vinegar, and is about as sexy a marriage of sweet and sour as the subcontinent's ambassadors will ever manage.
The vegetarian options are no poor relation either. Cooked properly, paneer is as redolent of halloumi as of cottage cheese; and this paneer masaledar (£6.95), which comes in a lip-tickling sauce, is precisely that.
The sabjee begun pie might sound like something Sarah Palin inhales before killing a bear, but in fact is a creamy association of chickpeas, aubergine and soft cheese. Seafood dishes are relatively orthodox by comparison, but no less spectacular: a Himalayan tiger fish (£11.95) comes with aromatic fried rice.
The wine list is unexceptional but reasonably priced. Overall, the effect is of a series of superbly executed precision dishes, offered to the customer on the basis that spice, which speaks to every sense and leaves room for more, is a property of food more relished than grease, which tastes of little and bloats the gut. Hurrah for that, because the absence of fatty acids, and the modesty of the prices, means you can try plenty of this menu without feeling unwell afterwards.
Authenticity in food is elusive rather than exclusive; but if you must eat curry on these shores, and do it in the capital, this is as good as it gets.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Bengal Lancer 253 Kentish Town Road, London NW5 Lunch and dinner daily. £65 for a meal for two, including a bottle of wine
2-3 St Patrick Square, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 667 9890
Ajay Bhartdwaj's long-established Gujarati canteen near the university is still much-loved by anyone looking for lovely, inexpensive vegetarian food
49 Willesden Lane, London NW6, tel: 020 7328 1087
Ignore the nondescript décor; this veteran is consistently exceptional with charming staff and stunning south Indian food at economical prices
15-17 Neal Street, Bradford, tel: 01274 732 015
With its basic décor, the city's longest-established subcontinental makes no effort to be aesthetically pleasing. It's a friendly place, though, and very good value for money
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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