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.

9/10

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

Subcontinental stars

Kalpna

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

Vijay

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

Karachi

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

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn