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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing