It ain't half hot, mum

Everything stops for tiffin: a birthday treat at London's Chor Bizarre stirs up fond memories of an Indian childhood
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The last time my mother accompanied me on a professional assignment, to The Fat Duck in Bray, we were presented with an amuse-gueule of braised coxcombs, liver-like frills of scarlet in a caramelised sauce. Mum nearly burst into tears.

The last time my mother accompanied me on a professional assignment, to The Fat Duck in Bray, we were presented with an amuse-gueule of braised coxcombs, liver-like frills of scarlet in a caramelised sauce. Mum nearly burst into tears.

As a dining companion she presents something of a challenge. She likes going to restaurants, but only if they're friendly, and not too grand. She likes ethnic food, but is suspicious of anything raw, or too spicy, or which has previously been attached to the head of a farmyard animal. Where to take her, then, for a birthday lunch which would feel special without being intimidating?

My colleague Caroline Stacey came up with the perfect suggestion. Mayfair's Chor Bizarre serves high-spec Indian food in an eccentric, almost bohemian, setting. Its long, narrow dining-room is stuffed with Indian artefacts and Raj memorabilia, like a junk shop recreated by Merchant Ivory's set designer.

The furniture consists of mismatched one-offs, with chairs fashioned from wooden elephants, sofas adapted from metal bedsteads, and tables doubling as glass-topped display cabinets, filled with books and nick-nacks. Carved wooden screens divide the room into cosy cubicles, and everywhere there are chipped glass lanterns, embroidered wall-hangings and funky mirrors. It's unlike any Indian restaurant you've ever been to, unless, that is, you've visited the original Chor Bizarre in New Delhi, of which this London branch is a relatively recent spin-off (the name puns on the city's "chor bazaar", or thieves' market).

The décor was an instant hit with mum. "Oooh, this is just how I want my living-room," she squeaked, settling into a plush throne of ruby velvet. Her excitement mounted after reading on the menu that the furnishings and bric-a-brac were potentially for sale. ("Make your server an offer he cannot refuse.") As she sized up the jewelled cushions underneath my neighbour, I started to worry about how I'd be able to conceal soft furnishings in my expenses.

Mum was born in southern India, and yearns for the food she grew up with. Chor Bizarre's menu is predominantly north Indian, but includes specialities from south India, as well as fish and seafood from Goa and Kerala. The usual line-up of onion bhajis and birianis is spurned in favour of unfamiliar offerings such as the Punjabi speciality tak-a-tak, in which meats are finely chopped and cooked on a griddle. Or the Kashmiri dish goshtaba - "velvety spheres of finely minced young lamb flavoured with cardamom in a yoghurt gravy and cooked on a slow fire" Even the familiar poppadom gets a makeover; Chor Bizarre's are no bigger than Pringles.

As a waft of chilli rose from the accompanying lime pickle and a swirl of Hindi film music engulfed us, mum sighed, "I can feel my Indian blood stirring." "Just don't start doing that funny dance thing with your neck," I hissed back.

Because we were celebrating our birthdays, we thought we'd spoil ourselves with thalis from the "royal repast" selection, both priced at £24. Mum's south Indian tiffin began with a soup, of the sour and spicy south Indian variety known as rasam. Unfortunately, it was a little too sour and spicy for her, and I found myself sacrificing, from my Maharaja thali, a divinely pale and yoghurty version of chicken tikka, and slurping down the addictive tamarind-flavoured broth instead.

Mum's main course selection arrived in a tiffin-carrier, a stainless steel stack of dishes with its own handle. "Golly, I haven't had a meal from a tiffin-carrier since I was at school!" she twinkled at our waiter. "I was born in India, you see..." But he hastily beat a retreat, leaving us with no cutlery. Luckily, he returned before we'd convinced ourselves that we should eat with our hands.

Of the seven or so dishes in our thalis, each was outstanding in its own way - truly, some of the very best Indian food either of us had ever eaten. The star of mum's selection was chicken chettinad, a thick, sweet curry from Tamil Nadu, flavoured with pepper and aniseed; the runner-up a vegetable dish called avial, featuring lightly-cooked cauliflower, broccoli and green beans in a coriander-fragrant yoghurt sauce.

My highlights included an aromatic pilau spiced with saffron and cardamom; a vegetable dish of garlicky spinach concealing crunchy chunks of lotus root; rich and creamy daal made with tiny black lentils, and best of all, a version of chicken tikka masala which had been flamed with brandy, like an exotic cousin of lobster thermidor.

Thank goodness we ran out of buttery parathas, or we would have sat mopping up the various sauces until we burst. As it was, our cheeks were flaming and our lips had gone numb. We were also overtaken by a strong desire to put our heads down on the table and sleep, victims of lassitude even though we hadn't had any lassi.

In fact, we realised that we hadn't been offered any drinks at all, apart from the sparkling water we'd started with. Chor Bizarre has apparently paid more than usual attention to its wine list, but at no point were we shown it. Meanwhile, everyone around us - including a few solo males murmuring into hands-free phone sets - seemed to be downing pitchers of Cobra beer. They seemed a friendly enough bunch, though, and one of them gave us a beaming smile as he left, although it's possible that he, too, had lost control of his lips after all the spices.

Puddings - gulab jaman for mum, and a saffron-flavoured rice pudding for me - were as good as they ever are in Indian restaurants. "You used to love rice pudding when you were little," Mum cooed mistily, at which point I knew it was time to go.

Both of us, from our different perspectives, were surprised by the bill of £70 for two. "That's not too bad," I started to say, as she erupted with "golly gosh!" and started to fan herself with a menu. Delivering her final, delighted, verdict on Chor Bizarre, she announced, "That was the absolutely best thing that's ever happened to me!" Which left me pondering, abashed, just how excited she'd be if I ever make good on my endless promises to take her back to India one day.

Chor Bizarre, 16 Albemarle Street London W1 (020-7629 9802). Daily lunch 12-3pm, 6-11.30pm. All cards accepted. Limited disabled access