'Modern Indian' restaurants tend to be more modern than Indian. Can Cinnamon Kitchen get the spice right?
Cinnamon Kitchen, 9 Devonshire Square, London EC2, tel: 020 7626 5000
Sunday 19 April 2009
My latest conspiracy theory is that modern Indian food in this country is actually a revenge on the Brits for the injustices and excesses of colonial rule. So, instead of subtly spiced feasts that show a deep-rooted understanding of traditional techniques and a strong sense of place, we get mousses, timbales, dribs and drabs.
I value and appreciate the efforts made to evolve Indian cuisine by the country's leading modern Indians – Amaya, Benares, Quilon, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, Tamarind, Trishna, etc – but when they go too far up their Khyber Passes, they rarely leave me with the feeling that I have eaten an Indian meal. And now that they are getting rewarded with Michelin stars, I fear that "modern Indian" will get even more modern and less Indian.
So I come to the new Cinnamon Kitchen not as a convert, but, as Henry Kissinger said, "neither anxious nor confident, but rather resigned to events". It is the louder, livelier City-side outpost of Westminster's clubby Cinnamon Club, also overseen by the rather dashing Vivek Singh, who learnt his craft with India's mighty Oberoi hotel group.
Located, ironically, in what was once the East India Company warehouse, it is a buzzy, high-ceilinged industrial space lined with polished wooden tables and topped with gleaming air-conditioning ducting. Hand-perforated globe lights cast exquisitely filigreed shadows against pearly silver-grey walls and a stool-lined open grill, while an adjoining bar, Anise, specialises in spiced-up mixology for the boom-and-bust generation.
The food promises to be lighter and simpler than at the Club, with more flexible options for snacking and sharing. A comp starter gets my interest immediately, with its moreish crisp shell of semolina encasing spiced potato, a play on the street snack gol guppas. Next, three cloth-wrapped flat breads (£5), and a variety of chutneys (sweet tomato, mustardy pea, chilli and garlic, £3) bring colour and warmth to the table, the breads fresher and chutneys more complex than the usual poppadum fodder.
A little, rich, electric-yellow sweetcorn soup (£6) is a creamy, light-hearted tease, the perfect foil for two lollipop-like masala corn kebabs that crunch with corny sweetness in a lovely combo of modern manners and traditional spicing. OK, you now have my full attention.
A stylish little tasting plate (£7) of lamb keeps up the pace, with a smooth-talking, paté-like lamb patty wrapped in betel leaf, textbook lamb seekh kebab and a little yoghurt cake sitting on diced apple. Another starter of "fat chilli" stuffed with bland, dry, under-spiced paneer (£5) loses me momentarily, but I return for the lamb rack (£18), divided into two rose-pink double cutlets, with lovely rice and a well-balanced mint-onion sauce, the lamb all the better for being roasted rather than the more traditional braising.
Both the lamb and a main course of spiced-up sea bream with Malabar curry sauce (£15) look like refugees from a groovy gastropub, but again, there is an integrity to the spicing, a sensitivity to cooking time and an attention to textural contrast that raises them above their Western plating and passé rice timbales.
The left-field, Euro-plus wine list is also full of pleasant surprises, such as a smooth, juicy Pasqua Vigneti Casterno Valpolicella (£34) that seems to go well with everything.
Even dessert is a treat, with a creamy buffalo-milk kulfi ice-cream prettily presented on a tangle of crisp sevian noodle that is like eating deep-fried angel's hair.
The power and subtlety of traditional spicing gives Cinnamon Kitchen an anchor to the past that lets it incorporate some intelligent deconstruction and innovation without losing the plot. It means the food here is as Indian as it is modern, something I had never been convinced was possible.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Cinnamon Kitchen, 9 Devonshire Square, London EC2, tel: 020 7626 5000. Open 7am-midnight, Mon-Fri; 6pm-midnight, Sat. Around £100 for dinner for two, including wine and service
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