Restaurant review: Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 21 September 2013
Five years ago, Trishna opened near Baker Street specialising in upmarket (and expensive) Indian cuisine. It was the brainchild of Karam Sethi and his brother Jyotin, both born in London, and specialised in the cooking of south-west India. The memory of its Isle of Shuna mussels and its coastal lamb curry has remained with me ever since, and I wasn't surprised when the place picked up a Michelin star last October.
So when I learnt Sethi had a new place in Mayfair, I seized my wife's hand, hailed a cab and dashed there on the day it opened. The new place is called Gymkhana, a name that could lend itself to bad-taste jokes about horsemeat and pony curry. But the word is, appropriately for such a London-Delhi operator, Anglo-Indian. It originally meant 'a place of assembly', then mutated into the Hindi word gendkhana, meaning 'ball-house' or 'racket-court', which became mixed into the word gymnasium. During the Raj, a gymkhana club meant 'gentlemen's club'.
And very clubby it is, too. Marble tables, dark wood booths, Hades-hued mahogany with oxblood leather panels, serious mirrors, globe lamps, ceiling fans, nicotine-hued, rag-rolled walls. It's Raj minimalism, if that is, indeed, a thing. One's first impression, however, is of gloom. The lighting is so penumbral, subdued and melancholy, you feel like weeping when you're hardly through the door. And when you've settled into your booth, you can't read the menu. This is a beautifully designed piece of graphic art in shiny plastic, but the low lighting renders it fatally indistinct.
Downstairs there's a second dining room and a cosy bar with a nice, speakeasy feel. On the wall are Punch cartoons and late-Victorian prints of pig-sticking and related Raj amusements. Karam Sethi used to see such things, along with billiards and polo matches, when visiting his folks in New Delhi as a child. I can imagine it being a major draw on autumn and winter nights.
The cocktails have been outsourced to drinks specialists Fluid Movement, which also owns the Worship Street Whistling Shop. Angie's Ooty Town Gimlet featured Old Raj gin with rosewater cordial, crystallised rose petals and a dangling (genuine) rosebud; it gives a sweet, rosy glow. Quinine Sour is a re-imagined gin and tonic, with Tanqueray, 'tonic syrup', ginger, lemon, egg white and a curry leaf; wonderfully clean-tasting, it leaves you aching for more.
Instead of starters, mains and puddings they offer seven courses: the Gymkhana bar, nashta (breakfast) dishes, kebabs and tikkas, game and chops (there's a striking array of game – quail, grouse, guinea fowl, roe and muntjac deer), curry and biryani, sabzi (side dishes) and puddings. A trio of poppadoms, sorry, 'papads', flavoured with cassava, lentil and potato, came with a fabulous tomato-and-shrimp chutney. Chettinad duck, minced with garlic and black pepper, was served inside a tent of dosa pancake like a wildly sophisticated samosa; while Keralan moilee mussels (presumably sourced somewhere nearer than Kerala) occupied a rich bath of coconut milk, mustard seed, onion, ginger and curry leaves.
Some old Trishna favourites were detectable amid the kebabs and tikkas, especially the Goan cafreal bream with a salsa of cherry tomatoes called katchumber. We shared lasooni wild tiger prawns, marinated for hours, astonishingly soft, tomatoey, garlicky and fiery, calmed down by red-pepper chutney. Main-course-sized lamb nalli barra meant best-end chops and lamb shank chops, marinated in turmeric, ginger and cayenne pepper, that were falling-apart tender and tasty. In a side order of spiced okra, the often-slimy ladies' fingers were chopped up small and extremely yummy.
Chicken butter masala had a brilliantly smoked quality – the result, apparently, of charcoaling tomatoes in the tandoor before putting them in the sauce; it swarmed over the super-tender chicken like a yellow tsunami over a sea wall. Indian puddings often defeat me, but the 'jaggery and black pepper caramel custard', though unappealing displayed on a willow-pattern plate, was fine and treacly.
The Gymkhana has a lot of style. Waiters are dressed in black with Nehru jackets. Sommeliers are clad in grey (not that it helps them explain why the viognier on the wine list is from Greece rather than, say, France). Food arrives by trolley, as in every other Indian restaurant, but the serving dishes are posh silver. I predict a great future for the brilliant Mr Sethi's new venture – once they've turned the lighting up a smidge.
Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London W1 (020-3011 5900). About £150 for two with cocktails and wine
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