Restaurant review: Once you've dined at Gymkhana, you'll never pop out to your local curry house again
Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London W1
Lisa Markwell is the editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was previously executive editor of The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday and has edited the features pages, and both the Saturday and Sunday supplements. She writes comment pieces for the papers and restaurant reviews for the New Review. Lisa has worked across a variety of newspapers and magazines and can now tick off every publication cycle from daily to quarterly. She is an enthusiastic foodie, mother of two teenagers and drives an electric car. She is writing a book about adoption.
Sunday 20 October 2013
Since I'm not the first, second, or even third to review Gymkhana, I shan't describe its background in great detail; you can find my esteemed colleague John Walsh's words here. What I shall talk about is the food.
With a finite amount of words and a brisk editor, sometimes the actual dishes eaten get short shrift in a review, because the décor, service and so on need to be described. John, Fay, Jay and others have helped me out here.
Had a look now? Welcome back. So, in a pretty booth with acres of space, a marble-topped table and what I think is delightfully flattering lighting, I have a dinner of such sublime tastes and precise flavours, such elegant presentation and with such charming service that though I have one of the most exhilarating jobs in the country, I wish I still had my old one, as it was a 30-second walk from Gymkhana.
First a pale ale for Mr M and a G&T for me – all very Jewel in the Crown in, respectively, a silver tankard and a cut-glass tumbler. Then we begin. The Raj-era mood is offset with what are essentially street-food snacks. If you've ever scarfed down a metal bowl of bhel puri at Diwana on London's Drummond Street (I have an addiction to it), you'll recognise the potato chat with chickpeas, tamarind and sev. At £7, this is an haute version, but don't mistake that for dainty. It's hot and tangy and crunchy and messy, a swizzle of yoghurt giving a moment's calm. Alongside, a more elegant dish of Amritsari shrimp and queenies, with dill chutney (as it should be, for £11). The tiny scallops and plump shrimps are light, despite being fried in fiery garlic, ginger and chilli. The creamy chutney cools the palate.
The Gymkhana menu is exemplary of the fine line between comforting and imaginative. The chef Karam Sethi, of the well-loved Trishna, has allowed his imagination a freer rein here. A starter of kid-goat keema sounds very fine; the fact that you can add brains if you wish is – as far as I'm concerned – a challenge I'm not up for (similarly I ducked out of Glandstonbury, a feast of all things offal and unusual, at the excellent Draper's Arms pub recently). But I applaud its presence.
For me, the bravest I get among a menu with plenty of game is a wild muntjac biryani with pomegranate and mint raita (£25). This only works if you don't get all Bambi-ish about muntjac, but boy does it work for the rest of us. A large bowl is placed with great ceremony in the centre of the table, its flaky pastry domed top studded with nigella seeds just crying out to be smashed with a serving spoon. The marble-topped table is soon covered in flecks of crisp pastry, and we're spooning out perfect fluffy rice that is fragrant with spices, slivers of tender venison and muddling it with the pastry and that raita.
A note on pricing: this dish could easily feed two (we took home a doggy bag) but there is no indication of this on the menu, nor a kindly word from the waiter. So we also, ahem, have ordered chicken butter masala (£13.50), some tandoori broccoli (£7.50), coastal spiced okra (£8) and dal maharani (£7). I don't think we have done justice to the kebabs and tikkas section of the menu, but the pleasingly scorched broccoli drizzled with green-chilli raita is a start. The dal is dark and unctuous, but I daren't order any bread to mop it up, being close to exploding point.
So that's how we end up with a bill of £100 for two. As pointed out elsewhere, you could eat as much Indian food for half the price, but this is at least twice as good. I am thrilled to have eaten the chicken dish but my arteries won't thank me; I feel peculiar from the richness of the meal – perhaps the tasting menu next time, or the scandalously good-value three-course lunch for £25.
As you can tell, this is somewhere I am most keen to return to in any circumstances. There are at least 12 other dishes I am desperate to try – suckling-pig-cheek vindaloo, Goan bream, partridge pepper fry, for example. Getting a table is going to be the problem – my high score chimes with all the other critics. Book now for December and enjoy your local curry house before Gymkhana ruins it forever.
Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London W1, tel: 020 3011 5900. £100 for two, with drinks
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013' www.hardens.com
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