It is difficult to walk through Soho on a Friday night without John Ruskin springing to mind - and it is difficult enough to walk through Soho on a Friday night as it is. "There is hardly anything in the world that some person cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper," quoth Ruskin "and people who consider price only are this person's lawful prey."
Soho seems full of things that people have made a little worse and sold a little cheaper, especially food, and the thronging footpaths are full of lawful prey. So anyone who at least tries to make an effort to provide freshly cooked food at a reasonable price - such as Busaba Eat Thai, Bodean's, Masala Zone, Spiga, say - is a friend indeed.
Enter Kuldeep Singh, who concentrates on the middle end of the Indian market, first by offering fairly priced Indian cooking in pleasant but unremarkable surroundings at Mela on Shaftesbury Avenue, then introducing the good-value, good-fun concept of regularly changing regional cuisines served thali-style at Chowki. So I was interested to hear that he had taken over and relaunched the eight-year-old Soho Spice as the new, improved, um, Soho Spice.
I found it difficult to get in. Not as in booking a table, but getting in. The entrance is so poorly designed, I keep thinking it's for tradesmen only. Once safely inside, a café-like space of bare wooden tables and floors looks a lot like any nice, anonymous one-size-fits-all Italian, Thai, Indian, or whatever. You can see a tandoori chef behind glass in the adjoining room, but that's about the only culturally specific thing. In an industry in which even Pizza Express manages to look warmly glamorous, this would have to come under the heading of "should try harder".
Not that the crowd seems to mind, being your typically laissez-faire Soho tribe members, from the unshaven, satchelled young men, to the post-Pitcher & Piano parties of 10 and 12, with a few dating and mating tables for two thrown in.
The new menu, designed by Singh and exec chef Raminder Malhotra, is driven by kebabs, a very now sort of trend best exemplified by the delicate, well-timed grills of Belgravia's sleek Amaya. But kebabs here seem to mean anything from whole fish to whole poussin, stuffed baby cauliflower, and pot-roasted quails. Tonight's list includes sautéed rabbit finished in the tandoor, barbecued lobster, and pineapple, star fruit and sweet potato.
There are starters, although the average diner cuts straight to the chase, ordering a package deal of a meal that includes kebab or curry with rice, naan and dal for about £10 or £11.
I try a couple of starters to test the kitchen, but I doubt that they do. A "crisp gram-flour pancake" isn't crisp. It's an unpleasantly soft, spongey crepe, rolled around a mush of spiced veggies and grated coconut. "Curls of squid" (£4.50) is a very plebian dish, the twirly bits of spice-dusted calamari bathed with coarse swatches of red, green and yellow peppers. Their flavour is thin, the spicing is coarse and the texture chewy.
Thank goodness for Cobra beer, available on tap, and a wine-list that has a fair share of spice-friendly bottles including an easygoing, fruit-laden Pinot Noir de St Bris from Domaine de l'Harmonie at £19.10.
Now for the new kebab menu. I try a top-of-the-range tandoor-grilled best end of lamb soaked in rum and clove-flavoured yoghurt (£12.95) that comes on the restaurant's signature plate in the shape of an artist's palette. It's a curious dish to call a kebab, the four small, dark, softly crusty racks of lamb teamed with a generous mound of cumin-spiced rice, and a little dish of well-cooked red lentils. The best end of lamb got the worst end of the cooking, being done to a uniform grey, leaving the flavour dense and drab. A basket of bubbled, scorchy naan is included, but has little more flavour than unseasoned matzo crackers.
The fairest dish of the night is a comfortably familiar, unchallenging spicy chicken curry - not the creamy chicken tikka variety so beloved of the Friday night swill set, but a pleasant dish flavoured with onion and mint.
For dessert, doughy golf-balls of gulab jamun are searingly hot, with a cloyingly sweet syrup and cheap-tasting vanilla ice-cream.
Other than that, there's not much to say about the place. The lighting is poor, the furniture is nowheresville, the glasses are clunky, and the staff are all over the shop - too many men in suits stand around looking worried, while too many kids in T-shirts run around looking harassed. There is a late-night bar downstairs, which feels like a me-too of the set-up at the classy Red Fort in Dean Street.
Overall, it is a charmless restaurant with low-priced, forgettable food ideal for walk-in groups. The only reason I am here is because I thought it might be a good step towards quality-at-a-price, but instead, I think I was sucked in by a PR exercise. I cannot actually see, in Ruskin's terms, that anything is made any better than it was before.
11 Soho Spice 124-126 Wardour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7434 0808. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Around £70 for two people, including wine and service.
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
Second helpings: Good value Indians
Woodlands Piccadilly 37 Panton Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7839 7258 Woodlands started in Madras in 1938 and now has 32 southern Indian vegetarian restaurants in India and four in London. This one is casual and easygoing with a fine line in the famous masala dosa (rice and lentil flour pancake with spiced vegetable filling) which must not be missed. Add some fried dal and malai paneer (cottage cheese and peas) and you have a feast for two for less than £20.
Akbar's 1276 Leeds Road, Thornbury, Bradford, tel: 01274 773 3311 When Shabir Hussain opened this north Indian restaurant in 1995 it held a mere 28 people. Today it seats more than 200 and there's still not enough room. Regulars love the pan-cooked balti dishes and old favourites chicken tikka and rogan josh, but it's worth trying the Punjabi specialities or the daily "handi" dish more typical of Indian home cooking.
Bobby's 154-156 Belgrave Road, Leicester, tel: 01162 660 106 Vegetarian food can sometimes look and feel a bit lifeless, but at Bobby's it feels colourful and full of energy. This Gujarati restaurant was established by the Lakhani family nearly 30 years ago and hasn't yet felt the need for a designer makeover. Start with farsan and chaat snacks and go on to chana masala (kabuli chick peas in a rich spicy gravy). There are good-value thalis for those who can't decide.
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