When the Bombay Brasserie opened 25 years ago, the Goan fish curry cost £4.95. Unbelievable, I know, but the owners, Taj International Hotels, wanted to distance it from the average, cheap-and-cheerful, flock wallpapered, piped-sitar curry house. What better way to do that than hoick up the prices, pay more attention to detail, introduce a few regional dishes, and raise the quality?
Here was the shining future of Indian dining – the exotic venue of choice for spice-traders from Sydney Poitier and Marlon Brando, to Elton John and Mick Jagger. I ate there in 1985, loving the "last days of the Raj" space and the surprising finesse of the cooking. It made me see Indian cuisine, for the first time, in the same light as French.
So 25 years later, what has changed, apart from the prices? The restaurant is larger but it feels the same, with its light-filled conservatory hung with greenery, dotted with brass and copper planters and walled with murals.
And the food? A popular starter of palak pakodi chaat (£9), a toss of crisp, battered spinach reminiscent of Chinese "mermaid's tresses" is a good texture dish, drizzled with a lovely tamarind chutney and sweet yoghurt that makes you forget the traces of oil clinging to the chiffonaded greens. Another vegetarian dish of baby cauliflower on a bed of fenugreek-flavoured peas is pleasant enough, although £10 is steep for something that is little more than a vegetable side dish.
At £22.50, the much-ordered kebab platter is standard Indian fare, the tandoori chicken bland, an over-sized basil and coriander prawn practically tasteless, and chicken fenugreek tikka chewy. As for the Goan fish curry, it now costs £21.50, for three giant chunks of halibut lolling about in a smooth, velvety, rust-coloured sauce of coconut and chilli. The sauce throws it and me completely, tasting harsh, discordant and unbalanced. It's the only really poor dish of the night, apart from the plates themselves, which are either overly floral, or large, trying-to-be-modern squares.
Waiters – and there are a lot of them – tend to huddle around their service stations but everything gets done in its own good time. The only time there is any alacrity is when the wine – a peachy, elegant 2005 Pinot Grigio from Colterenzio (£29.75) – is poured into the bulbous, thick-rimmed glasses.
The best thing about the Bombay Brasserie is the bread, cooked expertly in charcoal-fired ovens rather than the more common gas-fired ones. The naan (£2.50) is everything you could want in naan; fluffy, puffy, warm and scorched just enough to make it soft and crisp at the same time. Second best thing is the lush, creamy, beautifully balanced daal, which comes automatically with every main course order, and the third best is a big bowl of tomato, cucumber and pomegranate raita (£3.50), the cucumber softly shredded into the yoghurt rather than chopped. So you do really well if you don't order any actual dishes, then.
The Brasserie is the antithesis of the modern, high-pressure, fast-turnover, restaurant. Not only does it have a grand sense of space, it has an equally grand sense of time. I'm sure nobody would mind at all if you pulled out a chess set and sat on a pakora for three hours while you brought down Boris Spassky.
But while some restaurants, such as Le Caprice, are 25 years young, this one is feeling its age. Attempts to modernise, like installing a self-playing glossy black Yamaha piano whose keys move eerily up and down without human intervention, are just embarrassing. Service seems institutionalised, the overall experience is bland, and there were farcical mistakes made with the bill.
The word mausoleum springs to mind, but perhaps museum is kinder, housing as it does the history of modern Indian dining in this city.
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
Bombay Brasserie, Courtfield Close, Courtfield Road, London SW7. Tel: 020 7370 4040. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £130 for two including wine and service
Second helpings: More long-serving Indians
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