"I discovered a new Indian restaurant last week," said Harry Hill in his old stand-up routines. "It was called A Taste of the Raj. The waiter hit me with a stick, and made me build a very complicated railway system." Poor Harry – but, when it comes to modern Indian restaurants, one is grateful for any signs of individual character.
My new local in Dulwich, the Chandni, is very fine, with well-sourced lamb and chicken; but how one wishes, after a few months, for something more original than bhunas and dopiazas. In recent years you could visit Chutney Mary in Fulham confident that their Anglo-Indian cuisine would be full of baroque and interesting flavours, but also confident that you wouldn't get away with paying less than £100; ditto its sister eatery, the refurbished Veeraswamy in Piccadilly.
Then Mumbai-born Vineet Bhatia emerged from the Star of India in Chelsea to open Zaika, the first Indian restaurant to pick up a Michelin star. Then came the glamorous Rasoi Vineet Bhatia in Chelsea – putting his name above the door marked him as a man of Ramsay-ish ambitions. Three years later, he's now opened Urban Turban in Westbourne Grove.
This busy thoroughfare has for years housed a famous Indian eating-house called Khan's, though its fame rests not on gastronomic distinction but on the legendary rudeness of its waiters. Located at the other end of the Grove, the Turban arrives with a cheeky, we-Indians-can-laugh-at-ourselves name, a highly rated owner and a lot of goodwill: can Mr Bhatia amaze us, by bringing inventive, reasonably priced Indian cuisine to palates fatally jaded by predictable rogan josh?
The first time I visited was in a party of eight. The room is cool, with discreet-to-murky lighting, huge windows and a handsome bar with stools. There are lots of banquette seats, and an air of informal comfort that's appealing. The menu tells you it was inspired by India's informal "street eateries" where, allegedly, families muck in and share their cheap supper, and recommends you choose two starters (at £6 each) from a selection of 16, and one of five "Classic Helpings" of prawn, lamb or chicken.
Since we were so many, Sarah, our leader, ordered a brace of Volcanic Rock Grill Platters (£24 each) which promised "Scallop, prawn, swordfish, lamb rolls, chicken tikka with three dipping sauces" and a couple of the Desi Tapas Platter, which (also £24 each) offer "Machli Amritsdari, lime lamb, chicken lollipop, chilli chicken, stir-fried cauliflower and potato chaat." Neither was a wild success. The volcanic rock was a square lump of boiling granite, on to which you're supposed to fling the raw shellfish, meat and chicken. I'm not crazy about cooking-it-yourself in a restaurant, and because a) it was dark and b) we'd never cooked on a rock before, it was hard to gauge when anything was "done". This scarcely mattered with the prawns, which were contemptibly tiny, but the prospect of consuming underdone chicken was alarming – even though we had a doctor in our midst. The other platter, meanwhile, turned out to be little helpings of chicken and vegetables wrapped in paper cones in an attempt at "street" style. They all blended, on the plate, into a mess of flavours that included spicy tomato ketchup, soy sauce and chutney. Nobody, after this, fancied a main course and we left disgruntled.
A week later, I was back with my friend James and, this time, I did what the management suggested. We ordered four starters. The Gunpowder prawns with spring onions and herb chutney were wonderfully subtle, with a kick of chilli. Tiny lamb kebabs were even better, hugely meaty and scented with rosemary. Honey and mustard tandoori salmon was disappointingly mushy, but the spicy scallops with garlic and coriander were tight little miracles of intense flavour.
Unfortunately, it was downhill fast after that. I ordered lamb biryani because I liked the look of its flaky pastry hat. But the rice was as dry as an economics lecture, and the lamb boringly flavourless. James's "Spicy prawn masala with a touch of coriander and lemon" was "workman- like at best, and the prawns came in their tail-shells. This is Indian-international food, when I was hoping for Indian-foodie food."
We ordered sides of Bombay potatoes and sag paneer (priced at £6 each) but they never showed up, even after two reminders. We asked about puddings and were told that all the ice-cream dishes were off. A cardamom pannacotta was passable in an extruded-plastic way, and we left (for my second time) disgruntled.
What on earth has happened to Mr Bhatia's magic touch? Urban Turban is a good-looking restaurant in a prime location, and its little mini-banquet of "street" starters is terrific. In every other respect, you get the feeling neither Mr Bhatia nor his staff can be arsed to try very hard in the overdue transformation of Indian haute cuisine.
Urban Turban, 98 Westbourne Grove, London W2 (020-7243 4200)
Around £100 for a meal for two with wine
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