Why do people overrate the restaurants local to them? I often get letters from readers recommending I check out such-and-such a place because it serves "the best falafel in London" or "the most exquisite Thai green curry this side of Bangkok". After a few disappointing excursions to these "gems", I learnt to cross-reference the senders' addresses with the addresses of the restaurants. They weren't the best of anything. They were simply the closest restaurants to the senders' homes.
There is an exception, however, and that is Vijay. Before I went there, this south Indian restaurant in Kilburn had been recommended countless times, but always by residents of NW6. It wasn't until I was advised to check it out by my friend Bill Stadium that my ears pricked up. Not only does Bill write about food, but he's a resident of Los Angeles. If someone who lives more than 5,000 miles away had heard of this restaurant, maybe it was worth a visit.
From the outside, Vijay doesn't look anything special. It's on the corner of Willesden Lane and Kingsley Road and announces itself with bright-red letters against a blue background. The sign says it was "established" in 1964 and the exterior looks as if it hasn't been revamped since.
Inside, it is plain to a fault, almost like an Indian restaurant in the process of being gutted. Brown walls are occasionally interrupted by posters of Hindu goddesses that have seen better days and the lighting is harsh, illuminating rows of wooden chairs tucked under small, utilitarian tables. Not somewhere you'd want to take your spouse for your 25th wedding anniversary.
On the plus side, the prices are in keeping with the décor. Starters range from £1 to £6.20, with mains beginning at £4 and climbing to £9.80 for the king prawn special. If that strikes you as on the high side, the restaurant offers an all-you-can eat lunchtime buffet for £5.99 (see picture).
Being a south Indian restaurant, Vijay offers a wide selection of vegetarian dishes, which pleases my non-meat-eating wife. We decide to share a couple of starters – masala dosai and vegetable somosa – and, for our mains, I opt for chicken masala while Caroline has cabbage-carrot thoran, dhal spinach and some chana masala. To accompany this, I order a bottle of 2008 Frascati priced £15.
From the first bite of the dosai, I realise why my friends have been raving about this place. It's light and crispy with a lovely buttery flavour, even better than the dosai at Sagar on King Street in Hammersmith, which is saying something. This impression is confirmed by the somosa, which, like the dosai, seems to have been cooked with about 10 per cent of the grease used in a typical Indian restaurant. The shell is wonderfully light and delicate, with a rich, vegetable filling inside.
My main course is a knock-out, made with large chunks of freshly cooked chicken, and Caroline is so pleased with her vegetable dishes she lapses into a series of moans and groans. When she recovers the power of speech, she singles out the freshness of the ingredients and the fact the chef is able to use spices quite liberally without masking any of the individual vegetable flavours.
How does such an unprepossessing establishment come to be serving some of the best south Indian food in London? The answer is that the former head chef, Vasu Nair, was talent-spotted by George Harrison in the 1960s, and the Quiet Beatle recruited him to join his personal staff. The current maestro in the kitchen, Mia Dras, trained under Nair for 25 years and, clearly, Nair managed to impart everything he knows. The food at Vijay is exactly the same as the food served at the table of one of the 20th century's most passionate exponent's of Indian culture.
I'd like to describe Vijay as a "hidden pearl", but I'm probably the last gourmand in west London to dine there. During our visit on a Wednesday night it soon begins to fill up, and I'm reliably informed that on Friday and Saturday nights it's heaving.
If you've over-indulged and over-spent during the holidays, I can't recommend Vijay more highly. Not only is it reasonably priced, but you could eat here every night without getting fat. And, after seeing her reaction to the cuisine, I've changed my mind about not bringing Caroline here to celebrate our 25th anniversary.
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
Vijay 49 Willesden Lane, London NW6, tel: 020 7328 1087 Lunch and dinner daily. About £50 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More spicy stunners
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