Restaurant: Spice, girls?

Tracey MacLeod goes East up West
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If there was a Heritage Walk around the famous old restaurants of London, it would have to stop at Veeraswamy, the venerable Regent Street establishment that has been dispensing curry to Empire-builders and their ladies since 1927. In its prime, Veeraswamy was the only smart place in London for Indian food, and attracted everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Charlie Chaplin, but in recent years it was more renowned for its age and grandeur than for the quality of its cooking. Earlier this year, though, it was taken over by Ranjit Mathrani and Namita Pahjabi - the husband and wife team behind Chelsea's Chutney Mary - and redesigned to attract smart young diners who want to eat inventive and authentic Indian food in contemporary surroundings.

I arrived with three appropriately young and smart companions, Sharon, Sunetra and Helen, at the restaurant's Swallow Street entrance, where the sole survivor from the old Veeraswamy, a doorman in splendid uniform and feathered turban, pointed us up a staircase to the first-floor restaurant. His appearance misled us into expecting the full It Ain't Half Hot Mum themed experience, but we emerged into a vibrantly modern room painted in a dazzling array of saturated colours. The walls are sari-bright planes of glossy purple, yellow and green, the tables and floor are bare wood, and Eastern touches are confined to the odd Mogul nick-nack and Hindu deity. In fact, Sharon was dismayed to find herself almost the most ethnic feature of the room - she'd come thematically dressed in sari-top and tubular skirt, though she'd drawn the line at wearing the little blue socks favoured by the Queen on her recent Indian tour.

Our table beside the floor-to-ceiling windows gave us a commanding view over the broad sweep of Regent Street. With Piccadilly Circus round the corner, and red double-deckers chuntering past, we really felt as though we were in the heart of the West End. As Helen remarked: "It would be a great place to come after the theatre... if any of us ever went to the theatre." Sunetra, though, was more resistant to the Veeraswamy vibe, and kept saying, "When I walk into a modern room like this, I want light Italian food, not curry."

The menu is shortish and organised by region - Veeraswamy aims to introduce diners to aromatic Southern Indian specialities from Hyderabad and Kerala, alongside classic dishes from the North. Much on the menu is unfamiliar, but is described with a spicing of such appetising adjectives we wanted to try everything. "Mmm, delicate wispy rice pancakes," murmured Helen dreamily, obviously imagining the pancake equivalent of a floaty Ghost dress.

Sadly, our starters didn't live up to the palate-teasing poetry of their descriptions, though they did look beautiful. Helen did best, with a spicy cod-and-salmon fish cake which was fresh and juicy, and emitted a jet of lime when she cut into it. Sharon's crispy potatoes tossed in spices were slightly old-tasting, though the accompanying minted pea fritter gave a hint of better things to come. My lala puri were unsubtle and overspiced, and no better than I would expect to encounter in a regular Indian vegetarian restaurant.

Our waiter seemed to sense our disappointment - in fact, he was so attentive that he reminded Helen of an ex-boyfriend who was always holding her hand, gazing into her eyes and asking, "Happy?" He persuaded us to try an extra starter, pani puri, a Veeraswamy speciality. Described on the menu as North India's most popular street food, they turned out to be crispy, potato-filled biscuit shells into which we were supposed to pour a cold brown tamarind sauce, like an exotic miniature version of Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Our waiter urged us to try and eat each golfball-sized puri in one bite, but we all demurred daintily until his back was turned, then chucked them down our throats like seals in a zoo. But again we were underwhelmed, and agreed that if it was possible for a food to be spicy and bland at the same time, then these pani puri managed to achieve it.

One of the pleasures of eating in an Indian restaurant is that you can dig into communal bowls of food, but Veeraswamy encourages a more self-contained style, serving up each main course with its own appropriate accompaniment of vegetables and rice or naan. Sunetra disapproved of this approach - "If they really want to serve food as it's eaten in India, why are they giving us knives and forks? We should be eating with our fingers!" - but was grudgingly complimentary about her plum dopiaza, a Hyderabad speciality involving lamb, caramelised onions and plums. Sharon liked the fact that her seasonal vegetable curry was lightly enough cooked to preserve the crunch of the courgettes and broccoli, though she was less keen on the coconut sauce, which she found uncomfortably reminiscent of Malibu. My white chicken curry flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and green chillies was clean-tasting and fragrant, but again not as different from a standard chicken korma as the description had led me to hope.

The pudding list includes various exotic sorbets and sweetmeats, but we could only manage a single caramelised carrot tart between four of us. Pleasingly spiked with nuts and spices, it was like a mild and milky version of carrot coleslaw, and it brought our bill to pounds 144, including two bottles of wine. As we lingered over masala tea, the turbaned doorman came in from the cold, and I imagined I caught a slightly disapproving look in his eye as he surveyed the busy dining room, its ghostly Maharajas and movie stars elbowed aside by informal gaggles of young people for whom a visit to Veeraswamy was just another stop on the metropolitan circuit. On the other hand, it's possible he may have just spotted the repellent sight of four grown women fighting over the last morsels of a communal carrot tart

Veeraswamy, Victory House, 101 Regent Street, London Wl (entrance in Swallow Street) 0171-734 1401. Lunch, Monday to Friday 12pm-2.30pm (pounds 11 for two courses, pounds 13 for three); Saturday brunch with live jazz 12.30pm- 3pm; dinner Mon-Sat 5-30pm-11.30pm. Sunday opening from mid-November. All major credit cards and Switch. Wheelchair access.

Indian file

Chor Bizarre, 16 Albemarle Street, London W1 (0171-629 9802). An eclectic mix of Indian furniture captures the charm of India, without the noise. A straightforward menu, with some dishes Kashmiri in origin. Baghare baingan, aubergine salad accompanied by a sauce of peanut and tamarind is delicious. Approx pounds 30 per head.

Malabar, 27 Uxbridge Street, London W8 (0171- 727 8800). Tucked away in a back street behind Notting Hill-Gate, Malabar is a real find. Don't be disconcerted by the modern-looking decor, inside you will find a bustling restaurant frequented by local regulars. The menu is wide-ranging and offers more than the usual curry formulas, serving other variations such as Makhani (tandoori chicken cooked in butter ghee and tomato sauce) and Keema Nan. Approx pounds 16 per head. Aoife O'Riordain

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