Restaurants: Eastern Edens

Three recently opened Indian restaurants shatter the stereotype of the lagered-up-in-search-of-a-slap-up. And about time too. Photographs by Nicola Levinsky

You don't need me to tell you that despite the popularity of curry, we don't value Indian food as highly as we should. We expect it to be cheaper than equivalent European meals, we behave in Indian restaurants in ways we wouldn't in others: boorishness bordering on racism is rife between the poppadoms and midnight mints on Friday nights across the country. But, according to commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writing in The Independent last month, connoisseurs of Indian cooking are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Those who are enthusiastic stand accused of appropriation; those who don't accord it equal status with French or Italian food are said to undervalue it.

Yet, until recently, Indian food that merits a place alongside outstanding cooking of any origin has rarely been found in London restaurants, though if you knew where to go there were exceptions in the areas where Asian people live: Southall, Wembley and, increasingly, Tooting.

Now cooking of refinement and innovation is breaking out of these neighbourhoods and into the mainstream. That is if you can describe as mainstream a crossroads between the suburbs of Brixton and Dulwich where chef, Udit Sarkhel, opened his mould-breaking restaurant 3 Monkeys at the end of last year.

"South London's never seen anything like it," said one of the locals I went with, as we walked across a gangplank suspended over the lower dining area, into the dazzling white restaurant with purple patches. Since I was with smokers we were sent downstairs, missing out on the live action and more appetising vapours generated by the open-plan stainless-steel kitchen above us.

The menu rarely collapses into purple prose apart from the occasional "palate-awakening" and the "Show Time" section of dishes such as tandoori, breads and kadai, which sounds like another word for karahi or the debased balti pan, but 3 Monkeys does offer dishes I've never seen before.

Starters are not really an echt part of Indian dining, and surplus to requirements here, although we succumbed to a fine seekh kebab, excellent pakoras of onion and green chilli, the batter so light it had solidified on impact with hot fat into crunchy tentacles; and too-dry spinachy fritters. Tamarind was the sauces' dominant theme with these last two.

A main course of anjeer gosht, lamb with a sauce thickened and sweetened with fig and with fried filigrees of potato on top was as rich as it sounded although less remarkable. But it was the vegetables, baigan patiala - aubergines with cashew nuts; buttery, soft and subtle - and bhindi jaipuri - finely sliced okra and onions fried almost crisp and dusted with mango powder - that were the most intriguing. Breads too, a laccha paratha with saffron and a smoky, soft naan, were unusually fine.

Perhaps tellingly, an Anglo-French restaurant round the corner has closed down; while 3 Monkeys is the most stylish evidence that thoughtful Indian cooking is refreshing parts of the capital without a large Asian population.

The staff are multiracial, Australian even. A significant step in the evolution of Indian restaurants, I hope it continues to get the customers it deserves, not Neanderthal tandoori types. These are usually the male of the species as I've discovered that when more primitive men eat out together, they're more inclined to go for a curry, while most women probably wouldn't choose Indian food above all others. And yet ...

At Shimla Pinks, for the first time in an Indian restaurant, I saw four women pile in after a couple of bottles of Chardonnay and get stuck into more wine, a superior curry and a conversation about sex. It was a scene that delighted my own pet curry dinosaur, who accompanied me in pursuit of his favourite food, for once not on a night out with the boys. Shimla Pinks is a successful small chain that started in Glasgow, a city still known for its deep-fried Mars bars, and, moving south via Nottingham, Birmingham, Solihull and Oxford, has arrived in London.

It occupies a Victorian Turkish baths in the City, an underground room that beautifully combines the original pale stone floor, oriental tiled arches and marbled walls with modern glass screens, dusty blues and pinks, and, for what the verbose accompanying publicity calls the "Rupee Wallahs": George Grosz-like artworks.

Shimla Pinks, we're told, are the Indian equivalent of young Sloane Rangers - rich, status-conscious kids - and this restaurant group promises stylishly flamboyant consumption to appeal equally to Asian and European customers. Testimonials come from, among others, Harpers & Queen and the Porsche Owners Diary.

The menu divides into traditional and connoisseur, and there seemed no point in keeping tradition going. Instead of samosas and onion bhajis, we shared a starter, joojeh seekh, which underneath a batter coating that belonged in a Glasgow chip shop contained a delicious cardamom-laced minced chicken kebab with minty chutney inside it. Thereafter, one meat and two veg choices, subtly but distinctively spiced, showed a tendency to sumptuous saucing which, although each dish itself was quietly impressive, risks becoming overwhelming. Khazana-e-lazzat, a kofta of squash, and a beef tomato stuffed with a garlicky, ginger-tinged mixture of mushrooms, cashew nuts and cheese were exceptional. Murgh wajid ali, chicken cooked by the dum method in a sealed copper pot with pomegranate, mint, cheese and onions, had a fabulous fresh, almost lemony tang over which the richness eventually won out. A buttery ajwaini roti kept up the unremitting luxury.

Saffron and pistachio kulfi, exquisitely decorated with squiggles of rose syrup, vermicelli and pistachios, and a disco version of "Je t'aime", upped the seduction stakes in a restaurant that looks an absolute treat; a night out on eastern tiles for groups of men, women or couples.

Shimla Pinks has the same menu at all six branches; the cooking is more than competent, lavish if not too challenging, but it doesn't quite have the definition and variety that the truly gifted chef can bring. To find that, head west to Hammersmith.

Is Vineet Bhatia unique in having his name above an Indian restaurant, taking his place alongside Gordon Ramsay (God forbid) or Alastair Little? As a chef who is redefining Indian cooking, creating his own dishes, drawing on the different regional cuisines of India and coming up with a repertoire all his own, he deserves it. Without Anglicising his cooking he has subtly adjusted the menu to appear more along the three-course lines, and almost alone among Indian restaurants the starters here really hold their own. It would be a shame to forgo kurmure jhinge, prawns coated in flakes of crisp corn with a tamarind dip, or a why-hasn't-anyone-else-thought-of-it-before Indian version of baked aubergine, stuffed with paneer and with spiced tomato on top, or a soup that achieved a perfect, slightly sour and unctuous suspension of coconut and yoghurt with a delicious chicken kebab, balanced across the bowl.

Except that the menu calls the kebab a brochette, and you can scan it as hard as you like and not find the word `curry' either, not even applied to the familiar rogan josh, lamb in onion and tomato sauce, the one conventional meat dish and inevitably, the least revelatory. But guinea-fowl breast smoked, chargrilled and sliced, on an outstandingly complementary mixture of minced meat and peas and fired up with chilli was a brilliant idea. Contrasting accompaniments were a pale milky vegetable korma where the temptation to enrich had been resisted, and baby aubergines in a sauce with coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds with the merest touch of tamarind sharpness.

Only samosas filled with chocolate - and, incidentally, the execrable soundtrack of Bryan Adams and Freddie and the Dreamers tunes played on a flute - was a fusion too far, especially as the pastry had a slightly savoury taste. It brought the bill for a three-course feast to less than pounds 30 a head, which, though I wouldn't want to encourage anyone to put up their prices, does confirm that Indian restaurants daren't charge as much as equivalent French, Italian or modern British ones. The customers, a business-like bunch of west Londoners occupying every table of the two floors furnished with white cane chairs and simply decorated with chilli peppers in test tubes looked as if they could easily afford more. And, if the short, grey-haired man in a blazer is reading this, I hope one day you pay dearly - choking on an unreconstructed chicken kebab, perhaps? - for your rudeness to the waiter. Vineet Bhatia can do without customers like you

3 Monkeys, 136-140 Herne Hill, London SE24 (0171-738 5500). Lunch and dinner Tue-Sun. Average pounds 22, set lunch pounds 8.95 or pounds 12.95. All cards except Diners Club. Shimla Pinks, 7-8 Bishopsgate Churchyard, London EC2 (0171- 628 7888). Lunch and dinner (until 9.30pm) Mon-Fri. Average pounds 25-pounds 35, set meals pounds 17 or pounds 23. All cards. Vineet Bhatia, 291 King Street, London W6 (0181-748 7345). Lunch and dinner Tue-Fri & Sun; Sat dinner. Average pounds 25, set lunch pounds 5.95/pounds 7.95. All cards.

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