Restaurants: Vindaloo, we're one up on you
Caroline Stacey sings the praises of vegetarian curries. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
But take the meat out of Indian food and you remove the undesirable blokeish elements, too. Rasa in Stoke Newington, the epicentre of new man, is unique in serving the food of the Nair community of Kerala, vegetarian cooking of unusual variety and refinement. The owner, Das Sreedharan, sends his chefs for instruction from his mother in Cochin before they work in his restaurant.
Now two more Keralan chefs have graduated from this unofficial training ground. Das is employing them at his new restaurant, Rasa W1. And in the West End, even on a Friday night, his restaurant is one of far greater sensibility than most - both in the cooking and in the clientele. The latter is heterogeneous and civilised. Eavesdrop, and you're likely to hear them discussing the food rather than the football. The former is, for the most part, exquisite.
Whereas most Indian restaurant meals start on automatic pilot with some brittle poppadoms given the go-ahead by preternaturally traffic-light red, green and amber pickles, at Rasa, such an unthinking order yields five types of crunchy starch, including plantain chips, a pappadavadai (an uber- poppadom dusted with reddish batter and black sesame seeds), and achappam, an intricately crisp construction - imagine lighter, nicer Hula Hoops joined together in a flower shape. These can be accompanied by up to eight chutneys, such as sliced ginger, diced lemon peel, green mango, garlic, coconut and coriander.
Greed and curiosity impelled us to follow these with the set menu for pounds 22.50. After the poppadom-fest came four appetisers. Only here was there a little too much uniformity. Though the selection varies according to the chefs' whim, we got four variations on a batter theme: medhu vadai (a spongy doughnut); crunch-coated plantain; aubergine slices dipped in green coriander and light batter, and Mysore bonda (potato ball). If you order these individually, some come with different chutneys ,and we didn't get the same relish as each other; he got creamed cashew, I got coconut. Perversely, we each preferred the other's. We also got an appam, similar to the hoppers from Sri Lanka - a milk-white rice batter cooked in a bowl-shaped pan (one woman is employed solely to make these) so the dough becomes crisp, brown and lacy round the rim, and moist, pale and spongy at the base. Under the subtle spotlights, which give the unflamboyantly decorated restaurant a calm, focused warmth, the star of the main course dishes was the mango curry - the radiantly golden fruit in a smooth, creamy yellow sauce decorated with dried red chillies, making it the hottest of the selection. The other mains: dry cabbage and coconut; tart beetroot, spinach and yoghurt; spinach and split yellow peas with big lumps of garlic, and soft aubergine and onion, provided a brilliant range of different vegetables, textures, colours, sauces and spices. Sweet and sour were equally well represented. Starch-wise, the lemon rice had added fragrance, the pilau was deliciously buttery, there was a very fine paratha and a rich and heavy bread made of lentils and cashew nuts.
All I could manage for afters was a nice cup of tea - the peppery, gingery, and cardamom-flavoured masala which, unlike the brew served in the average Indian restaurant, didn't have the fin of a tea bag protruding menacingly. Even the beer, Sunny Beaches, which is brewed in India, is different from the ubiquitous Cobra accompaniment to a curry. This feast was far more than we could eat, and meant that the bill of pounds 30 a head was more than we'd have paid if we'd
ordered individually. I'll know for next time.
Although this sounds as if I have been recruited into the Rasa cult (and I admit that to a certain extent I have, for Das is adept at cultivating reviewers and captivating customers), the food here gives the impression it is prepared with dedication and love.
Whether it is Ayurvedic or not, I don't know, although the after effects are more agreeable than you get from a heavy, meaty curry. A crash course in this 5,000-year-old Sanskrit-based "science of life" (Cooking for Life: Ayurvedic recipes for good food and food health, Linda Banchek, Bantam Books - Ayurvedic apple pie and brownies, anyone?) teaches that eating correctly draws on the energies of nature - of which we are each a physical expression - to nurture our body's energy (that's more or less what Brillat-Savarin said, too).
Ayurveda identifies six tastes: sweet and sour, salty and bitter, pungent (hot 'n' spicy) and astringent (dry, mouth-puckering), which should all be represented in the balanced diet that will help Ayurveda followers to achieve extreme longevity and a higher state of consciousness - aka enlightenment.
The fact that Rasa is non-smoking may add a few more minutes to my life. So, with somewhat less sensual satisfaction, could a few meals at the similarly smoke-free Mandeer Ayurvedic restaurant.
Opened in 1960, this temple-like back-street basement had become a charming relic of the earliest days of Indian and vegetarian food. Recently evacuated by a demolition squad, it has just moved to nearby Holborn, sandwiched between the Tibet shop and Tibet Foundation.
Little else has changed, however. At lunchtime, there's a small buffet of warm food, the most basic selection of which is a Gujerati vegetarian and an Ayurvedic meal of brown or pilau rice, mixed vegetable and bean (chickpea, blackeye or other, varying from day to day) curries, and, most refreshingly - two soups - a sharp, sweet and thin yoghurt kadhi or runny dal. This is only pounds 3.50, and has always attracted tract-reading autodidacts and solitary diners, though one group sounded as if they were talking about Tantric sex: "The secret is to screw it right in," said the man behind me. I turned round, only to discover he was demonstrating the use of a corkscrew.
Dinner offers a more extensive range of Gujerati snacks for starters, and Gujerati and Punjabi vegetable dishes. They are more brown and less distinguished than the curries at Rasa. Some, like the mattar panir, seem to have a faint, not unpleasant medicinal undercurrent, either from tamarind or from auto suggestion. But they balance the doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) nicely for half the price
Rasa, 6 Dering Street, London W1 (0171-629 1346). Lunch and dinner daily. pounds 20-pounds 35; Mandeer, 8 Bloomsbury Way, London WC1 (0171-242 6202) Lunch and dinner Mon-Sat pounds 3.50.
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