Restaurants: Vindaloo, we're one up on you

Caroline Stacey sings the praises of vegetarian curries. Photographs by Morley von Sternberg

Occasionally, I crave Indian food, even feel homesick for it on holiday, but usually find it disappointing and dyspepsia-inducing afterwards. Maybe curry is really a guy thing. They're more enthusiastic participants in the post-pub vindaloo and burping contests that take place in tandooris all over the country - even in the best of these, such as Cafe Spice Namaste in the City (speciality, emu tikka masala), you will find diners pretending they have grown beards of nan bread - and they do seem better able to digest food, or at least to laugh off its consequences.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Life and Style
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s
food + drinkNew BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?