When are you too fat? When blinking leaves you winded? When you can gain, say, 100lbs without anybody noticing? I've been worrying ever since I ate at Deya, Sir Michael Caine's new Indian restaurant on Portman Square. Not one of London's prettiest squares - in fact, rather a mean little square that's forever choked with traffic. But Deya itself is an airy, elegant sort of place favoured by the beautiful people. And that makes it all the more humiliating - being too fat for my chair.
So I perched. And read the menu. I wanted to take the back roads, and steer clear of the tired tourist sites. I wanted to visit a different India. But, at first glance, the Deya menu appeared to offer up nothing new. Not that I would have minded a well-executed classic - a rogan josh or a butter chicken. And when I heard that the chef was using his French influence to do away with ghee, heavy oils and cream, I got very excited. Especially with a bum the size of mine.
The first sign of the Indian lite approach was the bucket of grilled - or baked - poppadoms. They were too dry. No amount of spicy apple chutney could make up for that. But the vegetarian and non-vegetarian tasting menus (£32 and £35, respectively, including wine) still looked good value for money. Until the crab rice arrived, with no discernible crab, and squid that tasted like pork scratchings. My cauliflower pakora was floury and limp, not crisp and clean. And the cauliflower soup, although tempered with fennel seeds, was too creamy.
Things got better, with an exemplary chicken tikka. The meat was tender, and tasted as if it had been cooked in a wood oven over charcoal rather than in a tandoor. And the red snapper was every bit as succulent, in its marinade of red chillies, ginger and carom seeds. But neither the chicken nor the snapper surprised me on the plate. We're inclined to think of India as poor, but in Madras you can buy three different kinds of radish - and carrots that are yellow. Why didn't Deya reflect any of that diversity?
The vegetable dumplings sounded exciting - a spinach, pea and green bean mash, enriched with paneer and smoked pine kernels. They should have been anything but bland. But there was no flavour, except of curry powder. The British curry began with the crews who worked the colonial P&O ferries from India. When they set up restaurants in Britain, they used a "one-curry sauce" made from imported paste. The intricacies of Indian cooking didn't really feature. At Deya, I'm afraid to say, it seemed that little had changed.
In India, a good biryani is served in a clay pot sealed with dough. When you raise the lid, the smell should hit you - all butter and spices, followed by the subtle aroma of basmati rice. But, in Britain, biryanis are too often bland. And Deya's crusted wild mushroom biryani was no exception. Except that it came with a pastry top. A biryani pie, if you will. Which was a shame. And when I cut into the pastry, the aromas simply weren't there. The chef had somehow managed to adulterate wild mushrooms.
I washed down dinner with a lassi. As it turns out, with good reason. The spices in curry are soluble in fat - not in water. So, after something spicy, water does no good at all. But a full-fat lassi cools the mouth wonderfully. As does a raita, and a buttery naan. My guest stuck with the wine. Indian food and wine make a great match. It's just inhibition that makes people fearful. It's actually more difficult to match wines with Thai or Indonesian cuisine, because of their sweet-sour and creamy base.
It's an Indian tradition to write Om on the baby's tongue with a finger dipped in honey. Om means "I am" - it's a nice image to illustrate that, in a metaphysical as well as a culinary sense, you are what you eat. There are lots of places that understand the new Indian cuisine - there's Tamarind, The Cinnamon Club, and The Painted Heron. I wouldn't put Deya up there with them. My opinion had nothing to do with the numbness of my bum, perched on the edge of a dining chair for two hours. I'm a bigger man than that. Much, much bigger. E
Deya Bar And Restaurant, 34 Portman Square, London W1 020-7224 0028
SECOND HELPINGS: THE STARS OF INDIA
By Caroline Stacey
The Painted Heron
New branch of the Chelsea star with a daily changing menu of outstanding food. Poised for Whitehall overspill; power hungry chaps do love luxury Indian food - just look at The Cinnamon Club.
205-209 Kennington Lane, London SE11 (020-7793 8313)
4550 Miles from Delhi
One of Nottingham's top spots: an eye-catchingly modish venue with as much emphasis on atmos and design as on Punjabi cooking that's rich, meaty and spicy.
41 Mount Street, Nottingham (0115 947 5111)
This is a long way from balti country. Sub-continental cooking rises above the rest, especially with original veggie dishes such as green papaya in a lentil purée.
3-4 Dakota Buildings, Birmingham (0121 212 3664)
As many rooms as a cat has lives, and purring with sophistication. The menu's short, the dishes from all over India. Goan fish curry and pork vindaloo as you've never tasted them.
1-3 York Place, Edinburgh (0131 557 9899)
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