Yesterday was Pakistani Independence Day and today is Indian Independence Day. What better excuse to dwell on one of India’s finest exports, its amazing cuisine?
1. Taste of India, 340 High Street North, East Ham (vegetarian)
Okay, I know East Ham might be a slog for many of you, but it’s also home to a vibrant Indian community including, once upon a time, LondonlovesBusiness.com reporter Shruti Tripathi, who swears by this place. According to Shruti (a Delhiite), Taste of India serves up North and South Indian food for absurdly good value. Paneer makhani and bhindi masala are among her favourite dishes.
She’s not alone in her enthusiasm either. One fan has gone so far as to make a 52-second video of the restaurant front, aptly titled “Outside Taste of India Pure Vegetarian Restaurant”. Hmm.
2. Benares, Berkeley Square, Mayfair
Eagle-eyed LondonlovesBusiness.com Lifestyle readers will remember when we reviewed Mayfair’s Benares back in January, or more recently when we reviewed its new summer cocktail menu a month ago. In many ways Benares sits at the other end of the Indian restaurant spectrum to Taste of India: it is less traditional and more pioneering, combining, as it does, Indian cuisine with British ingredients such as cheddar and wood pigeon.
Benares is the place to go if you’re feeling flash (it’s one Michelin-starred with prices to match) and after something indulgent, opulent and innovative.
3. Rasa N16 (vegetarian) and Rasa Travancore, 55 & 56 Church Street, Stoke Newington
Rasa N16 is my favourite Indian restaurant of all time. And I really love meat. It is the original of the Rasa empire, which has expanded into eight restaurants, including one in Newcastle. A small, cosy restaurant, it serves well-priced South Indian food – much of it Keralan – with a focus on delicate flavours leading to subtle, perfumed dishes.
You won’t find anything close to a korma or tikka here. But you will find masala dosas, idly samba and bagar baingan – a Hyderabad dish of aubergine cooked with onion, coriander seeds, tamarind, chilli and cashew which makes baba ghanoush look like cheap mayonnaise. Go, if only to try this dish.
For those of you that really can’t forsake meat, Rasa Travancore across the road is also excellent. There’s a small cross-over in menu – mainly snacks – and the same focus on spices and traditional cuisine Keralan cuisine.
4. Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel
Tayyabs is everything Rasa N16 isn’t. It’s Pakistani for one thing, meat-centric, big, noisy, brash, hurried and rather hectic at times. You have to book – unless you want to queue around the street – and it’s ‘bring your own’ (BYO) too. All of which makes it perfect for larger parties, when you can keep ordering the legendary grilled lamb chops like there’s no tomorrow, but not ideal for a romantic meal for two. A bit like the string of Vietnamese places that colonise the start of Kingsland Rd in Shoreditch, the waiters will do everything in their power to get you seated, sated and out in half an hour flat! No lingering over coffee here.
This shouldn’t put you off. Just like we put up with Songs of Praise and Gardeners’ Question Time so as to enjoy EastEnders and Today, so you must accept the pushy waiters if you want to enjoy their shami kebab and chicken tikka. And believe me, you do.
5. Lahore Kebab House, 2-10 Umberston St, Whitechapel
As with all great institutions, Tayyabs has a rival: Lahore Kebab House, just a five minute walk away. Lahore is equally devoted to meat and is also BYO. There is much debate over which of the two is better. I suggest you try both and decide for yourself. Generally, though, it’s easier to get a table here, the waiters are not nearly so pushy and the décor is far more basic – this being more roadside canteen than London restaurant, which is, I think, to its credit.
6. Masala Zone, 48 Floral Street, Covent Garden
A world away from the grimy back streets of Whitechapel is Masala Zone in Covent Garden. All those brave enough to eat from the street food carts in India (remember, fortune favours the brave) will relish this place. Those exotic mixes of puffed rice and spices that you pointed at and said “yes please” to when holidaying are all represented.
It’s great for people watching too. Trendy young Indians love hanging out here, as do Bollywood stars. As well as street food, there’s thalis, a grill, and curry. Prices are very reasonable too (though the street food isn’t 10 rupees a plate, sadly).
(Also very good for street food is the Diwana Bhel Poori House on Drummond Street.)
7. Quilon, 41 Buckingham Gate
Another Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, Quilon has just undergone a complete redesign. The menu is centred on South-West Indian coastal cuisine, and features a lot of seafood, mango and coconut as a result.
Anybody that still thinks Indian food is all curry and poppadums will get a pleasant surprise here. Lobster with mango and ginger, Goan spiced sea bass, and stuffed quail legs are just some of the dishes on offer.
8. Tamarind, 20 Queen St, Mayfair
In 2011, Atul Kochhar became the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star. At the time he was head chef at Tamarind. Since then, Kochhar has left the restaurant to open Benares (see entry no. 2), practically on the same street, though Tamarind has retained its star under Alfred Prasad, the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star at 29.
Addresses, chefs and stars aside, the two restaurants are actually very different. Tamarind’s extensive menu is more traditional than its neighbour’s and offers more choice – including a separate vegetarian menu and kebab menu. All of which make this place more of a crowd pleaser, i.e. a good place to bring the unadventurous father-in-law or stubborn vegetarian teenage daughter.
9. Cocum, 20 Bridge Rd, Hampton Court
Cocum is an unprepossessing little gem among the swish cafés and smart restaurants of Hampton Court, says our editor Sophie Hobson, who rates this as one of her faves. Don’t be put off by its stark interior (red carpet, white walls, and the occasional naff Indian picture), the food is sublime and very reasonably priced. Sure, Cocum offers familiar Indian dishes like sag aloo, tikka and masala, but we’re talking paneer butter masala. Very pleasingly, there’s not a chicken tikka masala in sight.
The vibe is authentic and interesting. Try the medhu vada (spongy doughnuts made from urid beans) or meen varuthathu (deep fried king fish marinated in red chilli and turmeric) – and that’s just for starters. Cocum’s dosas are legendary, and we’re big fans of the vegetable dish selection, boasting delights such as mango pulissery (sweet and sour spiced mango and green banana cooked in cumin) and beetroot and green peas thoran.
10. Hot Stuff, 19 Wilcox Rd, Vauxhall
This place comes purely on recommendation. But boy, are they some recommendations. A quick google brings plenty of 5 star reviews – including a dazzling one by Jay Rayner (albeit from 2008). Friends assure me Hot Stuff is still cheap, authentic and good. Apparently there’s a website too, but when I rang to ask for it I was told by a startlingly unpleasant woman that she couldn’t recall the address before she hung up on me.
Luckily for her, some of the best meals I’ve eaten have been served by grossly unfriendly people so I still plan on visiting… (full review to come)