The banqueting manager of the five star hotel came rushing out to greet the marketing director of our company. The hotel was on a short list of possible venues for a conference we were planning. “Oh I’m so glad you came back,” gushed the banqueting manager and then, looking at me and mini me she added “oh, and I’m so happy you brought your IT team with you!” I was duly introduced as the CEO while my colleagues struggled to keep straight faces. I could hear little strangled giggles throughout our hotel tour as the banqueting manager desperate to make amends offered us “coffee, breakfast, anything? It’s on the house…” I made a point of inspecting the power outlets and phone sockets.
The problem with being brown in Britain is that people expect you to be in IT. Or good at maths at the very least. The other problem is that everyone expects you to recommend a decent curry house. My current favourite is Gymkhana in Mayfair.
The decor at Gymkhana looks like the result of a meeting where a group of Indians (probably engineers or IT chaps) decided to stuff everything that is reminiscent of the Colonial Raj into one room. Sepia tinted photos of fine looking moustachioed chaps in cricket whites vie with mounted boar heads on the walls. Rattan screens provide privacy while ceiling fans turn lethargically. This type of fuzzy wuzzy faux colonial decor is replacing flock wall paper as the default for Indian restaurants with social climbing aspirations.
On entry one is greeted by a pair of lovely Indian women in black saris and lacy see-through blouses. The saris were worn in the hipster fashion, hung impossibly low on the waist, exposing yards of female flesh. This is acceptable in India as long as the ankles are covered. Smiling Indian waiters take your order with much bobbing of heads in a manner reminiscent of Mohammed Ali in early rounds.
Unusually for an Indian restaurant Gymkhana has a well developed cocktail menu featuring classic Indian punches (punch is an Indian invention and is derived from the Hindi “Paantsch” ), a range of gin and tonics tweaked with spices and a selection of arrack and absinthe cocktails. The quinine sour tasted somewhere between a gin & tonic and a sour with wonderful top notes of curry leaf. The Regent’s Punch served on a delightful silver salver included Ceylon Arrack in a concoction which smelt better than it tasted. On the palate this drink was watery – not helped by too much ice being heaped into the glass.
The food is sublime; possibly the best Indian food I have tasted in London this year. Standout dishes include a duck dosa served with a lovely coconut and mustard sauce. This dish was punchy and spicy. Goat Methi Keema with Bheja is delicious but not for the faint hearted – minced goat and fenugreek with brain. The brain adds a creamy texture to a nicely spiced goat – a bit like goat chilli con carne. Butter chicken, that hoary old standby was a revelation. OMG is this what butter chicken is supposed to taste like? The chicken was probably roasted first and cooked perfectly. There are smoky flavours with tomato top notes. No small chapatis – this is pukka food.
South Asian nations have a complicated relationship with their former colonial masters. While bemoaning conquest, there is a sepia tinted fondness of a more gracious past, perhaps one that never existed. Both sides are in agreement however when it comes to cuisine; curry has become Britain’s favourite dish. Join the queue to taste some of the best curry around – Gymkhana’s reputation precedes it and getting a reservation can be a bit of a scrum.