Homesick in London? Here’s where to eat, says Kunal Vijayakar
There’s a lot of great Indian food, of course, but also Sri Lankan, Chinese, Thai and a myriad other choices to satisfy a palate craving spice and familiar flavours.Updated: Jan 24, 2020 19:45 IST
I am in London, and I am so trying to avoid eating Indian food. But that’s proving to be a task as tough as any, because there’s such good Indian food in London, and since most of the chefs running these fab Indian restaurants are my friends, I have to vigorously fight the urge to dine at an Indian restaurant every night.
Some of these are justifiably Michelin stars, like Quilon at the St James’ Court Taj hotel, lovingly nurtured by chef Sriram Aylur. His drama of South Indian cuisine, performed with seafood and game, is jaw-dropping. His top hits are his pan-seared spiced scallops (with coconut and drumstick relish), crab cakes (pure claw meat with curry leaves, ginger and green chillies), venison chilli fry (strips tossed with onion, chilli and curry leaves), and stuffed quail legs (quail mince, chilli, ginger, brown onion and spices).
Tucked away in Hammersmith & Fulham is chef/patron Manoj Vasaikar, whose rendition of modern regional Indian favourites at Indian Zing just earned him a Michelin plate. For those who don’t know what that is, L’Assiette Michelin or the Michelin Plate is a step before a Michelin star.
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Manoj’s vegetable bhanola (a classical Pathare Prabhu dish, cooked on a griddle, with tamarind, green herb relish and microgreens), mussels caldine (cooked in a delicate coconut broth), Ghatti lamb (from the Sahyadri Ghats, with fresh roasted herbs and full-bodied spices), duck Chettinad (with roasted coconut, new potatoes, mustard seeds and curry leaves) and chicken haddiwala (spicy and robust, cooked on the bone) have London’s celebrity set digging in with their fingers.
Nothing beats stepping out into the cold London air, after a couple of malts and a hot spicy meal here, for a brisk walk as you look for a cab to take you home.
Then of course there is Namita and Camellia Panjabi’s iconic Chutney Mary. You feel proud to be Indian when you walk into this lavish place just off Pall Mall, right outside St James’s Palace. There’s glamour and style and great food to boot. You must order the Hyderabad lamb shank and the griddled scallops in Mangalorean sauce, but you mustn’t miss the iconic tokri chaat.
Chef Surender Mohan, who single-handedly created Jamavar at the Leela Palace in Mumbai and took it to dizzying heights, now has a love-child at Berkeley Square also called Jamavar. He’s doing exciting things there like rabbit samosas, partridge gushtaba, roe deer chops, guinea fowl seekh kababs and even Old Delhi butter chicken.
And finally there’s Indian Accent by Manish Mehrotra, indeed the father of modern Indian food, and now in London as well as New York. Although I’ve spent half my word count talking about Indian food in London, this column wasn’t meant to be about that.
I want to talk about my three prized restaurants in London. While I have a whole list of favourite restaurants that do some of the world’s finest French and international food, I find that after a few days in London, my desi palate gets drawn to spicy food. And if I don’t want to eat Indian, then this is where I head. First, Kiln, a small place in Soho that does rustic Thai food all cooked over fire and embers; Red Sun at Marylebone, a hustling, bustling, simple and economical Chinese restaurant; or Hoppers, managed by my friend Karan Gokhani.
The menu at Kiln keeps changing and gets more astonishing every time it does. From dry jungle curry of wood pigeon to clay pot baked glass noodles and Tamworth belly and brown crab meat, it swings to a Burmese wild ginger beef cheek curry or raw lobster spiked with mint and kaffir lime. The place is cosy, comfy and simple, with wooden benches and communal tables.
Red Sun specialises in home-style Shanghai-inspired dishes. Run by blusterous and clattery yet affectionate Chinese women, the food comes in a jiffy and gets slapped down in front of you with a smile. Here, I always start with a whole bowl of prawn crackers, then crab and sweet corn soup, pepper salt spare ribs, deep-fried prawn in sweet-and-sour sauce, barbecued pork with ginger and spring onion, stir-fried ‘hot’ beef Szechuan, and a bowl of egg fried rice with mixed-meat house chow mein.
Hoppers offers some of London’s best Sri Lankan food. It started out as a small place in Soho, but there’s now a Hoppers near Bond Street, and another opening soon at King’s Cross. I always start with the bone marrow varuval with roti, two huge hafted bone logs full of silken marrow, cooked in Tamilian spices. Then hot butter devilled squid or shrimp and a portion of the goat kottu roti (pieces of roti tossed with mutton curry, onion, chillies and egg). The black pork ribs are also a must-try, and the meal must end with the Sri Lankan-style crab kari (cooked in spices and coconut) to be eaten with a plateful of string hoppers and your bare hands. With such great food in London, I just cannot fathom why Meghan Markle wants to live in Canada. What a royal waste.