Malabar Junction (London)

I think I’ve mentioned before that when I was a kid and teenager in India (1970s and 1980s) south Indian food—outside of south India—really meant the idli-dosa-vada complex. Served in small towns all over north India in restaurants with names like Madras Cafe or Kerala Cafe (just as almost every Chinese restaurant was named either Nanking, Golden Dragon or Kowloon) this subset of south Indian cuisines was one of the three national cuisines of India—Mughlai and Chinese being the others. It wasn’t until much later that I became aware that there was a lot more to south Indian food beyond the vegetarian cliches and that in fact south India is more non-vegetarian than vegetarian. For many of us in Delhi in the early 1990s a restaurant in Hauz Khas named Malabar was our introduction to much of this food—it specialized in the food of Kerala and the southwestern coast. Later, restaurants like Coconut Grove and Swagath expanded Delhi’ites horizons further.

Now, of course, regional food of all kinds is easily available in Delhi and the food of Kerala and the southwestern coast is particularly popular. I eat it every chance I get when I’m back in Delhi (see here, here, here, here, here and here)—both because I love it and because this food is particularly hard to find in the US, outside of certain zones in New Jersey and northern California. Unsurprisingly, it is not hard to find it in London. I’ve already reviewed the Michelin starred Quilon—where we ate our first weekend here—and a few days later when I walked by the far less heralded Malabar Junction in Bloomsbury I knew I was fated to eat there as well. And so it came to pass.

Malabar Junction is located on Great Russell Street, right between the Tottenham Court tube station and the British Museum—this location must, I’m guessing, net it a lot of business, especially at lunch. (It’s also very close to the London outpost of Royal Mile Whiskies—more on that establishment next week.). When I’d first walked past it I’d thought that it was probably not a very large place but on entering it for dinner I was surprised to see just how large it is. A small’ish entryway leads into a quite large dining room. It is bright—with much of the ceiling made of glass; it is not, however, very tastefully decorated and I could also have done without the smooth jazz playing a little too loudly in the background. But how was the food?

The menu includes a number of British curry house classics (they’re obviously hedging their bets) but we were there for the south Indian dishes. I was with a large’ish group and we got a lot of food to share—due to the size of the group we got double orders of a few things rather than single orders of a bigger proportion of the menu. We started out with onion bhajis, cashew nut pakoras and the lamb chilly fry. For the mains we got the avial (a quintessential Kerala vegetable stew with coconut milk), their so-called Chicken Malabar and Kerala mutton curry. Rice, appams and bread to mop things up with—I ordered Malabar parathas but they were unable to make enough for our party and so subbed in decent chapatis. A combination of gulab jamuns and kulfis to end. Details on what was good, what was average and what was below average are in the captions to the slideshow below. Scroll down for more on service, cost and my overall verdict.

As you will have seen, I had a mixed response to the food. Things started out very well and then took a turn for the average; the only true dud was the appam but that really was a dud (made me less disappointed that they didn’t give us Malabar parathas). The appam aside, I would have been very happy getting all of the rest in Minnesota—so you should see my tempered response in context: I was expecting better in London (perhaps without justification for this particular cuisine).

Service was very friendly, if a little frantic. The price was quite reasonable for the quantity and quality. We got out for just below £20/head for all the food, vat plus a tacked-on service charge (on account of the size of the group). That’s very good for London and would be a steal for this food in Indian restaurants in most of the US. Accordingly, I wouldn’t guide people away from Malabar Junction. As a neighbourhood restaurant it’s more than acceptable; and if you’ve never had this food before and are not enthused about dropping quite a bit more coin at a place like Quilon it’s certainly worth a shot—especially if you’re looking for a bite near the British Museum.

Next week: back to fancier Indian food in Westminster.

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