In the past decade and a half or so, London has seen a big upsurge of more ambitious (and more expensive) Indian restaurants, taking the cuisine and the aesthetic—both of the food and of the rooms it is served in—far beyond that of the curry house. Many of these restaurants have gained (and some have gone on to lose) Michelin stars. One that has not yet been so favoured, and which receives far less praise than others of its ilk in the London food press, is the Cinnamon Club in Westminster. For this reason it wasn’t originally on my list of fancy Indian places to eat at in London. However, it is more or less around the corner from where we are putting up in Westminster and when, a week after arrival, we wanted to eat a nice meal without going too far or spending too much we decided to take a chance on their set lunch menu. And we liked it a lot. In fact, we thought the quality of the cooking (and ingredients) was up there with Quilon (which does have a Michelin star and a strong reputation) and that the dining room was much nicer. We liked it so much that we went back a second time the following week to try the next iteration of their set lunch menu (it changes every month)—and we liked that meal even more. Here follows a report on both.
The Cinnamon Club is located in the former premises of the Westminster Library—a historic building. A recent renovation sees the building’s past prominently featured in the dining room’s present: the bright dining room (filled at lunch with natural light from large glass skylights) is lined from floor to high ceiling with bookshelves. It’s a very attractive room and they do a lot of business at lunch despite the high prices. I’m told a lot of members of parliament stop in (the houses of parliament are also very close) and most of the crowd at both our meals looked both distinguished and rather well-off. They do, however, attract some fraction of the tourist traffic from nearby attractions as well and you can see people in expensively tailored suits at tables next to those with people in jeans and t-shirts.
At lunch there are three options: a la carte with starters ranging from £10 to £26 (for lobster) and mains ranging from £19 to £35 (for venison); a tasting menu that runs £85/head; and a set lunch menu of two courses for £24 or three courses for £26. Since we are good at arithmetic it was the three course set menu for us. The menu read very well but we weren’t entirely sure either how much food there was going to be or what it was going to be like. We were well pleased on both fronts. We were not served small’ish tasting menu-sized portions (as we’d expected might be the case). The meal began with an amuse (on both occasions an idli cube with chutneys) and then featured substantial starters, mains and desserts. And both the ingredient quality and the execution was high.
Unlike Quilon, the food here is not of a particular region. Executive Chef Vivek Singh—who has been with the restaurant/group since the beginning—takes dishes, flavours and approaches from all over India and presents them in the idiom and aesthetic of contemporary fine dining in the West. On the basis of our two meals I would say that this is done quite seamlessly. There are some dishes (in the dessert end of things) that are not particularly Indian but everything else somehow tasted both traditional and contemporary—and nothing brought the dread word “fusion” to mind. Even the platings and garnishes make sense (unlike at Varq in Delhi, these don’t seem like gratuitous flourishes).
What did we eat?
Meal 1 (from the now-defunct set menu for March)
- Fenugreek-scented tandoori cod, curry leaf and lime crumble: this was mine and it was bloody good. The delicate fish was done expertly. Still moist despite a brief sojourn in the tandoor (which rendered it nicely smoky) and the curry leaf and lime (pickle) crumble really set it off nicely.
- Smoked Kentish lamb escalope, smoked paprika raita, coriander chutney: the missus liked her starter just fine too. The lamb was tenderized well and the smoked raita was excellent.
- Baked plaice fillet, Bengali style dopyaaza sauce, steamed rice: this was the missus’ and it was dynamite; one of the best fish dishes we’ve eaten anywhere in a while (and better than anything I’ve eaten so far at any of London’s top Indian places). The fish was again cooked to delicate perfection and the sauce—a mix of onion-heavy dopyaaza and the traditional Bengali shorshe/mustard-based preparation—was soulful despite being abstracted somewhat from its heavier origins.
- Tanjore style curry of free range chicken legs, pilau rice: this was the one disappointment across our two meals. It’s not that it was bad; it was actually quite good in its own right. It just tasted far less inspired than everything else we’d eaten at that point; I could have made it at home (and I couldn’t have made any of the rest). Served with simply sauteed greens (mostly spinach).
- Spiced apple and blueberry crumble, Madagascan vanilla icecream: the spicing was very subtle and there was nothing particularly Indian about it; but it was bloody good.
- Ceylon style baked coconut and jaggery custard, caramel cashew nut: obviously South Asian in flavour, this was excellent as well.
Here are the pictures of the first meal. Scroll down for the second.
Meal 2 (from the current lunch menu for April)
- Semolina crusted sardine Koliwada, curry leaf and green chilli mayo: this was mine and it was excellent. The semolina crust was crisp and the fish tender under it. The chilli mayo was very good too and a good match for the fish.
- Ground Galloway beef and black cardamom kabab, yoghurt and mint: this was the missus’ and it was even better (and better than her lamb starter at the previous lunch). Basically, it was an oversized but excellent shami kabab done in a mod’ish layered style. The raita with mango puree floating in the middle was excellent again.
- Pan-seared trout fillet, green pea-tomato sauce, basmati rice: this was the missus’ and while it did not make us forget the plaice from the last meal it was very good in its own right. The sauce, in particular, was very nice.
- Kerala toddy shop pepper chicken, star anise pilau: far more refined and far less robust than actual Kerala toddy shop chicken but a very recognizable take on it and very good indeed. There was also a cabbage stir-fry/poriyal on the side.
- Spiced Carrot toffee pudding, rum and raisin ice cream: though the spice was a little more apparent here, this wasn’t very much more Indian than the apple crumble at the last meal. It was, again, very good though and the ice cream was really very good.
- Peking style date pancake, toasted coconut ice cream: my date pancake was also not very Indian but very tasty anyway. The coconut ice cream, however, was both Indian in flavour and fantastically tasty.
Pictures of this meal follow; scroll down for comments on service etc.
These were both excellent meals. The highs were higher at the first but the average was probably higher at the second. And £26/head for this quality really feels like a steal. I’m not sure how the regular menus compare but on the basis of these meals (and comparing them to meals at the far more respected/adored Quilon, Trishna and Dishoom) I’m at a bit of a loss as to what it is that the local food press finds wanting in them. Likewise for Michelin. It’s probably true that service here is not as polished as at Quilon (by the same token it’s not as hectic as it was at my lunch at Trishna) but the room is really very nice and that seems like good compensation. I don’t mean to suggest that the service is bad for it’s not—it’s just not quite as, well, polished as at Quilon. We had a brief conversation with a manager on our way out from our first meal, by the way, and he was disarmingly candid about their lack of interest in the Michelin star game: they do a very high volume of business, he said (and our experience bore this out) and they don’t really need the endorsement of Michelin.
Well, Michelin stars and local reputation be damned, we’ll back in early May to try the next turn of their set menu and if we can manage it we’ll come back in June too before we leave London. My next Indian restaurant review, however, will be of an old-school curry house (and a very old-school one indeed). No, it’s not the Cardamom Club—though having already eaten at the Clove Club (not Indian at all) I am very tempted to complete my garam masala collection.