Back to the United Kingdom, and this time a little further south from London, to Brighton. But first some half-baked thoughts on two major developments in Indian restaurant culture in the West that have gone hand in hand in the last half decade or so.
The first is a move away from the heavy cuisine of the old curry house—ye olde north Indian staples awash in cream and nut paste. This has been a move towards menus that either putatively zoom in on foods of specific regions or offer a pan-subcontinental tour or various versions of street food. (I say “putatively” because it’s the rare restaurant that does not hedge its bets with dal makhani or chicken tikka masala or naan somewhere on the menu.) This development I largely endorse: curry house menus are all substitutable and the difference between fancy curry houses and crappy ones is largely that of price. More places should give us other things to eat.
The second development has to do not with food but with interior design. Here the move is away from the older signifiers of Indianness; this ranges from the decor—no more silks on the walls or carved elephants, for example—to the very names of restaurants—no more names ending in “Mahal” or “Tandoori”, for example. Instead, we get altogether brighter places where kitsch of a different kind—seeking to evoke Indian street food stalls or downmarket cafes or Bollywood films—is deployed to get rid of a different kind of heaviness. The mode is faux-ironic. I say faux-ironic because while on the one hand you’re being asked not to take things too seriously—to read Indianness not in terms of unfashionable, historical exotica but in the language of a contemporary, cosmopolitanism (see Bourdain’s food/travel programs)—on the other hand, these are nonetheless forms of exotica as well: they’re just newer and thus more exciting forms of exotica; the restaurants are still trafficking in the idea of India as a colourful experience, as sensory overload. Authenticity is still what’s being sold, just in a hipper guise.
This is the style that finds its apotheosis in London’s Dishoom, from where it has made its way to many other locations (see also the now-closed Babu Ji in New York). It appears in different forms in restaurants like Trishna and Hoppers, and also in Gymkhana, which seeks to recreate the aesthetic of colonial-era clubs for some reason—how bad could colonialism have been if you can deploy its trappings to capture a Michelin star? I have to confess I find this development somewhat wearying—especially when the restaurants can’t even bother to get the details right. At Babu Ji in New York, for example, the decor included Hindi sayings in Nagari script on the walls but words were spelled incorrectly, to the point in some cases of being unintelligible. No one raving about the restaurant in the food media or on food forums seemed to notice.
There’s nothing inevitable about any of this, of course; no reason why Indian, or any other “ethnic”, restaurants need to deploy exotica of any kind. See, for example, places like Quilon or the Cinnamon Club, or in DC, Rasika—or closer to the register of places like Dishoom, the excellent Gunpowder in Spitalfields in London (review coming soon). None of these places trade in kitsch or exotica in their presentation and all manage to put out excellent non-cookie cutter Indian food regardless. It would be a good thing I think if more Indian restaurants could go this route of just selling the food and not a festival of India, whether in a new style or the old.
Anyway, I bring all this up in this post because the restaurant I’m reporting on today is all-in on the new kitsch: from a papier maché (I think) cow and a food cart outside (though, it’s not actually in use) to the insides where there are knick-knacks everywhere you turn. Alas, as at Babu Ji they haven’t been entirely attentive to the details here either, whether on the website or in the restaurant. Raita, for example, is spelled “riatta” everywhere on their menus, and once again while they’ve slathered on the Hindi in Nagari script, it doesn’t seem to have been done by someone who actually knows the language or how to write it. The word dinner, for example, as transliterated into Hindi would actually be pronounced “danir”. And the “translations” under the social media icons on their website have clearly been done via machine translation by people who don’t actually understand idiomatic Hindi (“hamare jaise” under “Like Us on Facebook”, for example, means “like us” in the sense of “similar to us”, not in the intended, imperative sense of “express your liking for us”; what the translation of “Follow Us on Twitter” is supposed to say or mean, I have no idea).It’s not hard to conclude from all this that this approach is as lazy and superficial as the older set of signifiers it sets out to replace, and, in fact, more cynical.
Anyway, at this point you’re probably wondering if I’m going to say anything about the food at the Chilli Pickle. Well, because this is England the quality was generally decent. We were there at lunch and opted to get thalis. We were handed separate menus at lunch for these thalis that aren’t represented either on the website or in the lunch menu photographed below that’s printed on the wall outside the restaurant: we had the option of taking their basic thali and for a few pounds more adding on a curry of our choice. The thali itself was variable. Some things were atrociously bad (the dhokla, the vada), some things were mediocre (the “naans”, the sweet), some were quite good (the kachori, the dal, the curries themselves). The gulf between the atrociously bad and the quite good is hard to understand.
As usual, please launch the slideshow for more specific detail. And scroll down for quick notes on service and value.
The service was friendly if increasingly harried: we were a large group and while the restaurant was empty when we got there, it gradually filled up and the servers were less and less present. They also didn’t know a whole lot about the food itself which meant I had to explain a lot to the other members of the party. As for price, it came out to about £20/head, which in England is sort of in the good value end of the spectrum, but I don’t know that I’d want to pay £20 for this meal again. It’s quite likely, however, that if you do a non-thali meal at lunch or dinner that you might end up with more consistent execution all around. And I’m not sure either if Brighton has many better choices for Indian food (this, I hasten to add, is entirely on account of my ignorance—we ended up at the Chilli Pickle not after rigorous research but because it was large enough to take our group on fairly short notice.
Coming next week: a report on a north Indian place in Delhi that is kitschy in its own right, though in a very different way; and then a report on a visit to Lahore Kebab House, one of London’s iconic curry houses.