Okay, I’ve recently written up an iconic curry house (Tayyabs) and a hip, newer, small plates place (Gunpowder); for the next review of an Indian/South Asian restaurant let’s go back to a more formal restaurant. Tamarind, which opened in 1995 in its Mayfair location, holds a Michelin star and has done so for most of the time since it became one of the first Indian restaurants to receive one in 2001 (in fact, it may have been the first Indian restaurant to receive a Michelin star). It has been a major restaurant in the Indian food world for some time. So, even though its star has dimmed in recent years in comparison to newer places like Gymkhana and Benares, I’ve wanted to eat there. I was particularly interested because Tamarind is quite different from the other high-end Indians we’ve eaten at in London on this trip.
Unlike Quilon (which has also maintained its Michelin star) it does not have a regional focus; and unlike the Cinnamon Club they don’t do pan-Indian cuisine re-articulated in the idiom of Western fine dining. Tamarind is a solidly North Indian restaurant, with a menu unlikely to confound diners who are not looking for trendy Indian food. I’m not saying that it’s just a fancy curry house; only that its menu seems more traditional. There are, of course, many excellent restaurants in this general vein in India; I was curious to see what the Michelin-bait version of it in London would be like. (I also suspect that this more traditional menu focus has something to do with the London foodie set’s waning of interest in Tamarind in recent years. Lack of knowledge may be another problem: I’ve read one review by a prominent writer who criticized their alu tikki for having the correct texture.)
As at the Cinnamon Club, we decided to make our exploration of Tamarind in the more wallet-friendly confines of their set lunch menu. This is an even better deal on paper than Cinnamon Club’s: two courses for £21.50 or three courses for £24.50—though if you are so inclined you can drive up your cost with choices that carry hefty supplements. Rice, naan, dal and a vegetable dish are also included on the side. We opted for the three course option. Here is what we ate:
- Organic salmon with ginger, mint, coriander & kaffir lime leaves: The salmon turned out to be grilled in the tandoor and it was perfectly done. The green masala marinade was wonderful. This was up there with the similar lemon sole cafreal at Quilon.
- Corn-fed chicken liver tossed with mushroom, spring onion and coriander: This dish belies my description of Tamarind’s food as traditional. In both approach and presentation this was rather mod’ish and it was very, very good. A little crunch from paapdi-like fritters setting off the softer texture of the liver and the crisp veg and tangy sauce adding bite.
- Tandoor grilled baby chicken breast with pureed tomato with fenugreek leaves: Back to the realm of the traditional, this turned out to basically be chicken tikka masala. The chicken breast itself was perfectly cooked in the tandoor and several levels above what is available at curry houses but the sauce was uninspired.
- Somerset lamb neck fillets braised with onion, padron peppers and almond: And this turned out to basically be a pasanda style dish. Cooked well, and again the lamb was far better than the dire meat on offer at most curry houses, but not terribly interesting. Not sure what the padron peppers did.
The included sides were:
- Achari bhindi: Actually, the included vegetable side-dish was “Aubergine and radish tossed with tomato and chaat masala”; however, as I have a strong aversion to eggplant/aubergine, they very kindly subbed this in for us from their a la carte menu. And it was really rather excellent. Yes, thinly sliced and crisply fried okra is all the rage these days but this beat any mod okra I’ve had in trendier restaurants hands down. The sauce was tangy yet balanced and the okra was perfectly cooked: tender without any hint of gumminess.
- Trio lentils flavoured with garlic, cumin and turmeric: A mix of three lentils, mildly smoky with a bit of heat, this was old-school and excellent.
- Braised rice with browned onions and saffron: Very nice pulao.
- Butter Naan: As with the fish and chicken, very good tandoor work here too. Probably the best naans I’ve eaten in London—though sadly this isn’t saying much.
- Pineapple halwa, tomato jam with pistachio kulfi: I awaited this with some trepidation but it turned out to be very good. I’ve never had pineapple halwa before and now I’m committed to figuring out a recipe. The kulfi (quite good) was probably on the plate more from painterly considerations. Ditto for the smear of tasty tomato jam.
- Mango & basil sorbet: Very refreshing, very good.
For pictures of the food and the restaurant launch the slideshow below. For more on the restaurant’s aesthetic, the service and my thoughts on value etc. scroll down to the bottom.
A few words about the space: the restaurant is located in a basement, which means there’s no natural light of any kind. It’s a large dining room with much that’s attractive about it (some nice flower arrangements, particularly) but there’s also a little too much gold and bronze for all the lights to reflect off of. I’m also not sure that the partially open kitchen makes sense in a dining room of this nature—only a part of it is visible and only really from some parts of the room, and it all feels a little awkward. The service was very good—professional, solicitous—all the way until the end when it took forever to find someone to bring us our bill.
As you’ll have noted from my description of the food above, we thought the food ranged from the excellent to the unremarkable. Ingredients were of a high quality throughout and the cooking was always solid but the mains did not rise to the level of the starters. This is not because the more traditional dishes were less well-executed per se: the dal and okra were both excellent. It’s possible, of course, that other mains on their regular menu are better choices. On the basis of what we ate I’d probably be reluctant to pay full freight at dinner but it must be said that the starters were up there with anything we ate at Quilon or the Cinnamon Club (or that I ate at Trishna last year). I would, however, recommend them highly for the set lunch. Even with the inconsistency, it’s a very good value for the quality (and quantity) of what you get.
My remaining Indian reviews (and there are a few of them) are at places of lower ambition (some quite a bit lower; one even involves a Sunday buffet). Before I get to those, however, I’ll probably put up a bunch of non-Indian reviews. Look for the first of three Sichuan write-ups next week.