Gymkhana: No ordinary curry night

Well hello again folks! I think these monthly round ups are going to be more of a regular thing, in order to fit around my lively toddler and the fact that as I’m now officially a stay at home mum – I’d better get to grips with everything that goes along with it.

This hadn’t initially crossed my mind when I first decided to take a longer break from the dizzying world of financial PR than originally planned but some weeks into it, it struck me that waiting for the hubby to come home and put on a load of washing after pulling an 11 hour shift (as he had done before) was really no longer acceptable or necessary, no matter how far we’ve come from the 1950′s stereotype.

Now hubby’s no chauvinistic monster and I’m no raging feminist either, and as I’ve had a pretty good deal in this marriage so far (cooking is my thing, laundry is his, and the cleaner does everything else) I’d say its only fair to pull my weight…especially as the sweet dear is investing in my somewhat expensive hobby of eating out, so that I can tell you all about it later.

Speaking of which, here’s my latest outing, a curry night with the hubby at the much hyped and talked about Gymkhana. A restaurant that pays homage to the good old days of the British Raj, particularly the trend of the Gymkhana – ye olde gentlemans club.

Now you know my feelings about hyped up restaurants. They tend to make me more nervous than those that are hardly reported because they have a greater tendency to disappoint. However I just couldn’t resist this time because the man behind this latest venture is Karam Sethi, whose successful endeavours include the London branch of Mumbai seafood favourite, Trishna and Charlotte Street’s gourmet hotdog and champagne joint, Bubbledogs. So disappointment at Gymkhana shouldn’t be on the menu.

But it did rear it’s ugly head every so often I’m afraid. And despite a perfectly generous meal accompanied by a rare form of attentive service, there was a certain wow factor missing. Call me hard to please but when there’s this amount of hype; five stars from Evening Standard’s Grand Dame of eating out, Faye Maschler and five visits in one week from Bloomberg’s Richard Vines, it’s got to blow my socks off. And it didn’t.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I didn’t say it was particularly bad either. Having recently returned to the Cinnamon Club after a good few years and having eaten at both Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi and Atul Kocchar’s Benares, I’m glad to report that food at Gymkhana is certainly on par with these established Indian institutions. The difference is that unlike them, Gymkhana has turned down the pretentiousness notch a peg or two. Though this is a good thing, it puts Gymkhana in a strange middle ground between the top end of high street Indians and its Michelin contemporaries. You don’t quite know what to make of it because you don’t quite understand where it sits in the hierarchy. Which for me at least, made it very difficult to judge.

What I can tell you is that they’ve done an excellent job in pulling of the ‘Days of the Raj’ theme across the ground floor dining room, filling it with a multitude of framed black and white portraits and sepia photographs of various sporting and military types. The sort of thing you’d expect to see in a box tightly clutched by an ageing war veteran at their local antiques roadshow. There’s dark lacquered wood and chocolate leather everywhere you look, giving it an old public school dining room feel and even the cut crystalware and steel serving bowls are spot on. It’s almost like you’ve walked on to the set of a historical film. And then there’s the whirring ceiling fans and waistcoat clad Nehru-collared waiters, who you imagine are ready to swat a mosquito at first sight.

Hubby and I found this all rather amusing as we sat sipping our Quinine sours, taking it all in. This by the way is a drink you must have when/if you visit. It’s a fantastically tart cocktail served in a martini glass, topped with ginger and curry leaf for extra pizazz. I/you/anyone could easily sink a few of these before dinner.

Gymkhana - Quinine Sour

As for the food. Overall it was good. There was a touch of something homely about it – and this is where I mean they’ve turned down the pretentiousness by a factor or two – without affecting the overall taste or experience too much. Nicely done. We both opted for the vegetarian tasting menus although mine was tailored to include my fishy passion. In this case; wild lasooni prawns and butter crab, which I was salivating over all day.

We started off with Gol Guppas, Jaljeera, Potato, Sprouting Moong (also known as pani puri). In other words a flaky sphere of thin and crispy pastry filled with a concoction of cumin water, finely diced potato and moong beans, all made to eat in one quick gobble, producing a burst of flavours. Not quite the same flavours as many of the pain puris’ I’ve had in India but close.

After this there was a rather spicy Potato and Chickpea Chaat, I liked the special touch of roasting the potatoes (skin on) and thereby adding a nice twist on this national favorite. It’s also, I imagine, a nod to the British influence. What with it being a staple Sunday roast accompaniment and all.

Then came a rather intriguing bowl of Tandoori Broccoli in yoghurt. Though it didn’t lack in taste, it was the least exciting of all the dishes. The Wild Lasooni Prawn however, was a complete excitement for the taste buds, and as the name suggests (lasooni referring to garlic) was rather garlicky, succulent and juicy too. Now that was a real treat. Even if it did have me sipping through my water faster than you can say ‘there’s a fire in my mouth!

Gymkhana - Prawn

There was a so-so dish of Mushroom Tikki and fancy Girolle Raita. An earthy baked disc of woody flavours, nice but again like the broccoli, not earth-shattering. Then came the mains. Now this is where hubby and I were left rather confused. As if we’d been meandering through our nicely portioned tasting menu then suddenly hit with a lead anvil of an a la carte main dish.

The finale to the tasting menu consisted of hubby’s Mushroom Pilau (a little dry), my Butter Pepper Garlic Crab (unfortunately the tomatoey sauce overpowered the sweet flavour of the crab), Palak Paneer (spinach and cottage cheese), Aloo (potato curry), plain rice and two naan. As you can imagine we didn’t have a hope in hell of finishing it but the very kind FOH very quickly packaged it up for us without hesitation (almost as if this is a regular occurrence). I don’t think I’ve ever asked for food to be packed up in a Mayfair restaurant. It’s an amusing first. It certainly served us well the next night where it went down as well as our local takeaway.

Desserts were far from our mind at this point, what with our stomachs set to burst but that said we attempted a few bites of the Mango Kheer and Saffron Pistachio Kulfi Falooda. The former was rather forgettable and the latter was a confusing concoction of ice cream, milkshake and sweet vermicelli (I think). As if it was three desserts in one. A little too much for me and I’m familiar with the warming flavours of cardamom, nutmeg and saffron. I dread to think what the plump white man next to me would make of it.

All in all not a bad night as far as the tangible elements: food, service and atmosphere are concerned. In fact service was commendable at this Mayfair dining room, if anything, it’s the hype that’s doing it a disservice. Worth trying in a few months time when the wavering critics are raving about the next big thing and you can see Gymkhana for what it really is and should be; all the joy of your favourite local, in a rather swish setting.

Tip: if you do book, ask to be seated downstairs to avoid the rather cold draft from the front door and also sit in a more intimate buzzy atmosphere. I’m told the full menu is served downstairs.

Square Meal

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