The British Curry House. One of the biggest culinary oxymorons to exist in this otherwise glorious country of ours. In my eyes anyway, but clearly not in the eyes or gluttonous stomachs of millions of Brits who flock to their local tandoori house week after week. Presumably for a break from their kitchen, and for a taste of the exotic.
The whole notion has been a confusing one for me since childhood. Growing up as a second generation immigrant (or British Indian as I prefer to call it), I fondly remember the glamour and excitement I felt when dining out on special occasions, only to be disappointed when entering yet another curry house. It was mainly always Indian cuisine because my Bombayite father was always looking for a taste of home. Even though the only place he really found what he was looking for, was in his own kitchen with his own rather tasty creations (think Bombay street food meets Gujarati classics; bhel puri, pau bhaji, crispy bhajia, kichdi…).
The thing I never understood, was that the menu would sometimes be as alien to us as it would be to the white man at the table across from us, you know, the one that had barely sat down with pint in hand and was already being duped into the ‘poppadom con’* that we were far too clever to fall for (there goes another £4 from your wallet matey). It was all a mish mash of dishes that sounded vaguely familiar but when presented looked anything but. As I grew older I began to understand these were adaptions and even inventions, created for the British palate. And when it wasn’t the food that was troubling, it was the other visually disturbing elements; the burgundy carpeting (presumably to hide the powder red curry stains) and faux mogul princely wall paintings and posters framed in gawdy gold.
In fact, in my long memory of North London Indian restaurants there is only one restaurant that I could forgive all this for, and that is The Golden Bengal Tandoori in Wembley. This is purely down to one dish that in my eyes was perfection itself and that I knew my beloved father could never recreate. The Malai Kofta. Soft dumplings filled with paneer cheese, vegetables and a blend of spices which were served in a silky creamy gravy. Scoffed with hot fluffy naan breads, it was heaven.
Unfortunately that dish and the restaurant (which is now long gone) has become a distant golden memory for me, and as my palette and appetite have grown, I’ve ventured off to explore a range of other cuisines and regional specialities. From time to time though I’ve been fortunate to have dined at some stellar Indians of a slightly different kind. The new-ish wave of modern Indian cuisine where classic recipes and techniques are served up in a new light. Cinnamon Club, Amaya, Bombay Brasserie et al. Then there’s my love for punjabi cuisine which I insisted on at my own wedding courtesy of the finest purveyors in the land – Madhu’s of Southall.
So it was with great intrigue that I stepped into the doors of Gaylord, just behind a very busy Oxford Circus. With a longstanding reputation and with close to 50 years under its belt, it has gained an enviable status as one of London’s oldest Indian restaurants. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, perhaps a newly refurbished interior given its upcoming anniversary, but one look inside and I was transported straight back to my childhood.
The burgundy carpeting, the mogul era wall paintings, the gold framed dining chairs, it was all there and present. It was as god intended British Indian restaurants to be. Or at least as the first proprietor of one had decreed. The menu however, appeared fresh off the printer and read like a novel, with some new dishes to celebrate the 50th anniversary. The staff on the other hand looked tired and generally disinterested. It was going to be an interesting night.
Having read some recent glowing reviews from fellow bloggers, I had a few must try dishes in mind which I thought may distract me from my initial thoughts. I’m a sucker for a good street food dish and so had to kick things off with an Aloo papdi chaat. A cold dish of boiled potato and chickpeas, freshly diced veg, fried vermicelli (sev) and flour crisps (papdi). Drizzled in yoghurt, chutney and my favourite -tangy tamarind sauce. Unfortunately, the ratio of the papdi and sev was far higher than the chutneys and yoghurt, making it dry and difficult to enjoy. It lacked that depth of flavour the many elements should bring together to convey and was instead quite one dimensional.
The crab cakes, which were served up like lollipops seemed to suffer from the same dry and cloying condition. What little crab there was, was overcooked and further toughened by the overly thick sesame seed sprinkled batter that surrounded it. And there wasn’t nearly enough sauce to compensate for the sorry state. However, the accompanying coconut crisps, served in a paper cone, were rather tasty.
Still, I was hopeful that the Butter Chicken and Dal Bukhara (essentially a dal Makhni) would turn things around. I had been craving an Indian chicken dish since I entered my third trimester Of pregnancy. I seem to go back to chicken like a bad boyfriend, in my most desperate time of need, which is usually late pregnancy when both body and baby demand nothing but protein. And it can’t be just any chicken dish, it has to be an Indian dish with all the requisite elements to make it worth breaking my pescetarian diet.
Whilst there was indeed the element of chicken, cooked fairly well, and an array of spices and a spicy/sweet sauce, the balance and execution came across somewhat clumsy. The chicken still managed to retain a handful of bones in it – a first in any Indian establishment I’ve been served this or similar dish. Nobody likes to have to spit out bones, least of all when it’s not expected. The sauce lacked the depth required to form that sumptuous layering of earthy cardamon, subtle heat and then the sweet cream finish. Instead, the sweetness overpowered throughout and was not so nicely contrasted by the overall oiliness of the dish. Now I get that butter chicken is a greasy dish, but there’s a difference between buttery richness and what is clearly an excess of oil, demonstrated by the filmy coating on top of the dish.
The Dal Bukhara, which I’ve been fortunate to have eaten at the world renowned restaurant it hails from (Bukhara, ITC Maurya Hotel in Delhi, India), was clearly not slow cooked in a tandoor over 18 hours as it’s famously done in Delhi nor did it have the some oomph as that of Madhus interpretation. That said, it was the most competently executed, and therefore most enjoyable dish of the night.
I think you get the general gist of my findings by this point. I should say that, none of this is particularly surprising to me nor does it indicate a terrible experience. Confused? Well let me explain…I don’t think anyone ever enters an Indian restaurant in this country expecting to be blown away dish after dish and have to go home and re-evaluate everything they ever thought about Indian cuisine. What they expect is a predictable set of flavours and ingredients, served in surroundings that compliment and conjure up visions of a distant land, all of which feed a pre-determined need. That need and it’s benefit – in the words of the wise Sheryl Crow: “A change would do you good”.
To this end, Gaylord does just that. It provides a change of scenery, a change of appetite, a change full stop. Sure it’s a little on the pricey side for what can be easily replicated down your high St, but then you are paying for its prestigious W1 postcode.
For me though, there are some basics that every restaurant regardless of cuisine or status, must fulfil and here is where I think Gaylord specifically fails.
Comfortability and respect
Seating me at a rickety table clearly added to increase covers and which blocks the thorough way of staff dashing about so that they keep bumping into my chair, does not indicate comfortability or respect. Our table was not the only obvious addition either.
Provision of guidance on menu
When there are new additions to celebrate what is clearly an important milestone, I’d have expected staff to be well versed in the offering, and even upsell. I saw no evidence of this nor from what I heard from my neighbouring table, where guests were handing the waiter an open forum to recommend away, yet he like the others seemed neither bothered nor informed.
Availability of advertised dishes
Furthermore, when going to such great lengths to create a new menu and advertising it, it pays to actually have the dishes available. As you know I have a sweet tooth and despite the very average meal, I was still prepared to order a dessert of the very intriguing Jalebi (a sweet fried round of batter served in sugar syrup) ice cream. Jalebi’s were my favourite Indian sweet, growing up, and I was rather curious how the flavour would come across in an ice cream. Unfortunately I’m still none the wiser because it wasn’t yet available. Some supply issue. So it’s not made in house then.
Instead we went with the sharing platter, which was not one of the newer additions but despite this our waiter still didn’t know what it comprised of and had to go away and check (Grr…). It did the job in finishing off the meal on a sweet note, and I did like the masala chai vesseled in a traditional clay cup. The desserts themselves were all competent and tasty but putting all three on one plate, with the milk from the rasmalai, ghee from the gajar halwa and sugar syrup from the gulab jamun all seaping into one and other, was just plain impractical.
With the above in mind, and being fortunate enough to have eaten wares produced by a range of Indian Chefs pushing new frontiers, I don’t think I will be retuning to this establishment or one like it for a good while. But that’s ok, it’s just not MY thing. If it’s yours, then good on you. But if you want to experience a REAL change, then come see me and I’ll print you off a list.