Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Roti Chai, Marble Arch
London will never be the kind of city where you can simply wander into the nearest restaurant and be reasonably assured of a good meal; it is not Tokyo, it is not Madrid, and New York too probably has us beat on the Tourist Trap Test. But only the most stubborn nostalgist would argue that things haven't massively improved here recently. Think about it - how many restaurants that have closed over the last few years do you still mourn? Perhaps Eastside Inn, maybe Kastoori. And over the same period, how many new ones could you now not live without? It's impossible to imagine Soho without Spuntino, Hackney without Brawn, Bermondsey without José. While the flashy big-name openings get the international headlines (and yes, the odd blog post), it's too easy to overlook the change happening across the board. Witness, in particular, the revolution that street food vans have brought to budget dining - a few years ago the notion that a world-class West Coast style burger could be purchased from a pub in Peckham for £6 would have been laughable. Now, we're so spoiled that the news of the Meatwagon's first permanent bricks-and-mortar outlet was greeted with something approaching nonchalance.
It's almost as if we've happened upon a culinary identity by completely abandoning any attempts to find one. There isn't, probably never will be, any such thing as a Typical London Restaurant. London doesn't have an equivalent of New York's delis, Madrid's tapas bars, Tokyo's ramen joints. But what it does have is all of those things (or at least will soon have), and more - such an astonishing variety of culinary styles, covering every inch of the globe, enough for you to never tire of eating, or taking, out. Without wanting to sound too trite, London's great strength is in its diversity - you could make a strong case for Madrid being the culinary capital of the world but can you honestly say, hand on heart, that after a few months of trawling the Mercado San Miguel you wouldn't be craving some cumin-spiced lamb chops from Silk Road? Didn't think so.
Roti Chai, a brand-spanking-new Indian restaurant round the back of Marble Arch, is a perfect example of the growing confidence of London's restaurateurs, and by extension its diners. Apparently inspired by the food sold by India's street cart vendors, it offers a variety of interesting snack-size plates at around the £5-£6 mark, many of which will be unfamiliar to anyone used to the traditional line-up of high street curry house clichés. Chicken Lollipops are my favourite - crispy, spicy chicken wings, deep fried with the meat drawn up to one end of the bone (all the better for dipping in the spicy yoghurt sauce), they are one of those dishes that it's just impossible to dislike, ticking every spicy/salty/crunchy/sweet box.
Bun Kebab, too, was a masterful combination of powerful flavours and textures, soft spiced minced lamb inside a glossy white bun, seasoned with pomegranate seeds and spring onions. Best described as a sort of an Indian take on a burger, it's unlike anything I've had before, and if there's one thing guaranteed to raise my spirits its a new way to eat meat in a bun.
Bhel Puri was nicely textured and powerfully tamarind-y, but as a standalone dish it was just a bit too tart to be enjoyable. I would have liked some yoghurt in there to balance out the tamarind, or perhaps it would have worked well with a creamy curry. Even so, for £3.90 it's hard to complain too much.
Chicken Keema Kaleji is an bowl of earthy, thick chunks of chicken livers and seemingly little else. I enjoyed it, the marinade was subtly sweet and the fresh veg on top provided some crunch, but I wasn't quite sure whether the accompanying white bread (same as used in the Bun Kebab) really matched it very well. As a sandwich, a layer of pasty chicken livers inside a burger bun was a bit too dry and cloying - what it really needed was probably some flatbread and a small selection of chutneys. It's possible to order both of those things separately, but I either needed to be told to do so, or it should have been included in the order. Sometimes, I just need telling.
These were more niggles though. In fact, my only major niggle is that for a restaurant specialising in street food, why the formality of starched white napkins and expensive cutlery? I would have much preferred the street food concept to have carried further than the food itself; there isn't even a takeaway option for heaven's sake. How can it pretend to be street food if you can't eat it in the street? Maybe, though, these changes will come - I'm sure Roti Chai could make a killing from al-desko lunchers if they invested in some cardboard boxes and plastic forks.
But what it lacks in certain dishes, Roti Chai makes up for with huge wins in others, married with a clean, bright dining room and good selection of craft beers and cocktails. To say there isn't anything better in the immediate area sounds like damning with faint praise, so I will instead say that for food this interesting, punchy and very reasonably priced you can't do much better outside of Zone 1.
Perhaps it's naive of me to try and extrapolate a grand theory on the state of everything from the fact that some nice interesting restaurants have opened up recently, but even if you do think that London dining in 2011 is beyond help, and certainly a short stroll around Piccadilly Circus or Victoria would certainly do little to convince anyone otherwise (there are still, sadly, areas where the best option is a Pizza Express), you have to at least concede that somewhere like Roti Chai, while not perfect, is at least a symbol of growing ambition and self-assurance. It would have been so easy to open another branch of Zizzi or Pret a Manger in this most visitor-trodden areas of town, but instead we have a bright, buzzy little space where you can pick up some crunchy chicken wings and a bowl of fresh curry and still have change from a tenner. Sometimes, London is a very easy city to love.