Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Sagar, Covent Garden
I've been obsessing too much about the cynical, overpriced or just downright evil recently, and it's not good for me. The more you think about these kinds of things the more they prey on you, and I was worried I had spent so long looking for the very worst that London had to offer I was in danger of losing sight of the best.
So what I needed was a fresh perspective; someone to show me that, after all, there are far more wonderful, generous, hospitable places in London than a brief glance down Kingsway from the office (All Bar One, Café Rouge, Café Nero, Belgo, Pret, Costa, Subway, Eat, another Subway... it's like restaurant death row) would indicate. And so thanks to a humanitarian intervention from a friend we found ourselves first in Notes café and wine bar on Wellington Street (reasonably priced wine, lovely staff) and then Sagar restaurant on Catherine Street.
First, the Asian Elephant in the room - Sagar is a vegetarian restaurant. And my history with vegetarian restaurants, and vegetarian food, and occasionally even vegetarians, hasn't always been happy. But this wasn't just some half-assed quiche and cous-cous peddler, this was a proper South Indian restaurant, a cuisine which has had hundreds of years to learn how to make brilliant food without the use of animal protein, and is responsible for the late and much, much lamented Kastoori in Tooting.
Sagar isn't quite at the level of Kastoori, but then it is cheaper, and it's in Covent Garden, so perhaps their achievement is just as impressive. These Pani Puri could never hope to compete with the extraordinary flavour bombs of Kastoori's Dahi Puri but it was still fun punching a hole through the little pastry casings, filling it with chickpeas and tamarind then downing the whole thing before they collapsed. House pickles were a little on the tame side but I liked their version of lime pickle which was presumably home made, and had a nice bite.
Onion and chilli uttapam (sort of a savoury pancake) didn't skimp on the hot stuff at all, and along with the golden brown onions and refreshing coconut dip and pot of warm chutney, it made for an exciting mix of temperatures, flavours and textures. Without a brave attitude to spicing these things can sometimes taste a bit bland, but there was none of that here.
It's the dosas, such as this Mysore Masala Dosa, that really draw the crowds here though. Inside the golden brown, gently vinegary casing was a generous amount of spicy potato filling that was satisfying - and filling - without being claggy. Having one of these vast sculptures brought to your table is worth every bit of the £7 odd they cost, and as with the uttapam the mixture of textures and flavours was incredibly addictive.
Bakalabath was interesting alright - sort of a cool rice & cucumber thing ordered to offset the chilli heat elsewhere - but there was something about the texture of cold rice and cucumber I couldn't get comfortable with. But Pav Bhaji was much better - a rich vegetable curry, homely and comforting and packing bags of flavour. Adding chicken, or lamb, or prawns would have been a complete waste of time - it is a simple, self-contained, satisfying dish that's good not despite the fact it's had animal products removed, but because it was good to begin with. Sorry to keep banging on about the vegetarian thing, but it's worth comparing the food from Sagar to the pappy, worthy dross from any number of vegetarian cafés around.
And all that, plus a large bottle of Kingfisher each, was bill was £20 a head. I realise it's easy to keep the costs down when you're not serving meat, but there was still enough skill on display here for this to seem like an absolute bargain, and as I say, considering the location it's nothing short of stunning. Buzzing and happy from a lovely time at Sagar, we bounded across the road to Balthazar for a cocktail and ice cream, and were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't stay unless we were each having a "full meal" - despite having been in twice before for nothing more than a plate of cheese and a bottle of sherry. So I guess the Curse of Covent Garden can strike at any time. But whenever it does, remember there will always be places like Sagar more than happy to restore your faith in humanity.