Wednesday, 25 September 2013
When was the last time you saw a section headed "game" on an Indian restaurant menu? I certainly never have, and yet Karam Sethi, head chef at Gymkhana, isn't your average Indian chef. His last restaurant Trishna, in Marylebone, stood out not just for the stunning food but for the occasional willingness to pair Indian flavours with very traditional British ingredients. Nominally sister restaurant to its namesake in Mumbai, which specialises in seafood, Trishna London did indeed do a range of incredible seafood dishes (memory of the green chilli and coriander sea bream in particular still makes my heart skip a beat) but it was when Sethi played with guinea fowl or grouse or venison that the truly extraordinary things happened.
It makes sense, then, that no longer tied to the seafood theme and given free reign to design the kind of menu he wants to cook, the food at Gymkhana would be a notch above the already very good (and Michelin-starred) Trishna. Quite how good Gymkhana is, though, came as quite a shock even to this particular fan of his previous work - it may even turn out to be, and I don't make this kind of superlative claim lightly, one of the best Indian restaurants in London.
Firstly, it's quite a beautifully designed place, Upstairs is an airy, high-ceilinged bar and restaurant bringing to mind a gentleman's club in old Bombay. Downstairs is dark and cozy, all dark wood panelling and leather-upholstered booths, with various clandestine nooks and crannies that make you want to hunker down and spend the night. Staff were, as you might expect for an opening, trying extra hard to impress, but needless to say this doesn't always mean the best results - fortunately, front of house at Gymkhana absolutely never put a foot even slightly wrong; it was quite the best display of effortless, charming service that I can remember.
And the food - oh my lord, the food. After three different types of pappadum-style snacks (one made with potato, one chickpea, I forget the other) and three different house chutneys to dip them in (one with chilli and dried prawns was my favourite) arrived this plate of 'gol guppas', things I'd known as 'dahi-puri' when I used to order them in Kastoori in Tooting. Pastry casings filled with potato and vegetables, you pour a kind of cumin-infused liquid into the hole at the top, then quickly drop the whole thing into your mouth before it collapses. The mixture dissolves in your mouth into an Indian vegetable soup, and is quite something, crunchy and chilled and refreshing.
South Indian fried chicken wings came cleverly butchered into handy meat lollipops, and were expertly moist inside and crunchy out. I would have happily eaten a bucket of them, except I know how much we'd ordered so managed to just stick to three.
Potato chat with chickpeas and tamarind was one of those vegetarian dishes India does so well - great mix of textures and balance of heat and cool, and we particularly enjoyed the bits of crunchy fried potato (perhaps because they reminded us of chips). Not pictured here (I wouldn't want to frighten you) is a wonderful rich black lentil dhal we tried, and a portion of peppercorn grouse and green beans, all dark and earthy and mysterious.
Then it was time for the mains, and out came two dishes that represent exactly why Gymkhana is worth your time and money. The Trishna sea bream dish I spoke about earlier, perfectly cooked and delicately dressed in bright green coriander and chilli, Indian fine-dining that sacrifices none of the spice or colour. And breast of guinea fowl, powerfully spiced and all crunchy and smoky from the tandoor, also essentially another faultless bit of cooking. If you weren't planning your return trip to Gymkhana up until this point, you certainly would be now. I know I was.
The drinks list is lavished with the same attention to detail as the food and service. A "Flutterby" Lassi was yoghurt-based and laced with absinthe - recognisably Indian flavours but served up in an interesting new context. Ditto the house punches, which arrive in beautiful copper and pewter tableware and ask that you mix the ingredients together yourself to your liking. Which is great fun.
In the interests of balance, I should point out a couple of things I could fault at Gymkhana. One, the spelling of 'Tequilla'(sic) on the drinks menu, and two, the fact that downstairs the lighting is set at a very un- blogger-friendly levels. Very few of my photos came out, so I'm relying on some press shots from their PR company and whichever other's subjects are at least recognisably organic in origin. But really, who cares about spelling when the food is this good, and I imagine the lack of people taking photos of their dinner would be an extra incentive to visit for most of the population. Prices are reasonable for Mayfair (£5-£10 small plates, £10-£20 larger) and the toilets are very smart. There is really very little to fault, and you will love it, I guarantee.
I was invited to review Gymkhana