Thursday, 30 October 2014
The Cinnamon Club, Westminster
There was a time, back in the dim and distant past, when I was rather sniffy about high-end Indian food. It started, I think, with a rather unsatisfying experience at Benares in Mayfair, where I had a couple of little bowls of curry, some quite nice chicken tikka, and some mini poppadums and was charged about £45. Then not so long after I went to a blogger's dinner at Tamarind, which though better in terms of variety still felt a bit half-hearted, shackled (I thought) by the constraints of Michelin-starred dining when Indian food should be all about fire, spice and immediacy.
The thing is, I have a feeling that both of the above - Benares and Tamarind - were even at the time much better than I gave them credit for. Being a hopeless devotee of noisy canteen restaurants like Tayyabs, Lahore and Mirch Masala, I probably regarded the soft furnishings and silver service of the high-end as missing some vital element of heart and passion, as if whatever it is that makes Indian food so good couldn't possibly thrive next to fine wines and tablecloths.
Which is of course, not only completely wrong but slightly patronising. The French can have Arpege as well as their local bistros, the British can have Fera and a pie and mash shop happily co-existing. So why can't Indian/Pakistani food be just as much about tasting menus and fine dining as it is about queueing in Whitechapel for a mixed grill?
The only worry is that with new kids on the block Gymkhana and Trishna stealing all the awards, press and limelight, stalwarts like Westminster's Cinnamon Club can too easily be overlooked. But I am pleased to report that every table in this beautiful old library was taken on Tuesday night, and for good reason too - the food, every bit of it, from start to end, was absolutely superb.
That's not to say everything about the evening was perfect, however. Staff were a little thinly spread, and flagging them down for drinks was occasionally tricky. Martinis used room-temperature glass, meaning by the time they'd got to the table they were approaching lukewarm, and I think even though we were happy to plough our way through the £75 tasting menu (it was a Tuesday after all) it would have been nice for them to bring naan breads and chutneys without us asking.
But all the niggles were answered with things like this - king scallops with cauliflower and sumac couscous, perfectly crusted and packed full of flavour, texture provided by crumbly veg and a lovely dollop of sweet chutney.
And this - a moist, charcoal-grilled partridge breast, with a fresh raita and some expertly dressed salad. When the dishes first appeared your first reaction is one of slight disappointment; presentations seem dated and lazy, just thrown on a plate then sent out. But the flavours and techniques make up for it in spades - these are top ingredients treated with care and with a masterfully subtle command of spicing.
How else, for example, would you explain how a cube of chickpea with coriander chutney and spiced yoghurt was almost the highlight of the entire meal? Beguiling flavours and wonderful textures creating a single exquisite mouthful of joy. "I could eat about thirty of these I think" my friend said, as we were polishing up the leftover spiced yoghurt with our fingers.
King prawns with shallot raita again looked like nothing much special on the plate, but had been grilled to perfection, containing moist bouncy flesh and a deep, earthy spice mix.
A palate-cleanser of mint and lime sorbet (no complaints) came before a fillet of sea bass, a good crunchy skin covering soft, moist flesh. Underneath, curried chickpea and chorizo was like a fine, slow-cooked Indian cassoulet. Technically precise, but also packed with a balance of flavour that meant you never wanted it to end.
Roast venison with black stone flower and onion reduction combined classical French techniques with a few slices of perfectly moist deer loin, and some crunchy bits and pieces of root vegetables. Of all the dishes this was perhaps the most straightforward, but was still nearly impossible to fault - if you can't enjoy pink venison, roast potatoes and a thick reduced onion sauce, then there's surely something wrong with you.
I'm not entirely sure how to describe this - it was sort of a cross between yoghurt and cream, but was quite grainy in texture. In fact I didn't like it much, although the rice crispies were quite nice.
This sticky toffee pudding - sorry, spiced apple pudding - was more like it though, caramely and rich with a nice rich cinnamon ice cream on a little circle of brandy snap. I've never really had a dessert worth writing home about in an Indian restaurant, so the fact they've decided to go down the traditional English pudding route is understandable. I loved it.
And I loved much of the rest of it. OK, asking for bread was a bit annoying and I could have done with a colder martini but when you leave a restaurant grinning from ear to ear and determined to do it all again the first chance you get, you know you're onto a good thing. £115+service is not a trivial amount to spend on dinner, not by a long shot, but if you consider it's 10+ courses with about 8 glasses of wine, well, it's not really a ripoff either. This fine old institution is just a new set of tableware and a glass freezer away from being unassailable. Or perhaps the 90s stylings are part of its charm. Either way, here's to another 10 years.
Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon
I wasn't invited to the Cinnamon Club but for various reasons we didn't end up paying . Mentioning it here in the interests of full disclosure anyway.