Friday, 6 January 2017
There's nothing a restaurant blogger likes more than a clear narrative. And by that I don't just mean the clear triumphs or a complete disasters of places that I can happily praise to high heaven or thoroughly trash - that goes without saying. I'm talking also about anywhere that operates on a consistent decent level under difficult circumstances, or perhaps somewhere that despite its huge budget and palatial surroundings is churning out substandard product. It's strangely satisfying as a critic to spot where the problems lie or to recognise real effort and report accordingly. Makes my "job" (such as it is) a lot easier.
But sometimes, a restaurant just doesn't play by the rules. After my first visit to Jamavar, a lavishly appointed spot on Mount Street in Mayfair, I was more than sure I knew exactly all I needed to know. After a warm welcome and having been settled on a plush leather banquette, a dainty arrangement of crisp snacks arrived, cones of spicy baked poppadums, mini chickpea poppadums, and crisp-fried plantain. With them, a selection of chutneys - refreshing coriander, rich mango and a tomato-chilli. Just the kind of start you need in a high-end Indian restaurant, everything wonderfully seasoned and perfectly-pitched.
Next, "crispy guineafowl malligai" which is still the greatest thing I've known happen to guineafowl (ordinarily not a particularly interesting beast). With an addictive dry-crunch coating containing soft, expertly spiced morsels of game, this was a completely wonderful bit of cooking, like the best spicy chicken nuggets in the world. Topped with a cooling dollop of mango "pachadi" and a very interesting dry cherry-shaped chilli of some kind, it satisfied on every conceivable level.
If you try only one fish dish at Jamavar - hell, if you have only one fish dish anywhere this year - make sure it's the stone bass tikka. Timed with NASA-like precision to be just-cooked but without a hint of dryness, coated in a dreamily complex set of spices and matched with a chilli-spiked avocado dressing, I will stake my reputation (such as it is) on the fact that there can hardly be a better fish dish in town right now. And yes, I am including my previous favourite the Hariyali Sea Bream at Trishna (at the time not uncoincidentally cooked by the current Jamavar head chef, Rohit Ghai, although the recipe was of course a Karam Sethi original) in that assessment. It is a complete knockout and you should go and order it as soon as you possibly can.
As if all that wasn't enough, Jamavar's black dhal is yet another work of art, a creation so dense and multifaceted in flavour, almost chocolately in its intensity, that to sample it is to fall deeply in love. At the risk of repeating myself, I would be very surprised indeed if you managed to eat a better dhal in a restaurant in London than this.
So, I had my story. Despite a minor service niggle - the menu had been printed with a second 'small plates' page instead of main courses causing a bit of confusion at first - and what is by most standards quite a whacking price point (the 3 courses above with no drink or bread came to just under £50), this was a clear 9/10 restaurant, confident and mature Indian cooking in surroundings that make sense of the budget. A great restaurant.
But partially because I worry about writing up a restaurant based on only 3 dishes and partly because I just loved it so much I wanted to return as soon as possible, the next day I was back. And almost from the first moment, things started go to skewiff. Firstly, despite a completely empty dining room at the stroke of midday, I was told they needed my table back by 1:30pm. This would never have been an issue had they not mentioned it, as I only ever have an hour for lunch, but someone had clearly decided they'd rather make me feel slightly unwelcome than just manage table allocations a bit better. But fine, their place, their rules. And if it was a bit of a surprise to see that the issue with the double-printed menu pages still hadn't been fixed, it was more perplexing to have the staff arguing quite vociferously amongst themselves as to whose fault this was, within easy earshot, after I'd pointed it out.
I would necessarily expect the £25 lunch menu to involve cheaper ingredients and perhaps less elaborate techniques. This is after all what lunch menus are for. But the first dish, a kind of pork terrine with quail's egg was quite clumsily executed, the pork being almost inedibly salty and the strange balancing-act presentation looking a bit naff.
Fortunately the lamb seekh kebab up next was much better, soft and gently spiced and while perhaps a bit more anaemic-looking than some of the best examples in town (*cough* Tayyabs *cough*), but still enjoyable. The cold, unseasoned bean salad didn't do much for it, though.
Butter chicken suffered from a slightly thin flavour and slightly dry pieces of chicken. It wasn't a complete disaster by any means, just wasn't that much better than any butter chicken you'd pick up from a high street Indian, and at these prices I think I'm right to expect a bit more.
Aloo was decent, but the dhungar dhal was a bit underpowered, certainly not a patch on the black dhal from the day before. Again, all these things are surely consequences of the cheaper lunch menu but were still quite disappointing given the fireworks the same kitchen seemed capable of elsewhere.
All of which conspired to leave my so-called "story" in a bit of a state. I couldn't rave about the place, nor dismiss it, nor even come up with any sensible theories as to why this lunch menu was so clumsy even despite its cheaper price point, while the highlights of the a la carte were out of this world good. It just didn't make much sense, especially as that stone bass tikka is actually available on the lunch menu as a main.
Even a third visit (evening so too dark for photos), this time under invitation of the head chef and an opportunity to try a great deal more of the ALC offerings, didn't help settle the matter because now we were back to Jamavar Mode A - dazzling cooking and exquisite presentation, in particular a shami kebab in a thick, dark sauce that brought to mind fine oxtail soup, and a Bengali fish dish which showed yet more supremely skillful ways with seafood.
But you know what, it's hard not to give Jamavar the benefit of the doubt. The fact is, anywhere capable of dishes like the guinea fowl, or the stone bass tikka, or the black dhal, needs all the praise it can get, and even if you went there on the back of this post and ordered those three things, paying through the nose for them from the a la carte menu, I doubt you'd feel it was a wasted journey. OK so, some of the lunch menu items could do with a bit of tweaking, and yes the staff could do with a couple of pointers but it is after all early days, and there was enough technique and ability demonstrated overall that indicates this is a restaurant going places. So instead of a rave, or a rant, or any kind of coherant narrative, I'm just going to tell you to order those dishes I liked, avoid the ones I didn't, and see if you don't have a jolly good time yourself.
I paid for my first two visits, then was largely comped on the third.