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Nov 23, 2008 08:37 AM

Some London schooling on curry, please

I know that when in London it is imperitive to "have a curry" as they say, but I am only familiar with a few curry dishes (Thai red curry, for example) and would love a brief guide to the various types of curry restaurants, dishes, locations, etc, in London.

Thanks to all the experts out there who will take the time to help me prepare for a visit to London.

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  1. Well, firstly "curry" in London almost always means westernised Indian/Bagaladeshi/Pakistani cuisine unleess something like Thai is specifically mentioned.

    Also, I think that there is a clearer division between high end and ordinary in curry menus (rather than just execution) than in many other styles of cooking. If you want Quail stuffed with spinach and exotic things, simmered in saffron infused Yak's yoghurt then it's high end or no dice. Ordinary places will offer such things as Tandoori grills, Chicken Madras or Lamb Rogon Jhosh, which are essentially spicy stews.

    Plenty of both types in London, and personally I'm equally happy in either. The dividing line generally comes in at about £25-£30per head, although some top places can be much more.

    That's a little background, and I expect you will get plenty of specific suggestions.

    19 Replies
    1. re: Robin Joy

      'having a curry' is the stuff of urban legend. it is 99% of the time some strangely coloured glop served over indifferent meat and is about as close to punjabi cuisine (which it purpots to being) as is cantonese.

      there are a few genuwine punjabi/moghlai places in london - gaylords, moti mahal and the bombay brasserie come to mind. the rest (including the red fort etc) are bangla deshi dens of horror.

      1. re: howler

        So, howler, if I were to go to Gaylords, Moti Mahal or Bombay Brasserie, what would I expect to find on the menu, how much would I pay and what is the general ambience/class of restaurant?


        1. re: houstonhound

          I'd estimate about £30-40 for a meal at those places, not including alcohol. You'd get the type of service/ambiance as a fancy french restaurant in the US.

          The food in London is extraordinarily diverse, and various Indian cuisines are just the tip of the iceberg. I would strongly encourage you to browse through this board, there may be other cuisines (Japanese, Persian, Cantonese, Polish, Lebanese, Spanish, Sinagpore/Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai, French, Italian, Korean etc) that would catch your eye.

        2. re: howler

          Well I think that is a bit harsh. "Indian" food in the UK is very broad, with good and bad in every category. I personally love the variety and I am as happy in a cheap "spit and sawdust" place as a high end Michelin starred establishment.

          At the cheaper end there are some great places in the suburbs that house relatively new immigrants. These are very authentic with few frills. Some are great other dire, one stand-out is "New Tayabs" which was voted London Curry House of The Year recently (a genuine award as opposed to the many fake ones in brick lane).

          In most UK high streets you will find the "Great British Curry House" some of these places are dire, but lots are pretty good. They are far from authentic, but they are examples of how migrants have take cuisine from their home and adapted it to local taste. After all Britain's favourite meal is now meal to be Chicken Tikka Massala. This and other dishes were invented/adapted to the UK market. In fact a whole mythical cuisine "Balti" was invented in Birmingham and spread through the UK. I love my local curry house even though it isn't authentic - its great for a cheap Friday night feed.

          Going upmarket London has now got lots of great authentic restaurants that specialise in regional food, as well as some very talented chefs that are pushing the envelope and are evolving Indian food. Again some of this innovation is really good, but there are bad examples. Top restaurants include Benares, Tamarind, Cinnamon Club and now Trishna a Mumbai restaurant that has opened a branch in London. Often these restaurants seem comparatively expensive especially compared with the lower end of the market, however they tend to use a lot higher quality ingredients (game, free range chicken, fresh/wild fish) and use less spicing to let the ingredients show through. Their price points and their subtle spicing are not to everyone's tastes - in fact there are lots of detractors. However, I have had some great meals in these type of restaurants.

          This could turn into a real essay. Best advice is to sample restaurants across the spectrum. Howler's three choices are all good (but is the Bombay Brasserie open again - it was closed for refurbishment?). However, they are in a similar category. Try, one of those (add in Quilon) and then New Tayabs, it is in Whitechapel for the more authentic, and then a "high street" one like Mela on Shaftsbury Avenue or Haandi in Cheval Place (near Harrods),

          1. re: PhilD

            Thanks PhilD. These recs sound like a good variety of rests.

            But remember, I am still pretty ignorant. What dishes do you recommend in the various spots? By way of example, if you were to come to Texas and wanted to be educated about mexican food, I'd recommend the cheese enchiladas at one place but the grilled quail at another and the chile relleno at yet another, and explain the differences

            Do you mind a further expansion on your above recs?

            1. re: houstonhound

              As you now can see, everyone has their own take on 'subcontinent' food - what kind, where to eat etc. I was never much of a fan when living near NYC, but moving to the UK certainly changed my opinion and tastebuds. There is so much more variety and deliciousness over here.

              What dishes you would enjoy depends a bit on how spicy you like your food. I found that Brits like their food (any food) with more spice than we're used to in most of the States.

              I like the way many of the chefs here have become inventive and adventurous and don't stick to the traditional ways of preparing the dishes. Places like Amaya, Benares and The Cinnamon Club (fantastic ambiance) are much more than curry houses. You can look at their menus online ... see what's offered. The Bombay Brasserie (if open) is another good experience.

              I'm sure you'll enjoy whatever you try here - enjoy!

              1. re: houstonhound

                Houston hound. I live in Kerrville Texas. My wife is from the UK. Have been going over there for yrs. For the beginner. I would recommend starting off easy with some Samosa's for Apps. Pakora or Bahgi are just fired things. Try them. Onion Bahgi= (Indian Version of onion rings) Chicken Pakora = Fried chicken. I like veggie Samosas. For main course. The masala dishes=creamy a little heat, Madras dishes med . If you like it spicey you can go Vidaloo but be careful its sometimes hotter than our Tex-Mex dishes. Get a mango shake after dinner. At the begining of your meal you will get Popadoms a thin flat chip the size of a pancake. Its good to dip in the various sauces and chutneys that come along with it. Tamarind sauce, onion, and cilantro chutney are my 3 favorite. Keep intouch I have some indian food receipes I make when I am back home in Texas. They have always been a crowd pleaser. Good luck. I will be in the UK starting Dec 5th.

              2. re: PhilD

                "but they are examples of how migrants have take cuisine from their home and adapted it to local taste"

                no! thats why curry houses are awful - it isn't adapted cuisine, its invented cuisine just as 'balti' is. its as if greeks landed up in china and started a french restaurant with no idea whatsoever of the actual recipes.

                as for talented chefs evolving indian food - please. every single place i've been to is involved with creating an image that has no roots in the real thing. india has literally hundreds of cuisines and if these schmancy places could cook as well as any mom, then i'd appreciate the desire to innovate. but with such a vast palate to choose from whats the point of these places?

                ultimately, the tragedy is that indian cuisines are confined to homes, not restaurants. indians traditionally go out to eat punjabi/moghlai, indian chinese or south indian (though thats changing, thank god).

                1. re: howler

                  Actually, come to think about it, I've yet to find any punjabi/moghlai that I consider exceptional. I've been through most of the places in Tooting, and perhaps the best deals there are the Keralan and Sri Lankan places (although often a case of good not great). If it's adapted cuisine that we want, sounds like the Desi Chinese place (Dalchini) in Wimbledon might be a better example.

                  1. re: howler

                    Howler we clearly have different perspectives. I don't see authenticity as the be all and end all of food. Sure I love a genuine, really authentic meal and I think I have had a few of these in London, and many in India. I am simply assessing restaurants on whether they deliver a good dining experience i.e. did I enjoy the meal?

                    I see innovation as a positive as I appreciate variety, the whole spectrum of Indian and Indian influenced food interests me. It is quite a strange argument to say chefs need to wait until all the nuances of Indian cuisine are available in London before we are allowed to appreciate their ability to innovate.

                    I remember the restaurants in Birmingham pre-Balti. Adils and the Paris Sweet Centre were both very authentic/genuine restaurants before they evolved their food into Balti, and created a whole new wave of interest in Indian food. Obviously a lot of restaurants turn out very poor versions of this food, but when it is done well it is good (and fun). I can't follow the "Greeks in India" argument because these were/are chefs who understood the roots of their food.

                    How obvious to roots need to be? Should a person be disappointed that Heston Blumenthal doesn't do roast beef and Yorkshire puddings at the Fat Duck. Or is it better to be excited/challenged by his "Best end of lamb, with ice filtered lamb jelly, braised lamb tongue and cucumber salad, onion and thyme fluid gel, and hot-pot with sweetbread and oyster"...? There is obviously no correct answer; some will prefer a traditional roast dinner, other will love the innovation. The example holds true for Indian food, you clearly love authentic food, I appreciate the variety: each to his own. It is a matter of taste it isn't a matter of right or wrong.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      I agree with both you and howler. What a muddle. :-) Perhaps there is a bit of 'Rembrances Past,' that creeps into food discussions. I tend to think that howler grew up with certain foods and prefers those to what he considers not authentic. I don't like any of the salt beef sandwiches I've tried in the UK and it's probably because they are not like what I grew up eating and loving. They don't taste 'just right.' They aren't bad - just different.

                      1. re: PhilD

                        alas, i haven't made myself clear.

                        there are hundreds of seperate, distinct cuisines in india and they've evolved over time to their present status. some of this evolution took place in royal kitchens and some in regular households but nonetheless an indian meal, no matter which cuisine, shares the idea of balance: something sweet, something sour, something spicy. ideally the spices, believed to be medicinal, are in balance as welll. anyway, we don't eat in courses: starter, mains, desssert. rather its dab this, dip that, combine this etc and the plate reflects that balance. thats why theres so many things on or around it. next time you're at an indian buffet, take a look at how an indian arranges his plate - you might be surprised.

                        as for the curry houses, they are sooo far removed from anything indian i resent that they are even labelled as such. its a made up cuisine and almost always actively nasty, which is my primary reason for disliking them. i don't like mcdonalds for exactly the same reason. and the few times you get something decent at a curry house is probably when a talented cook is struggling to come out, so to speak.

                        i don't love authentic food, i love good food. anything that carries a spark of soul gets me excited. what i've eaten at the faux french restaurants is so below simple home cooking that i'm often left wondering - why try to write in blank verse when you can barely speak the language?

                        i'll give you an example: there's a favourite dish in marwadi homes called
                        katti dal, chawal. its simply plain (cooked) toor dal over rice, a sprinkle of lime and ghee, salt, some pickles, papad and kadi (which is a yoghurt based gravy). it is absolutely wonderful and no two houses make it quite the same - thats the soul you can detect. the flavours meld in a way that you can't quite imagine; out of this simplicity comes a deeply complex flavour profile that is vey hard to pin down (i'll leave it to limster!). now there's nothing i've had - nothing - at rasoi vineet bhatia, zaika, etc to come anywhere close.

                        finally, we obviously will contimue to like whatever we like. i'm just pointing out that if you like what you get in curry houses and upscale indian restaurants, then you will go insane when introduced to the real thing and maybe, just maybe its worth the effort to seek it out.

                        1. re: howler

                          howler... do you make a good katti dal? If so, I want some! Just kidding, but if you can or a family chef can, then why can't one single person working at a restaurant in London? I'm trying to understand.

                          I do understand your impatience with crap food of any variety.

                          And where do we unfortunate non-subcontinent people seek out 'ther real thing?' Maybe we are just doomed to enjoy what we can in what's available to us.

                          1. re: zuriga1

                            I've tossed out recommendations for places that serve the real thing multiple times. The places I'm usually ranting and raving about are ridiculously close to what you'd find in India or Bangladesh (Gram Bangla, especially.)

                            I completely understand the opposition to high price fusion places, but I resent it in a different way. I resent the fact that you could have an incredible (let's say for an example) West Bengali cook who started working at an early age for a family, continued working as a private cook, moved to a restaurant, and was then sent to the UK for further training. He opens a place or starts cooking at a place over here. What is he going to make? Is London going to receive it's first truly amazing West Bengali restaurant (I don't know of any that get rave reviews) which serves incredible food at low costs? Is he going to cater to an immigrant community that pays less (though the West Bengali community is admittedly small?) On the other hand, the Gujarati community is massive, but they have next to no restaurant representation and their authentic places are selling into the curry house mentality at a scary pace.) No, he'll work at a fusion restaurant that pays more and serves something which is throwing together as many food trends as is humanly possible at the same time.

                            Then you have Bangladeshi cooks doing pretty much the same thing only with curry houses. Many of these guys are probably 100% untrained before they arrive, but some are probably very good cooks. Are they cooking incredible authentic Bangladeshi food (Bangladesh has at least 4 different significant cuisines with huge differences that I can think of. You can only find 1 in London and 2 in New York outside of home cooking. We have the same problem back home with Bangladeshis dominating our "Indian" restaurant community, but all of our "Indians" jumped ship to Long Island or Jersey a while back except for some groups in Queens so it's understandable.)

                            In the end, it's not like we can do anything about it and we might as well enjoy what we can. Indian families generally won't go out to eat their own food, they'll basically go out for Mughlai, South Indian, or Indian-Chinese. The exception to this rule is mostly bachelors and young couples in areas like East Ham, West Ham, Wembley, etc who are legitly looking for their own cuisines.

                            1. re: JFores

                              fyi justin - there are pitifully few india born indians in the uk. the gujurathis are all
                              from east africa.

                              zuriga - you are a decent cook so why not try and make katti dal chawal yourself? its simple and well worth the effort. let me see if i can find a recipe.

                              why the restaurants don't offer classical home cooked indian food is beyond me. there are a few as jfores has found, but by and large its probably due to the fact that indians go out to eat as an occasion and so expect the same standard punjabi/moghla, indo chinese or south indian. for example most punjabis will look at gujurathi thalis with utter bewilderment. and so i can't resist sharing this joke: a sikh lorry driver, seeking a change from the usual dal and butter chicken at dhabhas decides to be adventurous and try out a gujartahi thali. after watching with increasing bewilderment at the dals, kadi's, amras arriving on his plate he summons over the waiter.'listen dude, i said i was hungry not thirsty'. ah well you had to be there. and its better in hindi.

                              1. re: howler

                                howler.. I found this one. What do you think? I love a red lentil dal I make, and this doesn't look too very different. Is it important to use the yellow lentils instead of red. I need to be authentic!


                                Dals are a great way to up one's fiber intake. I am an expert on fiber.

                          2. re: howler

                            Howler - interestingly I always agree with your recommendations and I find them to be the better Indian restaurants. I also don't eat a "starter, main and dessert" preferring to try and eat a range of dishes. Probably not with the finesse of someone who grew up with this food but enough to appreciate the variety. I also believe I have eaten "the real thing" with many of my colleagues (and hosts) in India.

                            I wonder if our different takes on Indian restaurants in the UK is based on our backgrounds. I don't have the heritage of this food, nor the nostalgia for the food of my home/youth as you do. This is powerful psychological effect and really influences taste and enjoyment (Heston's Big Fat Duck Cookbook is very insightful on the subject). You clearly love a purity, and the soul.

                            I come to the food from a different perspective. Different, styles and levels work in different ways. The context is important - the Friday night curry compared to the long buffet lunch, or the grand celebration meal. I find that Indian food can work on many different levels, and in London you can find good examples of restaurants doing this (and unfortunately lots and lots of bad examples). Simply put, I am unencumbered by memories of better food in the past so I appreciate what I can get, and may be more open to innovation.

                            I would love to be able to explore the depth and variety of Indian food, if it where available in London, and don't doubt it would be a thrilling journey. But how many cuisines really travel like that? Even French food in London lacks the regional variety. Is it possible that there is more regional Indian cooking in London than regional French cooking? I struggle to think of a Pays-Basque, or Corsican, or Burgundian specialist restaurant in London (but I am certain they must exist. Are they any good?).

                            Is it a simple fact that food away from its origin always going to be more narrowly based than in its homeland and thus destined to disappoint those whose heritage is in the this food? (not a problem for me as English food has yet to take the world by storm)

                            It is a pity the Bombay Brasserie isn't open yet as this would be a far better argument if we shared a couple of bottles of decent red whilst enjoying the fine buffet — one thing we definitely do agree on (I hope they don't ruin it!).

                            1. re: PhilD

                              Immigrant cuisines almost always travel like that. London's one of the only large cities I've been to where I don't see it occurring as much. Where young immigrant students and workers go, very specific regional cuisine usually follows.

                              1. re: JFores

                                JFores - Different frame of reference. I was talking at a macro level i.e. how food transfers into the wider community. Obviously at a micro level regional food will transfer with a community, but how often does this break out and get established in the broader community or head upstream into the more mainstream sector. Many of these communities are transient and you see immigrant communities cycling through neighbourhoods with changes to the make-up of these communities on a generation to generation basis.

                                My observation is that restaurants (by necessity) expand their cooking to capture a broad market mixing dishes from all regions within their restaurant style. Some regional cooking does break out, but it is the exception. Think of any cuisine and this applies - European, Asian, American (north and South).

                2. I suspected your question would animate some Hounds!

                  Where are you staying please?

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Robin Joy

                    Well, it certainly did, but no one has yet offered me any suggestions of what to order, where.

                    Still waiting to see if I can get a charitable hound to give me a list (an description) of prime dishes not to miss.

                    We are staying in an apartment in South Kensington (Onslow Gardens) but will travel all over the city for a memorable meal.

                    1. re: houstonhound

                      try gaylords on mortime street. a typical meal for two is kebabs of your choice, either butter chicken or rogan josh, pili dal (ask them, it may be off menu. it means simple yellow dal), alu gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) and palak paneer. get tandoori roti instead of nan.

                      if you don't mind getting a bit heavy, substitute kali (black) dal for the pili dal.

                      there you go.

                        1. re: houstonhound

                          New Tayabs (83 Fieldgate Street E1 - Aldgate East tube is good), definitely order the lamb chops, follow with a Dry Meat curry, a Dhal and some nan breads - enough food for a large appetite. If you go with others simply order some of the other grilled meat starters, other curries and other vegetables. Variety is the key.

                          If you want to drink you need to bring your own alcohol, you can't book, and you may need to wait for a table, best to get there early.

                          1. re: PhilD

                            phild - i'm enjoying our conversation, so i hope you'll take this in the spirit i write with.

                            us from the sub-continent eat goat, not lamb. goat's a much tastier meat and lamb gets a gaminess we just aren't used to. you can't discern that in new tayyabs excellent seekh kebabs (actually you can if you eat them a day later), but you can taste the difference in the lamb chops. those should be goat chaamps (as the punjabis say). anyway, i agree i'm quibbling.

                            the reason is that good goat is hard to come by so new tayyabs compromises. hence i tend to order those dishes where the difference isn't so pronounced: kheema, seekh kebabs (made of kheema) etc.

                  2. Houston hound. I posted to one of your other questions regarding dish recommendations. If you have the time. Look up an indian place near you in Houston and check out what they have. You will find most of what they serve is what you will run across in the UK. Good luck

                    6 Replies
                      1. re: houstonhound

                        Sorry to spoil anyone's fun or besmirch anyone's reputation, but a clutch of recent reader reviews on another foodie site were unanimous in their condemnation of Gaylord's in Mortimer Street. Awful food, atrocious service, rude indifferent waiters and manager...the list went on and on.

                        I read it with particular interest and some sadness because, back in the 70's, Gaylord's was rated as probably the best in London. I had some magnificent meals there. What a shame!

                        Another one that seems to have fallen by the wayside is the Lahore Kebab House in the East End (Commercial Road?) My extended family has used it for years for big get-togethers but we were a bit disappointed on our last visit in September. It's insanely popular and has expanded into adjoining premises so it now takes up most of the street, but we all thought the grub was a bit underpowered. OK but nothing special. Maybe they've blanded the spicing down a bit to suit the tastes of their new clientele, who seem to be mostly City workers.

                        Houstonhound, do try New Tayyabs, which several other posters have mentioned. Nothing fancy, but sensationally good food.

                        My own favourite Indian has always been the Sunderban on Blackstock Road in Finsbury Park, which is a good hike (and more or less on a different planet) from South Kensington. It's just an unassuming High Street local but I rate their chicken dhansak as the best I've ever eaten, anywhere on earth!

                        1. re: paddydubai

                          Seeing that some time has passed since this post, is Sunderban still around and still good?

                          1. re: Pan

                            yes, Sunderban is still going strong and I probably go there 3 times a month. Still working my way though the menu but all dishes are good.

                            1. re: greeneyesN4

                              Excellent. I'll plan to go and try it.

                              1. re: greeneyesN4

                                I want to thank you two for recommending Sunderban. The place is great! We got absolutely delicious takeaway of Lamb Dhansak and the shrimp dish with pumpkin on Sunday night and ate in Vegetable Biryani and Chicken Jalfrezi late Monday night after the proms. We liked our takeaway dinner slightly better, but only because of our taste for the respective dishes. If Sunderban were in my neighborhood in New York, I'd be a regular.

                      2. Have you given Hot Stuff a go? It's brilliant... http://aroundbritainwithapaunch.blogs...

                        1. ah boy.

                          honestly hh, if you are totally unfamiliar with this food as it seems and just visiting i would go to an indian restaurant back in houston at your leisure instead to try it. or maybe try one near your hotel if you must, rather than parse all our (beloved! ;)) chowhound minutia on this topic.

                          yes brick lane is indeed lined with restaurants, but frankly it's out of the way, kinda scubby and untouristy, that is unless you are a club kid or really really want to 'hound around rather than see all the london sights (not that this strip isnt one in its own way).

                          we plan to spend more time in london with traditional and modern takes on british food like gastropubs, fish&chips, an english breakfast, roast & afternoon tea and all that, plus hit up the borough market and the dept store food courts.

                          just my two pence!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mrnyc

                            Huh? Brick Lane is VERY central... It's also packed with tourists. Far too many of them.