Although I live among several excellent Indian restaurants, ungrateful sow that I am I've developed a yen for the kind of old-fashioned, very un-authentic curry I used to get served in British hotels with names like The Balmoral or the The Belgravia. It was a mild yellow sauce - no nasty capsicum surprises - rather on the sweet side with a nonetheless robust aftertaste. It has more of something - tumeric? fenugreek? - than real marsala, and it dyed clothing permanently. I've also had it in France, Belfast and Idaho, never in a restaurant with the faintest pretentions to South Asian authenticity. Even my San Francisco supermarket curry powders are more authentic nowadays.
Does anybody know what I'm talking about? Or how I can recapture the magic of this dish?
I suspect you are looking for a "colonial" curry much loved by the British upper classes especially those who served with the British Indian Army pre-independence in 1947. I have some old cook books that I inherited from my mother, one "Constance Spry" was published in 1956 has a big section on curries (20+ pages): in its day it was the bible for the aspirational home cook. I can imagine these dishes being served in grand old hotels,
Looking at these recipes some have sugar and lemon juice added, and many have red-currant jelly or seedless jam(to give the sweetness). The spices are usually just "curry powder" and they nearly all contain nut-milks, often coconut but sometimes almond milk. I do remember formal "Curry Lunches" on a Sunday where this sort of curry was served usually accompanied by side dishes like banana slices mixed with desiccated coconut, lots of sweet fruit chutneys and nuts and pieces of fruit to sprinkle on top.
I doubt you will find this type of "colonial" food these days as it is very much out of fashion, especially with the drive to authenticity. My guess is the closest you may find is "Coronation Chicken" which comes from this era and has that sweet curry taste. There are some restaurants revisiting the dinner party classics of those days with modern takes on Prawn Cocktails, and Chicken Kiev's so you may strike lucky. However, it is more likely you need to make one yourself.
I think Phil is probably right with his identification (and analysis - which means it's going to be all but impossible to find the taste nowadays). Like most of the UK, the area where I live was starting to develop a taste for Indian food in the late 70s (yes, howler, I know, I know - but bear with me). It is pretty much what has developed into the food of the "high street curry house" - no pretence at authenticity (or, necessarily, even quality) but a style of its own which I enjoy.
In 1980, we went on a P & O cruise which still carried on its long tradition of serving a curry at lunch. It was awful - sweet, sprinkled with fruits, odd colours and so on. Just like I presume had been enjoyed by the colonial officers of the Raj. Nothing like what I'd been eating for a couple of years.
Some retro dishes, like the prawn cocktail, stand a revival (not that that one has ever gone away in the Harters household), but I can't see sweet curry making a comeback.
you really have a hankering for that mild yellow sauce? get over to any bangla run indian restaurant and tell them you want butter chicken. assuming they run true to form - wolla, yellow curry. (fyi, its a liberal use of turmeric that gives the color. and turmeric is IMPOSSIBLE to wash out).