experiencing fine Indian dining in Mayfair

By Sean Carey

“Why do you want to go to a posh Indian restaurant and spend a small fortune when you can go to the Lahore or Needoo’s in Whitechapel and get a really good two-course meal for £15?” I asked my Nairobi-born British Punjabi friend, Kamal, after he expressed a keen interest in a high-end Indian dining experience.

“Don’t worry about the cost,” he reassured me with a smile, “it’ll be my treat.”

That conversation explains why the two of us recently ended up at Gymkhana, part of the fast-expanding JKS Restaurants group, which is located in Albemarle Street, Mayfair, a stone’s throw from the razzle-dazzle that is Piccadilly Circus. Since its opening in 2013, Gymkhana has won high praise from many food critics. The Times’ often acerbic restaurant critic, Giles Coren, proclaimed, “Gymkhana is the best restaurant I have ever been to.” The Observer’s Jay Rayner declared that we should “give thanks” for Gymkhana “which manages to be glossy and yet still deliver food with a serious kick and intent”.

Gymkhana received a Michelin star in 2014, and we could not get a secure booking for several weeks.

The long-awaited evening came. We were seated at a small table in a dark oak-panelled room, which, according to the website claim resembles a colonial Indian club “where members of high society socialise, dine, drink and play sport.” Fortunately or unfortunately, Kamal was nursing a heavy cold, and he was concerned that if he did spend a small fortune he wouldn’t be able to properly taste what was on offer.

Gymkhana interior. Credit: justopenedlondon.com

So instead of choosing the £85 “Hunter’s Menu” (drinks extra) or ordering à la carte (which includes the much-praised signature dish “Wild Muntjac Biryani” at £28), we decided that the four-course “Early Evening” menu for £35 was our best bet.

Some years ago, in order to find out what all the buzz was about, I dined at a couple of Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in London, namely Tamarind in Mayfair and Trishna in Marylebone, the latter also part of JKS Restaurants. I concluded that while the food was perfectly adequate, a Michelin star was probably awarded more because some charming front of house staff had made a fuss of one or more Michelin inspectors.

Not so at Gymkhana. For sure, the service is friendly and efficient. But the food definitely takes center stage. The dishes, even on the “budget” menu, were all outstanding. Kamal and I both opted for a starter consisting of potato chat and chana masala; a second course of Haryali bream; a third of butter chicken with dal, rice and other accompaniments; and a dessert of rasmalai sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts.

Anyone who likes fish and spicy food should be able to try the Haryali bream at least once in their lifetime. The dish looked a bit forlorn when it was brought to our table by a tall, bespectacled, white man with a German accent – two small portions of fish covered with a green paste and a few chopped cherry tomatoes with a cucumber dressing on a relatively large serving plate. But the taste was something else. A symphony of flavors is the best way to sum it up. Even Kamal with his blocked nose appreciated it. I’ve been singing Haryali bream’s praises to anyone who will listen ever since (yes, word-of-mouth marketing, I’m your man).

Gymkhana is one of eight functioning Indian restaurants in London to hold a Michelin star (Vineet Bhatia, London recently closed). That clustering of high-end Indian restaurants in London’s West End echoes to some extent the history of Indian food in the U.K.  Although curry and rice had been served in some restaurants in Haymarket and Piccadilly since the 1730s, the first dedicated Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House (originally called the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club), was opened at 34 George Street, Mayfair in 1810 by Sake Dean Mahomed (sometimes spelt Mahomet), the son of a Bengali army officer. 

Mahomed’s aim was to target wealthy Indian families resident in the area, returning British colonialists, and former employees of the East India Company – so-called nabobs – with “Indian dishes, in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England with choice wines.” One can only admire Mahomed’s entrepreneurial ambition, but the restaurant didn’t do well, mainly because visiting and London-based Indians had their own cooks and preferred to eat at home. The business was sold in 1812 and Mahomed filed for bankruptcy. He then moved to Brighton rebranding himself as a “shampooing surgeon”, receiving a royal warrant from both King George IV and William IV. He died in 1851 at the age of 92.

It is significant, though, that since Benares and Zaika, the first Indian restaurants in London to  receive the Michelin accolade in 2001, none of a growing number of fine-dining Indian restaurants in the capital or elsewhere, despite their best efforts, have achieved a two- or three-star rating. Some critics, including the late A.A.Gill, think this is because of Michelin’s bias towards French cuisine and/or its cooking techniques. It is also notable that most Michelin-starred Indian restaurants in London are located in Mayfair, in the borough of Westminster. Mayfair is, as journalists are apt to write, the city’s “most exclusive” hotel, retail, gambling, and hedge-fund dominated financial district. In short, it’s where the money is – though by all accounts not all of it has likely been legally acquired.

South Audrey Street, Mayfair. Credit: Ewan Munro/Flickr

A final point. The pattern of ownership of Gymkhana is sociologically and culturally interesting because it signifies an important shift in the type of economic opportunities pursued by some younger members of some British South Asian groups. Unlike other Mayfair Michelin-starred Indian restaurants, such as Amaya, Benares, or Jamavar which are supervised (and in one case owned) by Indian-born chefs who trained at the Oberoi Group or Taj Hotels in India, Gymkhana is the brainchild of U.K.-born Karam Sethi.

Thirty four years old, he is the son of a chartered accountant father and housewife mother from Delhi. Sethi, who grew up in the borough of Finchley and attended the nearby Haberdasher’s Aske’s Boys’ School, one of the country’s most prestigious public schools, is one of a small but growing number of British Indians who, equipped with high levels of cultural capital, have turned their back on parent-preferred, highly respectable professions such as accountancy, law, or medicine.

Instead, these young British Indians are seeking wealth and status in London’s burgeoning hospitality sector catering for the globe-trotting super-rich and their well-remunerated, numerically significant, suburban commuting service class – and, occasionally, happy interlopers like Kamal and me.

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