Matthew Bayley reviews Tamarind Kitchen, London: 'I thought being able to cut meat with a spoon was just a phrase'

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Used to flock wallpaper, 
Matthew Bayley tries a different kind of Indian restaurant 
Used to flock wallpaper, Matthew Bayley tries a different kind of Indian restaurant  Credit: Jasper Fry

So much of the way we eat and drink is bound up in personal ritual: ketchup or brown sauce? Milk first or after? Cucumber or lime (never lemon)?

A ritual that one of my oldest friends and I observe with almost religious fanaticism is to go to the pub, then after a few pints sit down for a curry and have a totally ludicrous argument. The last time it was about the IRA. The time before it was Brexit. 

We’ve rowed about cider (sweet v dry), whether middle-aged men should be wearing combat trousers past the age of 40 (he still does), and whether the Isle of Wight should be declared an independent republic (he’s in favour).

The one other thing that never changes is what we end up eating. For wherever we are, however 'special’ the Indian restaurant claims to be, it’s always something brown. Or something orange. Both of which taste pretty much the same.

I’ve tried. I really have. I’ve delved deep into menus, riffling through the pages to sniff out the chef’s specials and sample the house recommendations. But it changes nothing. Whatever turns up just gets shovelled down with barely a pause for reflection amid an escalating argument about the musical merits of Hootie & the Blowfish (don’t ask). 

Which, in most circumstances, is just fine. And by 'most circumstances’ what I mean is the traditional British Indian dining experience – a Friday-night skirmish comprised of poppadoms, nans, bhajis and rice, plus a funnel of Cobra lager. But what if there is something more? 

A cuisine as ancient and as regionally diverse as India’s is of course capable of delicacy, refinement, sophistication – rather than the great blunderbuss of muddled flavours we often fire full bore into our mouths. But where to find it? 

Tamarind in Mayfair was one of the first Indian restaurants in the country to win a Michelin star with its high-end take on traditional subcontinental cooking. So it was with high hopes that  I approached its new, more casual offshoot, Tamarind Kitchen on Wardour Street in Soho.

A quick glance at its website shows an obvious attempt to nail that sweet middle spot somewhere between linen-tablecloth formality and balti-splattered, post-pub carnage. 'Soulful’ is how they put it.

Tamarind Kitchen’s game platter  Credit: Jasper Fry

And at first blush it is an alluring prospect. Stepping inside, I was instantly hit with the heady scent of fragrant spices; there is dark wood and deep-blue paint on the walls, which, speckled with refracted light, have the appearance of a peacock’s plumage – a firm reminder that I was not in flock-wallpaper country any more.

The comfortable tables sit cosily beneath individual pools of light (beware the low-hanging filament bulbs), and we were greeted and served throughout by friendly and endearing staff who seemed very keen to make sure we were enjoying ourselves.

Dinner started brightly: light shards of poppadom – the texture more like that of a prawn cracker – arrived in a wooden box, accompanied by an intense tomato and garlic dip that had us fighting for the last drop.

From the starters, the game platter featured the best part of the meal – tiny quail legs encrusted with a thick twang of spice and heat. But both the guinea fowl and the duck that accompanied it were a little dry, and the vermicelli, sitting underneath the (mostly orange) meat, was trying not to be noticed.

Karara kekda was an entire deep-fried softshell crab that looked spectacular, like a KFC crustacean, and offered tremendous crunch. Meanwhile, the makai kachumber corn salad, the waiter’s recommendation, was a zesty bowlful of contrasts, but didn’t necessarily increase my appetite like he promised.

From the mains, the Alleppy fish curry, made with meaty tilapia, was  fragrant with the subtle spices and coconut milk of Keralan backwaters. Hyderabadi lamb shank was a Fred Flintstone-sized hunk of meat that looked tremendous when it arrived and possessed a slowly cooked tenderness that I’ve rarely encountered.

Hyderabadi lamb shank – 'a Fred Flintstone-sized hunk of meat’  Credit: Jasper Fry

I thought being able to cut meat with a spoon was just a phrase. This came apart so easily that at one point a whole wedge fell off in front of me unprompted, like the collapse of a Jurassic Coast cliff. The sauce was reminiscent of the brown and orange of my Friday nights – the advertised chilli and cardamom spicing appeared to have gone for a burton.

A crème brûlée tasted deeply of cardamom, and there was sweet mango and pistachio kulfi. But I wasn’t necessarily converted. If Indian restaurants want me to break the habit of a lifetime, they’re going to need to do a little better than this, especially at these prices.

If only so I can have something else to argue about.