Chef Karam Sethi planned to recreate the ambience of a British Raj-style Indian Club at Gymkhana. The result is one of London’s most exciting restaurants.
It’s difficult for an Indian establishment to set the pulse racing. There are more than 9,000 in the U.K., 46 percent of them in the capital, according to the Federation of Specialist Restaurants.
Gymkhana, which opened in Mayfair last month, has its faults. The service is stiff and the sommelier may play the role of sherpa, helping you to scale the peaks of the wine list.
But the food is so good, I have eaten here five times in just over a week, including lunch and dinner on the same day.
I enjoy it more than any other new venue in the past two years, a period that features culinary treats from hot dogs at Bubbledogs (whose owners include Sethi, who holds a Michelin star at Trishna) to fine French brasseries such as Chavot.
The menu encompasses dishes from across India. It’s modern without seeking to be fashionable. It respects culinary traditions without being reverential. Above all, it elevates Indian cuisine to the gastronomic level without taking a detour via France.
The lunch menu is a good place to start. It’s 20 pounds ($32.27) for two courses or 25 pounds for three. You begin with snacks of three sorts of papads (crisps), made from cassava, lentil and potato, with shrimp, coriander and mango chutney.
The starters may include dosa (crepe) with Chettinad duck, coconut chutney. Duck legs are slow-cooked in a masala of fennel seeds, coriander seeds, Indian onions and ginger. The dish is spicy without excessive heat. Or you might prefer the Kasoori (fenugreek) chicken tikka -- as good as chicken tikka gets.
Another starter is duck egg bhurji (like a spiced scrambled egg) with lobster, served with Malabar paratha bread. What you notice about each dish are the clean flavors and the distinctive and layered spicing, plus calibrated textures, so a selection of dishes doesn’t end up appearing so much heat and dust.
A main of kid goat methi keema features minced goat with caramelized onion, garam masala, ginger, garlic and fenugreek topped with fried potato straws. It’s served with two small bread rolls, fried green chili coated in chat masala and Kashmiri chili powder, chopped Indian onion and lemon. It’s like a miniature spicy hamburger.
Head onto the a la carte menu and there are some exceptional and inexpensive dishes such as the partridge pepper fry (10 pounds), in which red leg partridge is battered with rice flour, mustard seeds, curry leaf and black pepper and fried. The masala is made with green and black, onions and curry leaves. Suckling pig cheek Vindaloo is sharp and sweet.
Tandoori guinea fowl breast and leg with green mango chat, mint coriander chutney is also not to be missed.
Even the desserts -- a section of the menu I tend to avoid in Asian restaurants -- keep up the standard. My personal favorite is the rose kulfi falooda, like a fragrant sundae, with wild basil seeds, served with a condensed milk sauce.
Among other options is a five-course game menu for 65 pounds and a four-course early evening menu for 25 pounds.
The design of Gymkhana is pleasingly understated, with some quirky touches such as the vintage cigarette tin in which your bill is presented. The ground floor underlines the colonial theme with dark-wood furnishings and floor. The basement is more like a nightclub, a bit Frankie Goes to Bollywood.
The wine list is original and eclectic. If you are on a budget, the 2011 Le Prieure, Chateau Ksara, Bekaa Valley (Lebanon) works with the spicier dishes. If you are looking for a treat, a carafe of 2010 Gevrey-Chambertin, Henri de Villamont costs 45 pounds. And if you are making a night of it, there are inventive cocktails, such as the quinine sour.
Gymkhana isn’t without its faults. I’m hoping it will settle in and become clubbier. But it is fun and the food is exceptional. I’m giving it the maximum four stars.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? About 30-40 pounds for food at dinner.
Sound level? Quiet upstairs (65-70 decibels) and livelier downstairs, where the party is at night.
Inside tip? Try the Quinine Sour cocktail (10 pounds), a sour gin & tonic with ginger and curry leaf.
Special feature? Discreet bar in the basement.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Yes.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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