When well-off Indians go to London, they tend to eat Chinese. Or modern Japanese. (Think Nobu or Zuma). If no Asian option is available (and authentic Indian is always preferred), then Italian becomes a valid alternative. For years, wealthy Indians flocked to such Knightsbridge Italians as Signor Sassi and Sale e Pepe while the trendy ones went to San Lorenzo and waved cheerily at owner Mara Berni.
By and large, those habits have not changed. It is still Hakkasan, Royal China and Kai that draw big-spending Indians. Rich women go to one of the two West End Nobus and sometimes to Zuma.
Top picks: (left) Nobu never fails to draw Indians; and chef Angela Hartnett. Photo: Nobu/Bloomberg and Graham Barclay/Bloomberg
Not much change in the Italian favourites, either. You still find rich Indians at Scalini and Santini though, of late, Locanda Locatelli, perhaps London’s best Italian restaurant, has become a favourite. I once went there for lunch and found that 30% of the tables were occupied by Indians.
Few Indians go to Angela Hartnett’s “Italian” restaurants. Hartnett has been part of the Gordon Ramsay empire from the early days (she cooked at the great man’s Dubai restaurant) but got her big break when Gordon Ramsay Holdings took over The Connaught hotel.
Hartnett is half-Italian so Ramsay declared that she would run a flagship Italian restaurant there. I went twice to Hartnett’s restaurant at The Connaught (which won a Michelin star) and interviewed her once. I quickly came to three conclusions. One, Hartnett is a very nice person (she cooked in India at various ITC hotels a few years ago and won many fans). Two, there was nothing terribly Italian about her food. And three, no matter how talented the kitchen is, her front of the house can be a disaster.
On my first visit to her Connaught restaurant, a couple of weeks after it opened, I ordered the tasting menu, a procession of complex dishes, most of them cooked firmly within the French tradition. My waiter was a loud guy who fancied himself as a wit. When one particularly complex dish arrived, I pointed to it and asked “What’s that?”
“Ha”, he said loudly. “That’s a plate. “Ha. Ha. Ha!”
Yes, very funny.
Ramsay and Hartnett were evicted from The Connaught eventually and she now cooks at Murano (also part of Gordon Ramsay Holdings) on Queen Street. Murano has had good reviews and Michelin has happily transferred her star to the new place.
My first thought when I decided to go for lunch was how little had changed: front of the house was still terrible. I called the Murano number to book a table and was put through to a centralized service for Ramsay restaurants who said that because I wanted a table the same day, she would connect me to the restaurant directly. Except that nobody answered the phone at Murano. Eventually the girl from the Ramsay group’s central reservation service came back on the line, sounding embarrassed by the failure of the Murano staff to pick up the phone. “We’ll call you back,” she said.
And they did, which is how I ended up in a small characterless room waiting for the overstretched and curiously unenergetic staff to take my order.
The food, when it came, was fine. I had roasted tomato soup and a risotto with truffled mascarpone which were Italian enough even if the risotto was from the rice pudding style of cooking. My companion had linguine with clams (okay) and fish with lentils (good). It was more Italian than the Connaught stuff and an excellent aubergine dip was served with the bread.
Service continued to be slapdash. There were two desserts listed on the set lunch, an almond tart and a melon parfait. I said we would each have one. My companion’s tart was so-so but the parfait had no melon taste at all.
I asked for the bill and noticed it had a supplementary charge of £5 (around Rs 355). What was that about?
“Well you ordered a dessert from the a la carte”
“Yes, you had a vanilla parfait.”
Ah; so that was why it had not tasted of melon!
“Actually, I asked for the melon parfait.”
“Oh, all right. We served you the wrong dish then. We’ll delete the £5 charge.”
I don’t think I will be going back.
I’m always a little leery of eating Indian in London partly because it is so rarely good and partly because I’d rather eat Indian at home. But I went to Quilon anyway because I was staying at 51, Buckingham Gate where the restaurant is located.
Full disclosure: I have known Sriram, the chef at Quilon, for nearly 20 years since his triumphant debut at Bangalore’s Karavalli so I cannot claim to have eaten anonymously. That said, I know that Sriram did not do the cooking (he was out of the kitchen) and yet, the food was simply outstanding.
I had a flavourful Scottish scallop with south Indian spicing, prawns cooked with chillies, slow-cooked lamb, a killer sea bass, flavourful black cod and much more. This was world-class Indian food cooked with flair and skill.
One of the problems with Indian food is that it emphasizes spices over ingredients, unlike most Western food. So Indian chefs in London try and muck around with the flavours to retain the taste of the ingredients while reducing the spicing.
Sriram managed the difficult feat of preserving the flavour of his quality ingredients—including long prawns from Nigeria and Scottish lamb—without compromising on Indian flavours.
It tells us something about how little people in London know about Indian food that it took Sriram so long to get his Michelin star though assorted unworthy chefs got theirs much before him. His food is free of gimmicks or artifice. It tastes as Indian food should.
If I have a criticism, it is about the room (too downmarket) and the service (not smart enough for a Michelin-starred restaurant). Neither matches up to the excellence of the food.
So, if you are looking for an Italian restaurant in London, give Murano a miss and look elsewhere. It is okay but nothing special. But try Quilon. You will not be disappointed.
Besides, it will make a change from Nobu and Hakkasan!
Murano, 20, Queen Street, London W1 +44-20-75921222
Quilon, 41, Buckingham Gate, London SW1 +44-20-78211899
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