Published 26 December 1993 Style Magazine 26th article
Indian restaurants have always figured in my life. The one I most remember overlooked St John's College in Cambridge, and as an undergraduate in the 1950s I would have dinner there most Sunday nights with Leslie Halliwell (then the manager of the Rex Cinema) and his boss, a burly chap called George Webb.
Over tandoori prawns and chicken biryani I inspired a plot significant to film buffs. Marlon Brando's film The Wild One had just been banned by the UK censor. "Why not ask the Cambridge Council to approve it?" I suggested. I don't think a local council had ever before overridden the Censor. We tried it, and on April 24 1955 the Rex Cinema proudly showed "Stanley Kramer's The Wild One the film you can't see anywhere else in England!" I even remember welcoming a very young Jackie Collins who, among others, journeyed specially from London to see it.
When I came down from Cambridge I frequented a lovely little Indian restaurant in South Ken where I'd often see Alec Guinness knocking back a chicken tikka. That fell to the non-charms of a chain-pizza place. More recently, I went to the Bombay Palace near Marble Arch, and the Shezan in Knightsbridge. The service at the Bombay Palace got increasingly disastrous. On one particularly poor evening, when I complained the manager said: "It's slow because we have so many people coming for take-aways." I found that highly unsatisfactory and never went back.
The Shezan, a rather gloomy basement, got grubbier and grubbier. The carpet on the steps down would have died of fright if it had seen a Hoover, so I stopped going there. Shortly afterwards, it closed down. It has recently reopened under new ownership. It is now painted pink. I did not try the food because I had not heard well of it.
After I quit the Shezan and the Bombay Palace, I tried my nearest Indian, "The famous Kensington Tandoori", and decided it wasn't famous for its food. I had a go at fashionable Chutney Mary, in the King's Road, and didn't rate that either. So rather belatedly I entered the grand portals of The Bombay Brasserie off Gloucester Road. London Weekend Television booked it for a launch of my True Crimes programme. "This is rather good," I thought as I tucked into a chicken tawa masala.
The room is large, with well-spaced, comfortably sized tables and there is a pleasant greenhouse bit where they always seat me. The owners are the Taj Hotel Group of India, and the room, which seats 175, is run most efficiently by Adi Modi and Arun Harnal.
Every Indian-type dish you have ever known is on the long menu plus a few more and, most importantly, they all taste delicious. There are even seven types of Indian bread. Desserts are never a speciality at Indian restaurants, but they produce an extraordinary thing called cobra coffee which is made, slowly, at your table. It includes scotch and kirsch, which is poured down a curling orange peel into a flambeed pan of coffee. The rim of the glass is coated with caramelised white sugar, and it's topped with whipped cream. Some sticky, orangey substance lurks around too. It's terrific if you have the time. They also do a very good-value buffet lunch seven days a week for £14.95 excluding service.
As I never carry money or credit cards I need managements of particular tolerance. At the Bombay they lend me, from time to time, a fiver to tip the doorman who parks my car. They add this to the bill. It's the nearest I come to using a cash dispenser.
Last week, a friend and I ate at the Mas Cafe in All Saints Road, London. I ordered lamb and mashed potatoes, hardly a difficult dish to prepare. However, the waitress did not ask if I wanted it pink or well-done and it arrived cremated, chewy and tasting unpleasant. I took two bites and explained the problem. She removed it without another word. My friend finished her food and the waitress returned and offered us the dessert menus. I enquired about the whereabouts of my inedible main course and wondered if the chef had offered any excuse. "He said," she replied, "that you can't please everybody." The Mas Cafe continued its customer relations exercise by charging for the offending, uneaten dish.
Anne Birnhak, London W1
I follow with interest your restaurant reviews and readers' letters, which seem to indicate that when dining out in London, the odds of finding a welcoming atmosphere, first-class food, good service and value for money is akin to playing a game of Russian roulette. We therefore consider ourselves fortunate in living in the Scottish Highlands where we have a number of first-class restaurants. One establishment which particularly deserves praise is the Gaskmore House Hotel in Laggan, Inverness-shire. The hotel recently provided us with one of our most memorable dining experiences. The dinner menu costs just £20.50 per head including dessert and coffee. You are welcome to keep your London restaurants.
L Norton, Carrbridge, Inverness-shire