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A waste of spice

Published 25 November 2001
Style Magazine
437th article

From left, Jaked Syed, Michael Winner and Shamim Syed (Georgina Hristova)

It's funny how even I, the ultra-sophisticate, am influenced by what I read. I saw a review of Durbar, an Indian restaurant, written by someone for whom I have no regard. This informed me that the Chef, Shamim Syed, had won the International Indian Chef of the Year award. So one Saturday morning I telephoned and said: "Mr Syed, this is Michael Winner." That meant absolutely nothing to him. I continued: "I understand you won the International Indian Chef of the Year award and you're an absolutely marvellous chef?" Mr Syed replied: "Yes."

I'm very happy with my favourite Indian chef, Vineet Bhatia of Zaika. But he's moved to new premises in Kensington High Street. I'd visited them when another restaurant resided there and found the setting dismal. As Durbar is near Notting Hill, quite convenient for me, I decided to give it a try. The restaurant was empty. We chose a round table under a decorative plate on the wall picturing an Indian gentleman with a beard holding what looked like an electric fan. Next to him was a lady with a large bosom. Perhaps this is why the man needed the electric fan.

Jaked Syed, the younger brother of Shamim, greeted us very pleasantly. I think they'd learnt of my deep and abiding significance because Jaked produced an article from The Times describing Durbar as "humble". "A kindred restaurant," I thought.

Trouble came early. I asked for freshly squeezed orange juice, making clear squeezing motions with my hands. Georgina received some appalling stuff from a carton. Shamim came from the kitchen to sit with us. We were served, on his recommendation, a starter of kachori, made from lentils and pastry, and vegetable samosas. "Were the samosas made today?" asked Georgina. "Yes," said Shamim. Maybe they were, but they tasted old and reheated. Shamim stayed with us so long, I asked: "Who's doing the cooking?"

"My assistant," he replied.

Only five other people came in for lunch. I'd guess most of the fresh cooking was done later for the evening. The rice was absolutely appalling. It was like hard pellets. Georgina thought the stuck-together mound had been in the deep freeze because the outside was hot, the centre still cold. The Lorient special chicken and the lime chicken with coconut milk, lime juice, lemon grass, chilli and ground spice tasted of very little.

I began to wonder how the International Indian Chef of the Year award came about. I learnt it was created by Tommy Miah, an Indian restaurateur in Edinburgh. The certificate was signed by him and Lord Fraser Carmyllie, QC. A long list of judges included Lisa Aziz and Michael Cole. Shamim read about the award and sent in a recipe.

Five chefs were chosen to go to Edinburgh and cook. By no means were all of the judges present on the day. Shamim couldn't remember exactly who was there. The award, upon examination, meant very little.

Although I was disappointed with my Durbar meal, some of it was memorably good. The nan bread was as excellent as any I've ever eaten. They had Evian water instead of the dreaded Hildon. The dessert, gulab jumun, served with syrup and ice cream, was splendid. Most Indian desserts are heavy, this was not. The ice cream was Wall's; not classy, but I like it.

They gave me the guest book. This is tricky if you haven't enjoyed the food much. I wrote: "I had a very nice time. Thank you. Good luck - Winner." That was true, because Shamim and Jaked were very personable and the chairs were comfortable.

A few days later, I revisited Zaika to restore my faith in Indian cooking. Everything was superb. Smoked spiced tomato soup with white crab meat, spiced chicken and lentil patties, butterfish and prawn biryani in green herbs baked under a flaky crust . . . I could go on. This time I found the redecorated Victorian premises, which once housed a bank, buzzy and attractive. I went again with Lady Hamlyn, who visits India frequently. She's the widow of Lord Paul Hamlyn, a marvellous man who started me off as a writer and in the movies. She liked the setting. "There are lots of restaurants in India in Victorian buildings," she assured me.

  • While in generous mood, I commend a non-Indian place, The Square in Mayfair. I've been there a lot recently. The chef and co-owner, Philip Howard, is charming and a master of the gas ring. He has two Michelin stars to prove it. I'm sure they found his cinnamon doughnuts stratospheric. He does proper food, too. The service is exemplary. If you're planning a special night, or just want to pig out, you couldn't do better.


    Next time Winner is in Verona (November 11), he should head to Arche in Via Arche Scaligere. It's well worth a second visit to the city just to go there.
    Raphael Eban, by e-mail

    I recently paid a visit MPW's Parisienne Chophouse (November 4). Though the interior looks Parisienne, the cuisine certainly is not. For our main courses, my girlfriend ordered salmon and I had calf's liver. When the food arrived, I was horrified that both dishes were served on that dreaded "bed of spinach". Is it true that Marco has never been to France? I must have been no fewer than 20 times and I have never had a dish served up on a bed of bloody spinach.
    Liam Boland, London

    We have just visited Sandy Lane. Total pretentious nonsense! Even the locals say it's gone from Pride and Joy to Big White Elephant. Unfortunately, it appears that although you can't take Sandy Lane out of Barbados, you can take Barbados out of Sandy Lane.
    Guy and Tess Russell, by e-mail

    May I pass on an explanation of Musak (Letters, November 11) as it was explained to me some 20 years ago? The volume was to be set at such a level that it mimicked the sound of four people talking. First customers would not then feel like first customers and any conversation could not be overheard by staff. Obviously, it has now been taken to extremes and is more for the personal enjoyment of the staff, who have been known to bring in their own favourite CDs.
    Edwin Cheeseman, by e-mail

    Michael Winner needs to get out more. I followed his example and dined at D'Chez Eux in Paris (October 21), but failed to be impressed by beans in an oversalted, neon-orange liquid topped with desiccated duck. This was followed by an artless chocolate mousse served in a bowl that could have been used to bath a baby. On one point, however, I am entirely in agreement with Mr Winner. The tablecloths were indeed red-checked.
    Christine Acres, by e-mail

    Having read so much praise for Harry's Bar in Venice from Michael Winner, we thought it worth a visit. We found the atmosphere reasonable but not relaxing, the service efficient and the food good, though not superb. But at £183 for two (two courses, house wine and water), surely it is overrated.
    Andrew Gray, Kent

    Send letters to Style; or e-mail: michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk