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The best Indian restaurants in London

As a native Londoner I am frequently asked by visitors to the capital what the best Indian restaurant in London is. This may seem strange to some but Indian food is the most widely eaten food in Britain’s restaurants and a former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, went as far as saying that chicken tikka marsala should be considered “a true British national dish”. From my experience, Brits abroad yearn for a ‘proper Indian’ more than almost anything when they move overseas.

Across Britain the number of Indian restaurants has grown from 500 in 1960 to 3,000 in 1980 to more than 8,000 today; they now employ around 70,000 people and take in more than £2 billion ($4 billion) per year. Indian food is actually something of a misnomer as the first Indian restaurants in the UK were all run by Bangladeshis and the Bangladeshis still dominate the Indian restaurant scene today.

There have been Indian restaurants in London for more than two centuries, thanks to our historical trading links with the Indian subcontinent and the British Empire; according to Curry, Spice and All Things Nice - a history of ethnic restaurants in Britain by Peter and Colleen Grove, the Hindostance Coffee House opened in London in 1809.

Of course the Indian food served in most British Indian restaurants is nothing like the food you would get in India. Chicken tikka masala, which apparently accounts for 25% of all the orders in Indian restaurants, is the best (or worst) example of this, although you won’t find lamb madras, chicken vindaloo or chicken phal (sometimes spelled phaal) on many menus in Mumbai. It is said that chicken tikka masala came about from a chef wanting to cater for his British customer’s love of gravy; he poured a tin of condensed tomato soup over a dish of chicken tikka, added some spices and the next thing he knew it was the most popular item on the menu. Sadly no-one has yet discovered the true origin of this dish, although there are no shortage of people claiming the credit.

Thanks to the growing culinary sophistication of the Brits, you can now find Indian restaurants that specialise in the food of each of the 17 states that make up India, as well as specialist Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi restaurants. In 2001 two Indian restaurants in London, Zaika and Tamarind, were awarded a Michelin star.

So, where should you eat good Indian food in London? Most guides will send you straight to Brick Lane, a street just to the east of the City (as in the financial centre of London) which is awash with Indian restaurants. And it is true, it is a good place to go for a standard, cheap Indian meal which consists of chicken tikka massala or lamb rogan josh and a few pints of industrial cooking lager. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if that is what you have grown up with. If you do feel inclined to eat there then I recommend the Gram Bangla and Cafe Naz Express, especially as both have ‘twin’menus that allow you to eat the ‘bog standard’ British favourites as well as the more authentic regional Indian food.

My top five (in no particular order) are:

57 Cleveland Street
Tel: 020 7636 9098
No website

You could walk past this restaurant twenty times a day for two years and still not think about going in. It looks slightly dingy and a bit shabby. This is a good thing as otherwise it would be completely packed with Indian food lovers and the prices would be about double what they are. Even at double the price you would still be getting a bargain (a meal for two with a pint of lager each comes to around £25 to £30). The key is to order from the left side of the menu, which has the southern Indian specialities.

Favourite dishes include Masala Dosai, a crispy fried pancake dish stuffed with a fragrant potato filling; Uthappam, a pancake made from rice and urad dal with tomatoes, onions and green chillis in the batter, chemeen poryal, a prawn dish with fresh coconut and a coconut paratha (probably not authentic, but who cares?). There are some unusual vegetable dishes and the house dal with garlic and spinach is especially good.

The only thing that slightly lets Ragam down is the rather watery beer and sparse wine list; you are better off with a lassi with your meal and a trip to the local pub, in my opinion. The service can be a little slow at times, although if you say you are in a hurry then you can be in and out in 45 minutes.

Salaam Namaste
68 Millman St
London, WC1N 3EF
Tel: 020 74053697

When a new restaurant opens in the next door street to where you live, you hope it is a good one. In this location it would have to be as it is not the sort of street that gets a lot of walk past traffic and there are few major offices nearby to provide a lunchtime crowd. I am pleased to report though that after a slow start Salaam Namaste looks likely to be around for a good number of years, thanks to the quality of its food which keeps bringing people back.

The chef’s last job was at the Sheraton Hotel in Mumbai and the quality of his training comes through in a menu that shows influences from right across the Indian sub-continent.

My preference is to order a good collection of starters which include dishes such as Kathi Kabab (finely chopped tender spiced lamb, green chilli & cucumber rolled in a thin chapatti like wrap), Jingha Peri Peri (Tiger Prawn in Goan Peri Peri Spice), chat patti (Bangladesh chickpeas and puffed rice mixed with yoghurt & special chutneys), Squid Tarragon (pan fried squid with red onions coriander served with salad) and Aloo Chat (potatoes with sweet, hot & sour spices).

Of the main courses Goan Green Chicken Curry and Jingha Malabari (king prawns cooked with coconut milk, curry leaves, mild spices in a fragrant creamy sauce) stand out but it is hard to find a bad dish here, with the exception of the crab vindaloo which I found close to inedible.

The décor is nothing spectacular but it is the food you come for, not the surroundings. Prices are very reasonable and it is hard to spend more than £20 a head and £15 a head gets you a really good meal.

99-101 Regent Street, (entrance on Swallow Street)
Tel: 020 77341401

Veeraswamy is one of London’s longest established Indian restaurants (established 1926) but unlike its aged rivals such as the Indian Club (in the Strand, which is still authentically stuck in the 1950s) this restaurant has moved with the times. The décor is modern with white linen table cloths and the atmosphere of a smart West End restaurant.

The food is consistently good, although friends I have taken there have complained that it is much spicier than most Indian restaurants. This is not something I mind but it is worth taking into account that when they describe something on the menu as spicy, it really is spicy. Even medium was too hot for someone I know is normally able to handle a hot curry in an average British Indian restaurant.

I have not eaten here enough to know the menu as well as the other restaurants I have described but typical dishes from the menu are (cut and pasted from their website, I am afraid):

Nizami Murgh – from the royal kitchens of Hyderabad – Chicken breast and koftas with pine nut, lemon and rose petal
Begum Bahar– A home style Lucknow chicken korma with saffron
Nihari Lamb– the ultimate slow–cooked aromatic dish from Lucknow
Kashmiri Rogan Josh – an intensely aromatic lamb curry of small shanks of lamb with saffron and cockscomb flower – a classic favourite
Sholay Chicken Tikka – Smoked chicken with Garam Masala cooked in the Tandoor
Tandoori Red Snapper fillets – with black pepper
Mussels Moilee – Fresh mussels in an aromatic ginger sauce – a customer favourite;
Oyster Kebab – marinated oysters, flash grilled
Sea Bream Paturi – A Bengali classic – steamed in a banana leaf with a chilli and mustard sauce
Malabar lobster curry – with fresh turmeric and unripe mango

Thanks to its central London location and good food, eating at Veeraswamy is not cheap, especially by comparison with the other restaurants in this list, and you are looking at about £50 to £60 a head for a three course meal. My only criticism would be that the staff do sometimes have a bit of an arrogant attitude, especially on the telephone when booking, but for good Indian food in the absolute centre of London (right next to Piccadilly Circus) you cannot do better.

New Tayyab
83 Fieldgate Street
London E1 1JU
Tel: 020 7247 9543

Ask on any of the food forums about where to eat Indian food in London and the New Tayyab will get mentioned pretty quickly. It is actually Pakistani food and all dishes are 100% halal.

The first piece of advice is to get there early. By 7pm the daily specials will often have been sold out – dishes such as Nihari (slow braised lamb shank with spicy sauce) and Batera (quails). So make it a lunchtime meal or go early in the evening.

Most regulars opt for the grilled meats with breads (roti, paratha or naan) as starters. The breads at Tayyab are particularly recommended and as rice is rarely eaten in Pakistan it is better to stick to the bread for all courses as an accompaniment to your meal.

Main courses to try include siki kebabs, lamb chops, tandoori fish and the various dahls on offer, including an unusual bitter gourd Kerala dahl. You can also ask for off menu specials – recent offers include dry meat curry (slow cooked until all the liquid has been absorbed into the meat) and brain masala (not my idea of fun but others liked it).

To drink you can bring your own or drink the house lassi, which is highly recommended. Remember that this is not the smartest area of London so if you want anything smarter than a few cans of cooking lager with your meal then buy your drinks in advance rather than rely on the local corner shop.

Incidentally, as Tayyabs can get mad busy, it is worth remembering that East is East is just round the corner and is mentioned by some Tayyabs enthusiasts as being just as good but not quite as popular and so easier to get into.

Lahore Kebab House
2 Umberston Street
London E1 1PY
Tel: 020 7488 2551

Devotees of Tayyabs will say that the Lahore Kebab House is just a pale imitation of a proper restaurant and vice-versa. Tayyabs does, on balance, get my vote but not by far. The Lahore Kebab House is the opposite of a fancy restaurant but at around £15 for all you could possibly eat you are not expecting anything special.

The stars of the food here are undoubtedly the meat dishes – excellent tikka lamb chops and tandoori chicken – and the breads, especially the naans (garlic naan comes with plenty of garlic and toasted almonds).

Like Tayyabs this is a Pakistani restaurant and the best way to order is to ask your waiter what the house specials are that day and then go for it. Stay away from the rice dishes and don’t expect glamorous décor or excellent service but do expect top quality food and

The Lahore Kebab House is a bring your own establishment and, again like Tayyabs, you will find that the local shops do not offer much more than cans of Stella and Special Brew. So either resolve to not drink or go shopping for booze somewhere else.

The service at the Lahore Kebab House can leave something to be desired and it is also advisable to check your bill carefully as double charging has been known.

By not including any restaurants in Southall or Tooting (or Tooting Becistan as my old flatmate at university used to call it), I have missed out some excellent restaurants that I am a great fan of – try Kastoori (Indian vegetarian), Sree Krishna (Indian), Lahore Karahi (Pakistani) or Mirch Masala (Pakistani). However both are a real schlep for tourists to get to and I think it is unrealistic to expect most people to travel for a least an hour to an unfamiliar part of suburban London, unless they are real fanatics.

When I was studying at London Business School the India Club there put together a list of the restaurants they, their friends and families most recommended. This may prove a more authentic list than my own, so I am including it for those who want the recommendations of someone Indian rather than an enthusiastic Londoner. They are listed in alphabetical order rather than being ranked.

Bombay Brasserie
Bombay Palace
Chor Bizarre
Chutney Mary's
La Porte des Indes
Masala Zone
Mint Leaf
Salaam Namaste
The Cinnamon Club

Finally, another friend who I trust on Indian food has also recommended the following:

Cinnamon Club (modern India)
30-32 Great Smith Street,
London SW1P 3BU
Tel: 020 7222 2555

JSS notes: Founded by Iqbal Wahab, who in 1998 as editor of Tandoori Magazine accused most Indian waiters of being “miserable gits”. His readers were furious and he was forced to quit his job. He has opened Cinnamon Club to great acclaim – but it is fair to say that while the food is very good, the prices are eye wateringly expensive.

Sarkhels (traditional regional Indian)
199 Replingham Road London SW18
Tel: 020 8870 1483

Gifto's Lahore Karahi (for tandoori roast meats)
162-164 The Broadway, Southall, Middlesex (a long way away from central London!)
Tel: 020 8813 8669

Sarkhels (traditional regional Indian)
199 Replingham Road London SW18 (also a long journey)
Tel: 020 8870 1483

Chutney Mary (modern Indian)
535 King's Road, London SW10
Tel: 020 7351 3113