This is the tale of the ale and the quail

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

42 Albe­marle St, London W1S 4JH gymkhanalon­don.com;

020 3011 5900 Three cour­ses with pale ale: about £75 per head

(more with wine) Five-course game menu: £70; set menu (lunch and

early evening): £30

All purely sub­jec­tive rank­ing lists are worth­less, but purely sub­jec­tive rank­ing lists of restau­rants are more worth­less than oth­ers. This time-hon­oured apho­rism, which I made up about four seconds ago, is not only pla­gia­rised from Or­well, but inar­guably cor­rect. The more pseu­do­sci­en­tific a list af­fects to be, the more one senses the hand of PR com­pa­nies lob­by­ing on be­half of their clients, the pur­pose of all such lists be­ing to gen­er­ate cheap pub­lic­ity.

And so to Restau­rant mag­a­zine’s 2014 rank­ing of Bri­tain’s 100 best restau­rants, in which any vague claims to cred­i­bil­ity were tor­pe­doed by the in­clu­sion at No. 17 – one place, thank­ing you, above The Fat Duck – of Chiltern Firehouse, where the cook­ing ranges from the merely com­fort­ing to the plainly ined­i­ble; and which, de­spite the un­stint­ing ef­forts of its pub­li­cists at Freud Com­mu­ni­ca­tions to fes­toon news­pa­per pages with tid­ings of its stel­lar clien­tele, barely qual­i­fies as the best restau­rant on its own premises.

And yet, for all that, it is a strug­gle to dis­miss the in­hab­i­tant of the No. 1 slot as un­wor­thy of the hon­our, be­cause Gymkhana is a per­fectly mag­nif­i­cent restau­rant. But for our slight dis­com­fort at a cramped ta­ble, in fact, and the pres­ence above it of a stopped clock with an up­side-down dial, I would go even fur­ther: a mag­nif­i­cently per­fect restau­rant.

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tions of He­ston Blu­men­thal’s Din­ner (at No. 9) and Dab­bous (a be­mus­ing ab­sen­tee), no new­bie in re­cent years has ex­cited such a uni­formly rap­tur­ous re­cep­tion as this in­ter­pre­ta­tion of An­glo-In­dian el­e­gance near Pic­cadilly.

Flail­ing ma­ni­a­cally about for another quib­ble with which to leaven the gushathon to come, I could don my neo-fem­i­nist hat to ob­serve that this base­ment is un­com­pro­mis­ingly butch, with all the rattan and dark wood pan­elling, and the walls dot­ted with sepia prints of be­medalled Ma­haraja types at play. Then again, if you are styling a joint after a gen­tle­men’s club in the days of the Raj, it might be self­de­feat­ing to pep­per the walls with sur­re­al­ist por­traits of a tur­baned An­drea Dworkin. De­spite, or maybe be­cause of, such dras­tic un­der­light­ing that an iPhone torch was re­quired to read the menu, the room works so well that – un­usu­ally – the base­ment is a more at­mo­spheric din­ing area than the up­stairs bit.

Our sali­vary glands were in over­drive even be­fore the torch was fired up, thanks to the clean, heav­enly scent of fresh spices. In any rank­ing of Bri­tain’s most de­li­ciously fra­granced restau­rants, there could be no dis­put­ing Gymkhana’s right to the top spot. As for Karam Sethi’s cook­ing, all that need be said – and try to for­give the lurch into pre­ten­tious gas­tro­s­peak – is, “Wow”. On a game-dom­i­nated menu that is even man­lier than the decor, not a sin­gle dish fails to en­tice. The ex­e­cu­tion more than matched the allure of the printed page.

We shared four dishes, and could dredge up barely a scin­tilla of re­serve about any of them. Quail seekh ke­bab with a gen­tle green chilli chut­ney had “a gor­geous, mildly gamey twang”, said my friend, “and you can dis­tinctly taste ev­ery herb, spice and chilli”. Sal­mon tikka had been baked in the tan­door to the pre­cisely cor­rect nanosec­ond so that the skin was fan­tas­ti­cally crisp while the fish re­tained an almost gooey tex­ture within. “Blimey, this re­ally is some­thing,” cooed my friend over In­dian pale ale served in pewter tankards (with cook­ing of such power, wine some­how feels ef­fete; for a mo­ment while hold­ing that tankard, I felt almost like a man), though one of the main cour­ses trumped even those starters.

It isn’t ev­ery day, or, in­deed, ev­ery cen­tury, that you will find wild munt­jac on an In­dian menu. Here, the deer and rice come in what the menu un­der­sells as a biryani, the en­sem­ble con­tained within an or­nate pie. The waiter lopped off the crust, stud­ded with poppy and onion, by way of the only the­atri­cal flour­ish in what was oth­er­wise im­pec­ca­bly som­bre ser­vice from smartly suited chaps. Beau­ti­fully spiced as the dish was, it would have been a stretch to tell the munt­jac from mut­ton. But there would have been no prob­lem in a blind tast­ing iden­ti­fy­ing the Bhatti Ka grouse. Mar­i­nated for a day, the meat was so ten­der that you could have cut it with a plas­tic knife. “In­cred­i­ble,” said my friend. “I’ve never been a big fan of game, but I didn’t know it could be like this.” The bril­liance was that, with­out one iota of the fe­ro­cious savour, the grouse was amaz­ingly del­i­cate. Baby pota­toes came with mus­tard seeds, and a med­ley of nan breads in­cluded spring onion.

We fin­ished with a shared kheer (a kind of rice pud­ding) of car­damom, al­mond and pis­ta­chio, and a tor­nado of praise. “That’s the best In­dian meal I have ever eaten. Of course it was,” was the ver­dict from across the ta­ble, as if this was too ob­vi­ous to state.

Whether Gymkhana is the best in the coun­try is im­pos­si­ble to know, as I trust we agreed ear­lier. A point must de­ducted for the duff and prof­i­teer­ing ta­ble, and it is ex­pen­sive. But were there a rank­ing list for Mr Cre­osote Restau­rants, it would take some shift­ing from the No. 1 spot. You could gorge here un­til that wafer­thin mint det­o­nated the ex­plo­sion, and leave any fret­ting about the bill to your ex­ecu­tors.

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