This is the tale of the ale and the quail
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.