The Camden and Bloomsbury restaurants are perfect for when you have visitors, says our reviewer
It’s hard to find a good curry in the capital. It’s not that there aren’t any – far from it, in fact – but there are so many substandard Indian restaurants in disguise.
As an immigrant to London from the north of England, this thing they called “curry” seemed to be nothing like what I was used to back home in Leeds. After a much-anticipated visit to Brick Lane ended figuratively in tears and literally some kind of sad gravy-like substance, I thought I would never find a curry that would meet my expectations. Many of the spices from my childhood – coriander, turmeric, cumin, cardamom – seemed to be as sadly absent from London as eye-contact on public transport.
However, I’m glad to report I’ve now been to a London Indian restaurant where the food met my exacting northern standards. Two, in fact: Namaaste Kitchen and Salaam Namaste. They’re twinned. So I’m going to tell you about both.
Salaam Namaste and Namaste Kitchen are run by chef and restaurateur Sabbir Karim. Combining the Indian food we’re used to in the UK with a mix of contemporary and traditional influences creates an exciting departure from the drab high-street offerings.
From the street, neither restaurant looks particularly exciting, I have to say. Namaaste Kitchen is conveniently located less than a minute’s walk from Camden Town station, opposite Jazz Café. After a long day of shopping it’s the perfect place to take visiting relatives who insist on traipsing round the famous Camden Market.
The menu is intelligently put together, representing both what you’d expect to see on an Indian restaurant menu, and some more interesting dishes for those who like to try new things. I recommend the Chowpatty Bhelpoori – a common street food in India (my Indian colleague Shruti tells me) but somehow Brits haven’t yet cottoned on to the sweet, oniony puffed rice dish.
Over at Bloomsbury’s Salaam Namaste, the Old Delhi’s Aloo Tikki Chaat (sort of mashed potato croquets with rich tomatoey chickpeas) and Bombay Onion Bhajis were also tasty starters.
My companion at Namaaste Kitchen initially orders what she incorrectly reads as a kidney bean main, and thankfully the waiter is attentive enough to check with her, as the dish is actually kidneys. I wonder whether this may have happened before, or whether the waiter thinks she doesn’t seem the “kidney type” – either way, it fortunately saves us from unexpected kidney.
For adventurous types, there’s mackerel, duck, goat and crab – things less commonly seen on Indian restaurant menus in the UK – but I stick with a favourite: paneer.
The Sabzi Paneer Jalfrezi is lively and colourful. The flavours of each component, the chunky paneer, tangy sauce and array of perfectly-cooked vegetables, are clearly differentiated from each other – something many curry houses fail on as the vegetables are often stewed in the sauce for long periods.
If you’re one of those people unfamiliar with Indian deserts, you’re missing out on some of the fun. Try the syrupy-sweet velvety balls of heaven known as Gulab Jamun at Salaam Namaste and you will never leave before pudding again, I promise you.
The only major downside to Karim’s restaurants, I think, is a largely subjective one. For what you pay (£10-15 for a main course), many people would be expecting bigger portions. However, for someone like me who basically eats until the food runs out, the modest portions are a complete blessing, as you don’t feel as though you have to struggle to finish it, and then waddle out trying not to spew on the Tube ride home (sorry for the image).
If you’re having starters, rice, and sharing a naan between two, there’s plenty of food. If you’re inclined to skip the starter and like to feel stuffed when you leave a restaurant, it would be a good idea to get at least one side.
All in all, as clichéd as it sounds, you do get what you pay for. London might not be the place to go for bargain-basement curryhouses, but it is the place for award-winning cooking, with fresh ingredients and inspired recipes.