Saturday, 7 December 2019

The Saturday List #244 - My top ten favourite London Indian Restaurants of all time

Now regular readers of this blog will know that I am rather partial to a curry. I was musing on this journey during the week, thinking how my tastes have changed and evolved, but also how the Indian restaurant has changed and evolved. Here is my list and their part in the journey. The list is as chronological as I can make it. Sadly not all of these are around still

1. The Mill Hill Tandoori.

2. The Neel Kamal,  Percy St

3. The Ravi Shankar, Drummond Street

4. The Day of The Raj, Mill Hill

5. The Jomuna, near Victoria

6. The Shami Lahore Kebab House, Near Aldgate

7. The Great Nepalese,  Eversholt Street

8.  The Rajasthan, Monument Street

9.  Cafe Spice Namaste, Prescott Street

10. The Curry Leaf,  City Road

So what is my personal curry journey through these restaurants. It must have started around 1973 when the Mill Hill Tandoori first opened. I vividly remember our first visit. As a family we'd always eaten out for big family occasions at the Chinese Restaurant on Burnt Oak Broadway, but my Dad loved curry and so when the Mill Hill Tandoori opened, he was most excited and announced that we'd do a family trip. My mum wasn't a fan, but did it under sufferance. I was only eleven and when my Dad said he preferred curry to Chinese, I thought it would be the same only better. I was bitterly disappointed. I had a naan and some  Chicken Tikka, but I thought this was nowhere near a nice prawn butterfly. As my Mum didn't really like it, the next visit was a couple of years later with my Dad when she was on holiday. This time he did his homework and told me I could have a pint of lager shandy with it. I had a chicken malayan, mild with pineapple and loved it. He had a chicken Vindaloo. That was also my first induction to Onion Bhaji's. I was converted. By the time I was 17, a curry after the pub became a regular part of my life. We'd drink till closing time, then adjourn to the Mill Hill Tandoori and drink Dortmunder Union lager and eat curry til the early hours of the morning. The Tandoori would be packed at this time and the air would be thick with cigarette smoke and bawdy laughter. To this day, the Mill Hill Tandoori is my spiritual home. It is old school. Sadly the smoking ban and the changes to licensing laws stopped the after hours rush, but the food is still delicious.

The next stop on the journey was The Neel Kamal on Percy Street. I can tell you the exact date that I first went in there. It was the Friday 7th October 1983. As my musical career had left me with gangsters chasing me for money, to repay debts incurred touring, I needed to earn cash fast. I enquired at the training desk at Golders Green jobcentre how I could earn some quick cash. I was advised to do a TOPS course in computer operations and then get a job in  IT. Having secured a place on the course, my Dad paid off the gangsters and I had to knuckle down. I got a job at SPL International,  a leading British Software company. My first day was rather bizarrely a Friday and at lunch I was invited to join the team for a curry. We went to the Neel Kamal. It was a small restaurant down a flight of stairs on Percy Street. For the next two years, the process was repeated every Friday. Sadly the Neel Kamal is gone, but the food was amazing. When I first went, my dish was a lamb madras, then I changed to a Prawn Bhuna.

In 1984, I had severe health issues, requiring a period of hospitalisation. During this period, I developed a fascination with a very beautiful Indian girl. She told me that  I shouldn't eat meat as it was bad for the Karma, which clearly caused my health issues. I said I couldn't imagine a decent meal without meat. So she took me to the Ravi Shankar on Drummond Street, a vegetarian Southern Indian restaurant. The paper dosa's and the vegetable curries were amazing. In an attempt to woo her, I announced that I was turning vegetarian. I didn't succeed in woo'ing her, but I'd discovered a whole new way of thinking about food and I was a vegetarian (eating fish) for sixteen years. 

In 1985 a new Indian Restaurant called the Day of the Raj opened in Mill Hill. This was an upmarket restaurant, unlike the Mill Hill Tandoori. Such celebs as Mike and Bernie Winters and David Seamen would frequent it. They did some amazing fish dishes, especially the Lobster sizzler, so we divided our curry time between the two, until the Raj closed a couple of years ago. They moved to a takeaway operation in Mill Hill East and are closed for a refurb.

In 1985, SPL had been taken over by Systems Designers and we moved to Victoria. We needed a new home for our Friday curry. We found the Jomuna. This restaurant did the best Bhuna Prawn of anywhere I've ever visited. I once asked them why and he said "That is our secret", a great restaurant, I think it is still around, but under different ownership. We had a very good curry there a couple of years ago.

My career as a Software engineer then took me to Aldgate. I was working with a bunch of guys of Indian descent and they rather liked the Shami Lahore Kebab house. As it's name implies, it does great meat, but they also did some great vegetable curries and an amazing Tandoori fish. It was cheap and didn't serve beer, but the food was amazing.

Around that time, we also discovered the Great Nepalese, a Nepalese restaurant in Drummond Street. The style of cooking is different and there are some specialities such as the Momo that are wonderful. As there are some excellent real ale pubs in Euston, it is a good place to round off an evening.

The next place on the tour is the Rajasthan near Monument. I have two words to say if you are going here - Lamb Cutlet. They are amazing. Everything else is pretty good, but try these as a starter. It can get busy though. It is not at the cheaper end.

The Cafe Spice Namaste is another place I first encountered working in Aldgate at its original location in Alie Street. They moved to Prescott Street and opened an immense operation which is Indian fine dining. If someone else is paying, this is the place to go. The food is amazing and the setting is glorious. One of the few Indian restaurants worth visiting for the decor and setting. It ain't cheap.

And we end back where we started, with a decent reasonably priced more traditional Indian Restaurant, the Curry Leaf. When I was making the list, it wasn't one of the first I thought of, but like the Mill Hill Tandoori, it is comfortable, reasonably priced and does what it says on the tin. Wortha visit.

I will finish with a few words about Indian restaurants. I have become good friends with LemoN Chaudrey and Romel Miah, who run the two Mill Hill Indian restaurants. They are two of the most hard working, honest and decent people I know. They both make excellent food. Both have suffered from a string of changes to the law that affects their business. The biggest was probably the smoking ban. Whilst this was done for good reasons, 99% of the trade for the Mill Hill Tandoori liked to smoke whilst eating and drinking. It never bothered me, but the ban saw a 50% drop in their turnover. The late night rush disappeared. The govt also changed the laws around getting kitchen staff, making it almost impossible to get migrant workers to run the kitchens.  Producing good food in a small, cramped kitchen is an art form and this has driven many restaurants from the high street. We need to reverse these changes so that such businesses have a chance. If we don't when the current generation of restaurant owners retire and sell up, my beloved local curry will become a thing of the past.


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