The Cinnamon Club
Surely some of the happiest legacies of Britain’s dodgy colonial past are the new tastes we now enjoy: of coffee, chocolate and tomatoes: of sugar, spice, and all those nice things. India, which eventually symbolised the Empire, doubtless gave more ingredients than anywhere else. Through tallow and slaughter, caprice and suzerainty, democracy, Lutyens, trains and tea, flowed hundreds of foodstuffs to this rainy island, absorbed like red wine on a tablecloth. From the Puritan revolution to the nineteenth century, woefully underused – except by a few discerning rich – were cardamom, cumin, turmeric, or the Scoville thwack of the chilli. The Hindostanee Coffee House, opened off Oxford Street in 1809, was a watershed, a crucial dent in a wretchedly insipid diet of mushy vegetables, smelly cheese, grey meat and small beer. Dear Izzy Beeton, despite still having an enormous amount to teach us, recommended that Savoy cabbage be boiled for up to three-quarters of an hour. The disparity between her days and ours is clear today in the East End and Southall, in Birmingham and Bradford, and in grey, dour Glasgow; of all the many lands the British plundered and spoiled, when it comes to food, we owe the subcontinent the greatest debt. Its people changed our palate forever. Before the Raj, the tastiest thing an Englishman ever ate was an oyster. And it probably poisoned him.
I’ve recently been to three Indian restaurants (a ham-fisted adjective, I know, but even the restaurant owners seem to lump Indian food with Bengali and Pakistani). Each place was very different, and a joint review makes sense because it highlights the wealth of this food currently in the capital. The Cinnamon Club is the sort of place paunched backbenchers dine their mistresses and burn their second home allowance. Vivek Singh is the head chef, with The Capital’s Eric Chavot – he of wittily globalised haute cuisine – in a consultant role. Under the shadow of Big Ben, David and I enjoy a benchmark offer – probably one of the best in the city – of three courses and a signature cocktail for just 22 pounds. There’s an amuse, too: a dainty tapioca fishcake, which we have with the 'Cinnamon bellini'. It's a splash of fizz, a strange cinnamon liqueur and a dancing splinter of bark: exotically refreshing and boozily seductive.
Two pheasant sheekh kebabs are gamey and pink, ripe with the English countryside, cooled by a quirky paprika raita. Beneath a spiced yellow jacket, a fillet of grilled red snapper is clean and pearly – delicately flavoured with saffron and cardamom, a zigzag of vibrant chutney marrying it to the celeriac salad. And there are juicy, sunburnt chicken thighs – my favourite part of the bird – cooked in the tandoor and bathed in a perfumed sauce of tomato and fenugreek. A Punjabi-style aubergine steak with aubergine chutney is convincing, stout and meaty. Despite excellent presentation - suggesting a proper pâtissier - puddings are rather disappointing: orange and ginger parfait with salted nut shortbread lacks punch, while a chocolate cake with pistachio and macaroon collapses without even trying. They even offer petit fours - a macaroon, a miniature strawberry madeleine, white and dark chocolate truffles, and a blackcurrant jelly. I say again: this meal cost 22 pounds a head. The Cinnamon Club is the best luxury Indian I’ve been to, more thoughtful, delicate and reasonable than both Tamarind (stripped of its Michelin star in the last bout) and Amaya.
Zeen, which recently opened behind Euston Station, is financed by Sir Gulam Noon, multimillionaire doyen of the microwave dinner. Sir Gulam, who named the restaurant after his daughter, Zeenat Harnal, makes packaged curry (Thai, Indian, Mexican, you name it) for Budgens, the Bombay Brasserie and everyone in between. I’m not going to get too food snob about ready meals, because I know that, for example, a lasagne takes hours to do properly, and I was recently served an M & S one which, on an effort-reward basis, wasn't that bad. Frankly, though, a Morrison's chicken korma would put lunch at Zeen to shame.
I went with Richard Harden, editor of the excellent restaurant guides. We were served food of such sunken joylessness, such pitiless absence of life or colour, it was like eating the contents of an urn. The basement on Drummond Street – the Brick Lane of the Sixties, I understand – is a hastily constructed paean to blandness; the décor throughout is that brownish orange popular in kitchen colour schemes of the Seventies. A soft-shell crab in a garlic butter sauce is a grease-sodden disaster: fatty goo in spindly batter. ‘Melange of fritters’ – mixed pakora vegetables – are beige to eye and tongue. A spatchcocked poussin is marinated – get this – on its bony side, ignoring its young, faint flesh. Whatever taste we might have hoped for from the mint, coconut and coriander – a limp-wristed mixture if ever I saw one – it's smeared firmly on to the corrugated ribcage, the meat itself carrying all the savour of cellophane. The ‘Zeen platter’ of butter chicken, aloo gobi, daal and naan is the final timid squeak from a kitchen that seems to think it's producing food for a crèche. Richard described the meal as a ‘symphony in brown,’ and he’s right – lunch here was like the monotonous fart of a bassoon.
And then there’s Tayyabs, the secret everyone knows about, on a scuzzy backroad in the distant parts of Whitechapel. I went as one of a dozen or so food bloggers – links to all their sites below – and had one of the best south Asian meals I’ve ever had. (Click here for Chris's superb photos of the evening.) Together, we eat virtually every dish for which the restaurant is justly famous: blistered, succulent lamb chops foggy with smoke, tender okra in a sauce deep with tomato and coriander, darkly pungent dry meat curry - more appetising than it sounds – pillowy, ghee-smeared naan and soft, flappy paratha. Then (thanks to Chris from Cheese and Biscuits and Helen from Food Stories) appear tender, slow-cooked legs of lamb, slathered in a sauce shimmering with cumin, chilli and butter, and served with dainty peas, clean shredded lettuce and nutty pilau. The meat sags from the bone in lazy, patient wodges, tender as they could possibly be, lifted and muddled by the tan sauce. I finish with a creamy pistachio kulfi, surprisingly made almost entirely from natural ingredients, balmy after the vivid fire of the table. Authentically Pakistani as it is, Tayyabs is BYO (no corkage, though - or corkscrew), and Dan from Bibendum supplies sweet Riesling and gentle Zinfandel, which I sip after some Goose Island Pale Ale, generously offered by Joel from Tipped. This was, quite simply, a faultless dinner, lively, filling and almost embarrassingly cheap, and I teetered home on my bicycle plump with the merry feeling only new friends and outstanding food can bring.
The Cinnamon Club, The Old Westminster Library, 30-32 Great Smith St, London SW1P
See on the TFYS Map
Tel. +44 (0)7222 2555
Three-course set lunch for two, with drink, costs £44 excluding service.
Zeen, 130 Drummond Street, London NW1
See on the Map
Tel. +44 (0)7387 0606
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs about £30.
Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, London E1
See on the Map
Tel. +44 (0)7247 6400
Greedy dinner for one, excluding service, is unlikely to cost £15. If you spend £20 on food, you have my eternal respect.
Tayyabs Bloggers and Sites: