Veeraswamy’s claim to fame is that it is London’s oldest Indian restaurant, having been in business since 1926. Intrigued, I first ate at Veeraswamy several years ago. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t go back. Perhaps it was the bright décor – think dazzling oranges, pinks – being incongruous with the romance associated with the longest established Indian restaurant or, well, just being too bright.
Having heard that Veeraswamy had undergone a re-invention, I returned to find the dining area transformed into a spectacular space that harmoniously blends traditional features with the luxury and sophistication expected by discerning diners. Striking globes of coloured glass hanging from the ceilings, multi-hued turbans displayed on the walls and the imaginative use of lighting throughout create a visually arresting interior. Ornamental screens and the arrangement of seating provide an intimate setting while maintaining the buzz of a busy restaurant. Book a table by the windows overlooking Regent Street, perfect for watching the world rush by as you savour your meal.
So what of the food? The cooking certainly has a lot to live up to, if only to avoid the ‘style over substance’ offering of which far too many of London’s restaurants are guilty. Fortunately, the kitchen has more than stepped up to the challenge, turning out food that combines delicate flavours with top quality ingredients.
We started with seafood: mussels moilee (£7), a generous portion of fresh mussels in a fragrant coconut and ginger sauce, and oyster kebab (£10.50), six large oysters marinated in yoghurt and spices before being briefly grilled. Both were excellent.
If molluscs aren’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of alternatives. Vegetarian dishes include green leaf bhajias (£5) or hariyali seekh (crushed green vegetable kebab, £5.50), and meat options sound just as good: sholay chicken tikka, smoked with garam masala (£6.50) or duck seekh, minced duck breast kekabs with cinnamon and cardamom (£7.50).
For our main courses, how could we resist ordering the Hyderabad lamb biryani (£17), a classic that was on the original Veeraswamy menu? It takes half an hour from the time of ordering to prepare, and that the cooking time is not rushed shows through in the tenderness of the meat, the fluffiness of the rice and the fact the flavours have been allowed to infuse the whole dish. Our other order of nihari (£17.50), described as the ultimate slow-cooked lamb dish from Lucknow, was just that, the meat literally melting off the bone. A side order of Bombay dal (£3.50) combined lentils with ginger, cumin and green chillis, and we mopped up the lot with an unusual green rumali roti, a soft textured bread flavoured with spinach.
Following this gastronomic gallop around India, we hesitated before ordering dessert. Indian sweets are often far too cloying at the end of a rich meal. We needn’t have worried. The desserts (all £5.50) are beautifully presented contemporary versions of favourites such asgulab jamun, served with vanilla pod ice cream and plum compote, or carrot halva encased in long cigarellos of deep-fried pastry with a molten chocolate dipping sauce.
Because the flavours at Veeraswamy are so subtle and delicate, there are bound to be critics that say this isn’t ‘real’ Indian food. Well, if luminous food-colouring-enhanced curries that burn your tastebuds into oblivion are your idea of real Indian food, I’ll take Veeraswamy’s version any day.
Throw in a better wine list than you’ll find at the majority of Indian restaurants, the best mango lassis I’ve had outside of India and the personal touch provided by friendly waiting staff, and it certainly won’t be years before I return to Veeraswamy again.