Syed Belal Ahmed, the editor of UK industry magazine Curry Life, spins a ripping yarn on the early pioneers of British Indian food and the fight against racists and vandals in 1990s Yeovil. ‘And again’ he says, raising a finger delivering his punch line in a British-Bengali accent, ‘for the third time that week the firebomb – IT SMASHED THROUGH THE WINDOW – and very very famous MP Paddy Ashdown ran out of the balti to chase.’
Sitting in Indian Accent, the newly-opened London member of chef Manish Mehrotra’s award-winning restaurant family, the conversation inevitably turns to the good old days a million miles away from where we’re we are now.
There’s a quiet hum of conversation. I’m enjoying my mushroom – an inquisitive menhir – sitting in a pool of melted cheese. Alas, the editor of Curry Life pokes it with his fork. He’s not convinced.
Indian Accent’s masculine, modern interior with racing green seats and brass coloured tables is a long way from the traditional identikit ‘Taj Mahal Balti’ decor found dotted around the Great British suburbs and my mushroom – described on the menu as a Kashmiri Morel, in walnut powder with parmesan – is a fungus par excellence but perhaps not what you’d expect from any UK restaurant with ‘Indian’ in its name.
Morels in fact are very Indian, only found in the cool Himalayan basin valleys of Himachal, Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir. They’re lovably ugly, squishy, sea-anemone-esq in texture, hitting a deep nutty note and sitting on a melted plop of yellow parmesan.
And it’s not the only outstanding dish in the four-course taster menu. The fun starts with an amuse-bouche of blue cheese naans, served with jug of curried coconut sipping sauce; there’s a potato sphere chaat, with white pea mash followed by the closest-thing-to-a-curry dish on the menu – a one-inch-punch of soy keema with an uncooked pool of quail egg balancing on the top waiting to be broken by a skewered nugget of lime leaf butter pao.
These dishes are the heart and soul the Indian Accent experience – a hint of familiarity in the spices but balanced to perfection. However, I’m not thrilled with my sea bream, asparagus and Kerala coconut moilee main. The coconut lovingly flavours the presumably pan-fried fish but once the base of the bream becomes drenched, it’s more of an oily fishy pudding from a French bistro – and I’m struggling to understand what part of this soggy fish’s story is being told with an Indian accent.
And this is where Indian Accent diverges from other offerings in Mayfair like Gymkhana and the excellent Matsya, recently opened around the corner.
As such, two distinct paths have emerged for Indian restaurants in the UK. The first path is the British curry we all know and love. Think of a traditional British ‘Taj Mahal Balti’ – with its cream carpets, pink curtains and burnt black basins the ‘burning bowls of hellfire gloop’ author Howard Jacobson pines for in an essay lamenting the rise of ‘Hyderabadi lobster jhinga with Marabar cave caviar’, and the demise of ‘chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo, rogan josh and tandoori king prawn balti.’
The second path is the new road along which Indian Accent proudly treads. This is the star-hunting Michelin grammar of the French and Italian tradition, and according to chef Manish Mehrotra, the exploration of progressive ideas in Indian cuisine while maintaining traditional integrity.
‘This is not for me,’ says Mr Ahmed. Although, he’s happy to see any restaurant business thriving, even if his particular palette craves Jacobson’s ‘hellfire gloop’.
I disagree. There’s an appetite for both traditions, but I hear the critics and understand Jacobson’s mirth as an increasing number of Indian restaurants pursue Michelin stars and stardom.
Indian Accent is right to push things forward. Despite Paddy Ashdown’s heroics, in the UK today JD Wetherspoon is the nation’s most successful curry restaurant.
Perhaps Indian Accent’s reinvention is timely.