The silence that normally ensues after dinner guests have been introduced to one another lasted barely a second on this occasion. Instead, the conversation flowed. A tall, dark-haired and highly opinionated Indian woman had us all laughing when she explained the differences in timing between the dinner parties she attends in her native Delhi and those in her husband’s home town of Copenhagen.
“At home the invitation may say 8pm but that is when we start drinking. We don’t eat before 10.30pm. But by then, everyone in Copenhagen is tucked up in bed,” she explained, roaring with laughter.
I inquired about her favourite Indian restaurant in London and the response was immediate. “When I have a particular craving for a few desi (or authentic) foods, we always go to the Gaylord. Many of my more fashionable and/or weight-conscious Indian friends wouldn’t agree, but I think their food can be bilkul [absolutely] delicious.”
It was the branch of Gaylord in Manchester (now closed) that first introduced me to Indian food and, in turn, to numerous conversations around the table with the waiters about our mutual hero, the Indian cricketer Farokh Engineer, then playing for Lancashire.
The conditions were certainly Mancunian as I stood opposite the Mortimer Street site that has been home to the Gaylord in London since 1966. Heavy rain was falling, the road was full of puddles and steam was rising across the restaurant’s large windows.
Compensation lay, however, in the pungent, dry, distinctive aromas of Indian cooking that are now, after 46 years, very much a part of the Gaylord microclimate. And this is precisely the right time of year to indulge in the rich Punjabi food that the Gaylord specialises in – “to fatten one up for the cold, winter months ahead”, as my Indian friend described it.
As I walked in, I began to experience another particular aspect of life in an Indian restaurant. Nobody rushed to greet me. Once I had sat down, nobody rushed over with a wine list or menu. The drinks we ordered did not arrive promptly and, once we had all time to look at our menus, the Gaylord’s portly general manager, Sameer Berry, stood very patiently by our table, displaying no urgency at all in taking our order.
Noticing my disquiet, our Indian friend explained with a smile, “The waiting staff here know that we Indians are going to take so much time discussing what we are going to eat that there is absolutely no point in trying to rush us.”
While she quizzed Berry in Hindi about a couple of dishes, I sat back on the banquette and watched another ritual of everyday life in an Indian restaurant as several men walked in for their takeaway or, to use the colloquial Indian phrase, to “make a pack”.
My thoughts about how much this element must contribute to any Indian restaurant’s profitability were interrupted by a brisk summary of the conversation with Berry. While my friend, as a Hindu, had ordered only vegetarian dishes – “what I would order if I was here with my friends from Delhi”, she explained – her Danish husband had added a few meaty ones. And in authentic Indian style, we were skipping the first courses – too heavy for the meal to follow, or so I was told – and we would all share the main courses.
The food arrived promptly and in a panoply of colours. There was the dark brown of the dal bukhara, black lentils that had been cooked with lots of butter and finished with cream, which we mopped up with bhatura – soft, unleavened bread that puffs up like a pillow. There was my introduction to channa peshwari, spicy chickpeas, and crisp bhindi, a plate of dark green diced okra, as well as roomali roti, the thin bread cooked on the outside of the griddle and then folded so that it has acquired the name of “handkerchief bread”. My Indian friend enhanced the inherent spiciness of all these dishes by nibbling from a side plate of grilled green chillies.
With keema matar, minced lamb and coriander; excellent renditions of paneer, cubes of fresh cheese cooked in the tandoor; rogan josh, a hot lamb curry; kulfi and rasmalai, the very sweet Indian desserts; and two bottles of Weingut Balthasar Ress Riesling Kabinett Hattenheimer Schutzenhaus 2011, the meal was finished, and the bill for four came to £220.
Gaylord Restaurant, 79-81 Mortimer Street, London W1W 7SJ, 020 7636 0808
For tickets for an evening with Nicholas Lander at Quo Vadis, go to www.phaidon.com/quovadis