Listen to this article
As we turned off Piccadilly and headed north for dinner at Gymkhana, the latest restaurant to open at 42 Albemarle Street, I was worried. I remember when Jams opened here in the late 1980s, with chef Jonathan Waxman at its helm, and there have been numerous others since. Though I do not believe there is such a thing as a doomed site, I was still somewhat anxious. But for the next couple of hours, my brow and those of my guests remained completely untroubled as we were swept up in the atmosphere that chef Karam Sethi has created.
Both floors of the restaurant were packed, and have been since it opened on September 14. And on the basis of all we ate, it deserves to flourish. Sethi’s Indian food was fresh, clean and reminiscent of certain dishes I had enjoyed in Kerala. We drank memorably well, too: a bottle of Malvazija Kozlovic 2012 (£32) from Istria, Croatia was served by a Slovenian sommelier whom I had first encountered at Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner (and who sports a quasi-Mohican haircut). Sethi and his team have imbued Gymkhana with a sense of fun.
The restaurant is named after the sports and social clubs of the British Raj, an inspiration hinted at in lighthearted touches of design, such as black and white photos of cricket matches. The ground floor feels more colonial with its booths, fans and bergère chairs, and large marble tables to accommodate the numerous side dishes that are part of any Indian meal. Downstairs is noisier, but clever lighting prevents it feeling like an annexe.
I was already a fan of Sethi’s cooking at Trishna, his first restaurant, in Marylebone (a sister to Trishna, Mumbai). But I was particularly looking forward to this time of year, when Sethi shows his talent for cooking game. Gymkhana’s menu has plenty for game-lovers: a partridge pepper fry; wild roe deer cooked with spices from Tamil Nadu; and a fiery vindaloo made with muntjac deer.
My eye was caught by the very first starter, a venison keema naan with cucumber and cumin raita. It was first class, the meat soft and unctuous between layers of warm bread. The kitchen’s baking is excellent, as confirmed at a subsequent lunch, whose first course of a scrambled duck egg bhurji, laced with lobster, came with a flaky, round malabar paratha. It was followed by diced goat with fenugreek leaves. Both of these dishes appear as “nashta” or snacks on the dinner menu.
Shrimp and queen scallops cooked in the style of Amritsar in the Punjab were excellent but best of all was a dosa with diced duck meat and coconut chutney – not just for its flavours but for the memories it evoked. The dosa reminded us of breakfasts of egg hoppers in Sri Lanka; the whole dish of dinners on the rice boats of Kerala.
Our main courses were almost as good: prawns cooked in the north Indian lasooni style with red pepper chutney; a chicken tikka with sprouting moong bean; and a most elegant presentation of a tandoori guineafowl breast, the leg meat diced and blended with a green mango chat. I’m afraid I cannot use the adjective “elegant” to describe the manner in which we fell on our desserts: a caramel custard enriched with jaggery, ultra-sweet, unrefined sugar; a mango kheer, perhaps the original rice pudding; and a falooda, a sundae of saffron and pistachio topped with condensed milk.
Sethi has created a restaurant that delivers highly labour-intensive and flavourful dishes with style and wit. The price he will now have to pay is that he will have to spend far more time in Gymkhana’s kitchens than with his new bride.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
42 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4JH, 020 3011 5900, www.gymkhanalondon.com