When I first started doing this job, a distinguished food critic invited me out to lunch and told me the secret of writing a successful restaurant column. All you had to do was find out what the conventional wisdom was and then say the opposite. If the restaurant in question was popular, you should describe it as "totally overrated", whereas if it had tumbleweeds blowing up and down between the tables you should hail it as an "undiscovered gem". "That's all there is to it old boy," he said, before handing me the bill and disappearing into a taxi.
So far, I've had plenty of opportunities to knock popular restaurants off their pedestals, but almost no chance to do the opposite. Which is why it came as a blessed relief to eat at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia. Admittedly, it's not strictly accurate to describe this posh Indian as an "undiscovered gem". In the new Egon Ronay Guide, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia is ranked as one of the seven best restaurants in London. Nor is the chef in any sense uncelebrated. Vineet Bhatia attracted a cult following when he was at the Star of India on the Old Brompton Road and he was the head chef at Zaika when it became Britain's first Indian restaurant to receive a Michelin star in 2001.
Yet given the quality of the food, this restaurant isn't nearly as popular as it should be. Bhatia has a very unconventional approach to Indian cuisine--his staples include tandoori smoked salmon, lobster dusted with cocoa and samosas filled with chocolate--and those brave enough to plump for the nine-course tasting menu are unlikely to forget the experience in a hurry. Being a coward, I played it safe and opted for the trio of chicken, followed by prawns poached in coconut and chilli masala. However, it was so good--and we're talking off-the-charts, mind-blowingly good--that I intend to return for the menu gourmand at the first opportunity.
I can think of several explanations as to why Rasoi Vineet Bhatia isn't packed to the rafters every night. To begin with, there's the name. Talk about a mouthful! My brother-in-law recently asked me to recommend a restaurant for the purposes of celebrating his birthday and I would have nominated this place in a heartbeat except I couldn't remember it's name. The owner should take a leaf out of his previous employer's book and think of a simple, one-word name that everyone can recall at a moment's notice.
Then there's the location. If you're going to open a posh Indian--and Rasoi Vineet Bhatia is so posh you have to ring on the doorbell to be admitted--it's unwise to be this close to Sloane Square. As far as most Sloanes are concerned, there's only kind of Indian and that's a bog-standard "cuzza". Their definition of a good curry house is one that stays open after the pubs shut, serves Carling Black Label and won't bat an eyelid if you "park a tiger" in the urinal. Hooray Henrys don't care how Indian food is cooked so long as it's "f---ing hot".
Finally, there's the décor. The cuisine served at Rasoi Vineet Bhatia is undoubtedly modern, yet the interior is distinctly old-fashioned. It's less like a restaurant than an Indian version of the Pitt Rivers Museum, with hundreds of ancient artifacts, all stained a dark shade of brown, crammed into a modest town house. According to Bhatia, many of these antiquities are representations of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, and are supposed to bring good luck. All I can say is, with a restaurant that looks like a set from Raiders of the Lost Ark, he's going to need it.
Clearly, Vineet Bhatia knows a great deal about how to cook food, but next to nothing about how to sell it. This is a great pity, not only because this is undoubtedly the finest Indian restaurant in London, but because he and his wife mortgaged their house in order to open it. If ever a restaurant deserved to succeed, this is it. I urge everyone to go there as soon as they possibly can.