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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 7th October 2005


I used to be under the impression that posh Indian food was a comparatively recent culinary trend and that the people responsible for it were Namita Panjabi and Ranjit Mathrani. This pioneering Indian couple opened Chutney Mary in 1990 and now head up Masala World, a group that includes Veeraswamy and the three Masala Zones. However, it turns out that they were beaten to the punch by 181 years. According to Curry Culture, a recently published book on Britain's love affair with Indian cuisine, the first ever posh curry emporium in London was the Hindoostane Coffee House which opened in 1809. Mr Hindoostane was a little ahead of his time--his Coffee House closed after two years--but he was the original pioneer, not Namita and Ranjit, and there's now a plaque outside the site of his restaurant in Marylebone to prove it.

The latest addition to Masala World is Amaya, a boutique Indian restaurant in Belgravia that has enjoyed extraordinary success since it opened last year. Mick Jagger, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been spotted in its candle-lit interior and, not long ago, Cindy Crawford threw a party in the downstairs private room. Incredibly, if you want to dine at Amaya between 8pm and 10pm there's now a four-month waiting list, making it almost as hard to get a table at as the Ivy. Not for nothing is it sometimes referred to as the Nobu of Indian restaurants. Posh spice indeed.

The restaurant is divided into three areas: a front bar, a large, communal dining space in the middle and then some small tables at the rear. I went there on a Wednesday night with my wife, her sister and her sister's husband and we were seated so far back there was only about 10 feet between us and the open kitchen. In any other restaurant, this would be a bad table, but I don't think it was in this case. The owners of Amaya are very proud of the three different types of grills used in the kitchen and they claim that specialists have to be flown in from India to prepare the food. To be seated this close to the kitchen, then, where you can watch these craftsmen at work, is probably considered a great honour.

My brother-in-law, Jonathan Gale, is built like an Olympic rower and has an appetite to match so we decided to opt for the introductory tasting menu. This is supposed to be one of these things you can only order if the whole table has it, but our waitress was happy to let my wife have the vegetarian tasting menu. We ordered a bottle of Australian Shiraz and settled in for the long haul.

The food was supremely good, but not quite up there with Rasoi Vineet Bhatia which, for my money, is still the best Indian restaurant in London. I wish I could tell you what I had, but at my brother-in-law's insistence we ordered another bottle of the Shiraz and the upshot was that I left my notebook in the taxi on the way home. I seem to remember a very nice chicken kebab, as well as some broccoli in a wonderful cheese sauce, but beyond that it's a bit of a blur. It was one of those intoxicating experiences in which you're gradually overwhelmed by wave after wave of sensual pleasure.

The one disappointment in the evening was the crowd. Having charted Amaya's progress in the gossip columns, I was expecting to be surrounded by a cornucopia of famous faces, but, in fact, our fellow diners were no more glamorous than us. Indeed, they bordered on being slightly less glamorous, thanks to the presence of my wife and sister-in-law. It's not very often that I can go to a fashionable restaurant and claim to be among the youngest men in the room, but this was one such occasion. Perhaps posh curry houses, however good, just don't hold out the same attraction for Bright Young Things as Asian fusion restaurants.

All in all, though, it was a highly satisfactory experience. Namita Panjabi and Ranjit Mathrani deserve full marks for bringing gourmet Indian food to London, even if they weren't the first, and I've no doubt Amaya will last a good deal longer than two years.

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