Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chowki in Picadilly

Name Chowki
Address 2-3 Denman Street, London W1D 7HA Phone 020 7439 1330
Web site
Main dish price range £10-15
Rating 3 Stars. Solid pick, you won't be disappointed.
Recommended dishes Lucknow Lamb Korma

Pankaj Mishra, one of my favorite Indian authors, recently wrote a piece for the FT lamenting the state of Indian food in London, India's former imperial capital. As I've mentioned here before, it's all very much true, and in my opinion mostly due to the fact that when the tone was set for Indian cooking, the whole idea of food was not very much appreciated. It was the 60's, mostly people ate boiled meat, and salt and pepper were viewed as indulgent spices. It's not wonder that when Britishers think of curry, they think of mutely-colored, mutely-flavored, heavily creamed dishes.

So when Pankaj Mishra went on to list what he viewed as the only decent Indian joint in town as being Chowki, and that Chowki happened to be right near my office, I simply had to go. Chowki specializes in Indian regional fare, which I suppose is it's way of saying that the food they serve is the food that one might expect if one were actually in a region of India, as opposed to what passes for Indian food in London. Chowki is very much representative of a new wave of Indian immigration, itself representative of an entirely new India. The decorations are cheerful, the clientele and service young and busy, and the modern din is much reminiscent of the places my young colleagues have taken me to in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Chowki violates all of the interior-design rules set by the earlier generations of curry shops: there are no white table clothes, they use glasses rather than goblets, and there are large windows through which one can actually see the street.

I've read that Chowki's menu varies to reflect a different region of India every few months. Apparently they've abandoned this, and now just have a number of dishes from named regions, arrayed across a rather confusing glossy menu. The food, once ordered, is promptly served in a set comprising of a main dish, a plate of rice, and a lentil dal. It's exactly how a modern Indian would expect to be served, if he were trying to imitate the individual-serving style of western restaurants, but seeing as how Chowki's patrons are mostly trying to escape these staid western traditions, it's not clear why the food doesn't simply come family style.
But no matter. The food overcomes the jumble of its presentation. It's easy to see Mishra likes it -- the curries were very well prepared, nicely spiced, with succulent meat and not a hint of curry to pander to the punters. The Lucknow Lamb Korma stood out as exquisite -- it was clear that the meat was marinated as it should be, and the sauce was absolutely divine -- a finer balancing of flavours I can't recall having.
I'm not really an expert, but I do have reason to call into question the regional provenance of the dishes -- the names are a bit condescending and hardly apropos of anything. Hyderbadi Chicken Curry? Why, anyone who's ever been knows that the dish of that fine Deccan city is Biryani. I spend three months there and can't recall a Chicken Curry. Similarly, the Keralan Prawn Curry, I expected to be a verion of the fine seafood molees that are served in delightfully light coconut broths… instead it was just variation of a basic (but good) tomato curry.

I will certainly be back to Chowki -- even if the menu is a bit weird and gimmicky, and the service chaotic. It's a great spot to get re-aquainted with the flavors of India as they were meant to be, and it takes a rare place among London restaurants that are both cheap and good.

A solid 3-star pick. Better ambience and a more artful menu would easily put it into 4-star territory.
Chowki on Urbanspoon

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