Slumming it in Mayfair for South Asian haute cuisine giggles
Pitting Gymkhana against Indian Accent seems like such a natural thing to do. Both are pricey high-end Indian restaurants on the same street in Mayfair, located mere yards apart from each other. And yet the outcome almost seems like such a forgone conclusion. In one corner is Gymkhana, a famed restaurant from local taste-makers JKS – a restaurant that has quickly become a London institution in the few short years it has been open. In the other corner is Indian Accent, the beige outpost of a restaurant that couldn’t be more Mayfair if it tried. It not only sits across the road from Brown’s Hotel, but its next door neighbour is Tiffany’s. Its sister restaurants are lauded repeatedly on international ‘best restaurant’ lists – the kind of lists that only the double-chinned in double-breasted suits with plump travel expense accounts pay any attention to.
But I rarely take anything for granted. Visiting Gymkhana and Indian Accent to try their tasting menus, and to dip into their a la carte offerings, was nothing if not interesting with plenty of surprises along the way.
The tasting menu at Indian Accent
Indian Accent’s interior is polished in its inoffensiveness, gleaming in goldish-beige colours depending on whether you’re squinting or not. The atmosphere would’ve been relatively hushed, but for the besuited geezers at the next table loudly expressing amazement at every single little difference between Indian Accent and your average curry house.
Service was efficient if somewhat scattershot in tone and manner, ranging from awkwardly hesitant to standoff-ish and marionette like. It is, to be fair, still early days for Indian Accent’s front of house. But it’s telling when the reception puts far more effort into welcoming their mates who’ve just stepped through the door, rather than retrieving all your belongings from the cloakroom.
The nine-course tasting menu had a clear structure with a gradual, ramped build-up to a few keystone dishes even if it did cop-out with alternate choices for a few of the courses.
The amuse bouche was suitably titillating. A crisp then light and puffy bread came filled with blue cheese, its tang softened by the sweetness of creamy pumpkin and the cup of thick and moreish chicken soup-cum-curry on the side.
Crisp puchkas came with a succession of flavoured waters and sauces. Boldly tangy tamarind, crisp and refreshing coriander and the one with a gentle chilli heat were my three favourites.
Stuffed morels needed more sitting time – the mouth-scorching temperature obscured the earthiness both in the morels themselves and in their fungal filling. At least their Saharan temperature couldn’t obscure their tongue-pleasing wrinkliness.
An incredibly light morsel of fish was grounded by a lick of umami glaze, its profound moreishness neatly complimented by the caramelised popcornishness of the puffed rice. The fish was arguably incidental, but I’m not going to complain when a dish is as singularly delicious as this.
Lamb ribs were somewhat one-dimensional, in large part due to their resemblance to sweet and sour takeaway. The crispy batter, itself coated in a sweet then lightly sour sauce, tore apart to reveal a modest seam of rib meat underneath. The occasional bitter undertone couldn’t help save this seeming homage to Indo-Chinese food. Ill-advised.
After those ribs, the refreshing pomegranate ice lolly was even more welcome as a palate cleanser than it would’ve been otherwise. Although allegedly made from pomegranate, it tasted more like sour plum in my gob.
My faith in the kitchen’s abilities was restored by the stuffed kulcha. A choice of stuffings is available, but you’d have to have a very good reason not to choose the sumptuous black pudding option. The fatty, umami black pudding was a perfect match for the fluffy naan and its puffy edges, charred almost like a pizza. The wasabi yoghurt, which tasted like Danone dotted with wasabi peas, and the lightly spicy dal are best taken afterwards though. They were just bold enough to obscure the black pudding, for me at least.
Chicken kofta arrived in a rather unexpected form, looking more like a crisp-crumb coated chicken burger patty of all things. Its meaty moreishness was only evident when mashed and taken with the creamy, lightly moreish curry sauce. Unimpressive when taken separately, they were far more gutturally satisfying when combined and taken together.
Pre-dessert was a creamy yet still light and refreshing malai. The milky cream, crisp almond shavings and oddly crunchy candied fruit all came together beautifully. It was far better than the somewhat similar malai-with-candied-fruit dessert at the admittedly far more relaxed Bombay Bustle.
While the main dessert was described as a treacle tart, it tasted more like a carrot halwa, but taken to the nth degree. A light and crisp then crunchy pastry topping concealed a nutty and sweet pudding. The smooth, creamy ice cream with a clean aftertaste was an apt partner. Even without it though, I could quite happily scoff an entire baking tray full of this stuff and then keel over, dying happy.
A la carte at Indian Accent
The a la carte menu at Indian Accent is a funny thing, resembling a prix fixe menu instead. Three courses are priced at £55 and four courses at £65, with multiple options for each course. Additional dishes cost an additional £10 each; extra sides cost £6 each.
The amuse bouche was just as good as it was before, if not even better with a meatier undertone to the chicken soup.
The crunchy deep-fried vadai is best thought of as a fritter or perhaps a vegetarian meatball, if that helps you. Beneath the oil-free exterior was a mixture of earthy beetroot and the viscous nuttiness of peanut butter, while a daubing of milky and earthy goat’s cheese with a cream-like texture stood to the side. It sounds bizarre, but the reality was rather mundane with all the elements cancelling each other out.
The mere mention of the soy keema pao will set the hearts of vegetarians aflutter with the traditional lamb mince replaced by a soya-derived alternative. The problem here wasn’t its somewhat unconvincing resemblance to lamb mince, but the slightness of its cumulative bitter heat and the milquetoast mildness of its umami. Even the quail’s egg failed to add much richness. The mini buns looked cute, but tasted of little. Although still better than Gymkhana’s effort at a keema pao, it wasn’t a patch on Bombay Bustle’s.
Scallops of oddly varying thickness evoked the salty tang of the sea. Accompanying prawns were just about firm enough and came encased in a weirdly coarse yet fine-grained batter. Both were bound together by a sharp and bright sauce reminiscent of the sauce used in Gymkhana’s vindaloo. Carbohydrate backup was provided by some fried rice that managed to be surprisingly moreish thanks to some chewy dried shrimp. Although I was sceptical at first, I was eventually won over by the charms of this seafood triple-act.
The ghee roast lamb turned out to be an unexpected homage to Peking duck, with thin and small pancakes provided for hand-borne serving. Meaty sinews of lamb, slick with rendered fat, only managed to be modestly earthy and umami on its own. It really needed the aide of the sauces – one sharp and zesty, the other numbing in its spice – to be truly satisfying. Everything came together to produce a surprisingly strong, cumulative umami.
The kulcha was just as texturally superlative as it was before. I opted for the bacon filling this time which turned out to be more akin to salted pork or jerky. Although far from bad, it wasn’t the Dishoom-beater I was hoping for and certainly doesn’t displace its black pudding cousin from my affections.
Mishti doe cannoli proved to a rather subdued attempt at fusing an Indian and a Sicilian dessert together. Decent but ultimately unmemorable pasty tubes came filled with a thick and lightly sour yoghurt. The nutty crumble morsels on the side added a flavour oddly reminiscent of sunflower seeds. While not bad, this understated misti doe pales into comparison next to Kricket’s far more accomplished version.
Like Gymkhana, Indian Accent sticks out for having far more Chinese than Indian teas on offer. Regardless, even this dyed-in-the-wool coffee drinker found much to enjoy in the ‘cloud’ tea. A strong tannic taste was balanced out by a smooth maltiness and a subtle yet sublime smokiness.
The tasting menu at Gymkhana
Gymkhana introduces so many alternate choices into so many stages of its tasting menu that it hardly seems like one. The false benefit of choice may mollify the gastronomically fidgety and anxious, but it almost certainly means that any vision that the kitchen may have had is lost in the process.
A crowd-pleasing selection of poppadoms kicked things off. The bubbly and sweet rice crackers were an interesting and welcome addition, as were the punchy hot, zingy and fruity sweet trio of chutneys on the side.
The delicate pastry of the samosas held in fluffy cubes of potato. Nutty chickpeas, crisp and malty sev and a musky sweet relish rounded out this well-crafted chaat.
A meaty strip of fish was blessed with a mildly bitter masala rub. While enjoyable enough on its own terms, it seemed like a rather blunt and crude affair compared to the sublimely crafted fish dish on Indian Accent’s tasting menu.
Although the keema pao came with suitably fluffy buns, the lamb mince itself was a rather drab affair. It couldn’t match the rather modest ersatz keema pao at Indian Accent, never mind the real deal at Bombay Bustle.
Tender and sinewy if somewhat anonymous pork cheeks wouldn’t have been anywhere as enjoyable without the vindaloo sauce. Seemingly mild at first, the thick, sharp and bright sauce developed a cumulative heat that brought a sweat to my brow without being overwhelming.
Despite this late-stage comeback, the pork cheek vindaloo played second fiddle in my affections to the dal maharani. Its layered flavours of butteriness and pepperiness, which both complimented and contrasted with each other, was the first dish in this tasting menu that could in any way rival what Indian Accent was rustling up with apparently far more ease.
Sev-topped peas, sharp and zingy, were even better when taken with thin and soft naan. The naan played second fiddle to the roti though which was far more soft and supple with malty hints to boot.
Although the curds in the rasamalai were smaller than I expected, they were still soft and spongy. They were the perfect conveyor for the refreshing yet addictively musky sweet coconut milk.
Salted lassi was thick yet refreshing in its sourness and milkiness. The ‘masala’ lassi was oddly little different.
A la carte at Gymkhana
The thumping, gut-busting portions of Gymkhana’s tasting menu are no anomaly. The belly expanding portion sizes are also a mainstay on the a la carte menu, which gives the familiar quandary of ‘struggling not to over order at an Indian restaurant’ a new twist. Here, the usual balance between eyes and mouth must also take into consideration the size of your wallet.
Scrambled eggs with lobster on paratha sounds like the catnip-for-one-percenters that you’d expect from a Mayfair restaurant, but it’s not just for show. Although the eggs were a bit too wispy for my liking, the springy lobster, punchy chives and a sharpness that tasted like pickled ginger all more than made up for it. The soft, flaky, buttery paratha was like a weaponised croissant in wrap form – surely the dictionary definition of a good thing.
Paneer was just right – neither too soft nor too hard. The sweetcorn didn’t add much, unlike the sprightly, zingy green sauce which brought a bit of character and contrast.
A potato dosa was thankfully much smaller than I expected – both in comparison to everything else at Gymkhana and in comparison to the huge conical dosas usually seen at most other Indian restaurants. Although soft, chewy and moreish, I still wish it had been a tad crisper on the outside. Even so, the fluffy potato filling and spicy sauces on the side meant this starter stayed in my good graces.
Wrinkly morels came stuffed with an umami cream and sat in a tart, spicy and sour sauce – possibly made with tarmarind. These latter two elements, while pleasing in their own right, got in the way of appreciating the morels’ wrinkliness as did the unnecessary scattering of truffle shavings which didn’t add much of aroma. The accompanying crispy fritter with its earthy filling was far more satisfactory, due in large part to its simplicity.
Lamb chops had a peppery, umami and smoky rub. Unfortunately, the immensely flavoursome rub was let down by the meat itself which wasn’t anywhere as tender as it should’ve been. Even the chops riven with fat and connective tissue were hard work, rather than a pleasure, as they hadn’t been rendered through. The refreshing yoghurt on the side, topped with a sumac-like spice, was very much needed as a counterpoint to this crudeness.
Reasonably springy prawns came in a satisfactory but ultimately rather ordinary curry sauce. It tasted heavily of umami tomatoes and creamy coconut, with occasional flashes of aniseed-liked flavour hinting at the far more complex and nuanced curry that it could’ve been.
The venison biryani is probably Gymkhana’s signature dish or at least its most well known one. The theatrics of your waiter cutting away the pastry lid from the pot to reveal the steaming mixture of rice and deer is almost matched by how it tastes and smells. Although it’s not as aromatic as it should be, the fluffy small-grained rice dotted with tender, sinewy venison had plenty of character thanks to an underlying bittersweetness.
Even so, the crisp yet chewy pastry lid peppered with nutty sesame seeds was almost better than the rice itself. Sweet yoghurt-like raita flavoured with raspberries and pomegranate was pleasant enough, but hardly necessary.
The raita was welcome though as a counterpoint to the yellow dal. The buttery nuttiness of the lentils in a bright, sharp and sour sauce made for a nuanced, layered dish. It was far more surprising and delightful than many of the other dishes in Gymkhana’s oeuvre.
The selection of bread and naan was much the same as it was before. Mango lassi was milky and refreshing, but at the expense of the fruit’s presence which was barely felt.
The Amazon’s carrot halwa was more brown sugar than carrot. This disappointment was offset by the pear-flavoured ice cream on the side. It was true to the fruit in its evocative crispness and musky sweetness. A malty crumb chucked in at the last minute was hardly necessary, but it didn’t detract from the ice cream’s charms.
Kheer was served chilled. That didn’t detract from its smooth and light creaminess and was indeed quite a welcome change of pace after all that meat, heavy spices and carbs. Although billed as a ‘stewed fig kheer’, the meagre and drab single slice of fruit played second fiddle to a heavy cardamom presence and a musky sweet undertone possibly hinting at the presence of jaggery. Although more cardamom kheer than fig kheer, this was still a spot-on rice pudding.
While eating at Indian Accent and Gymkhana costs roughly the same, their respective experiences couldn’t be more different. Although Gymkhana has the edge in atmosphere with its clubby, atmospherically lit decor giving it an easy intimacy, Indian Accent wipes the floor with the JKS flagship when it comes to actual cooking. Gymkhana’s food isn’t bad by any means, but the food at Indian Accent is so much better in ambition and skilful execution that’s it not even funny.
Admittedly, the comparison starts to come apart at the seams a little as the category of ‘high end Indian food’ is stretched to the limits of its practical usefulness. Gymkhana’s cooking is far more hearty than Indian Accent’s, almost akin to a modestly gussied-up version of curry house fare which also makes it harder for it to justify its high prices. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve guessed that Gymkhana was a Bombay Bustle-style designed-by-numbers spin-off of another restaurant.
The new kid on the block, meanwhile, isn’t without faults of its own. Many (but certainly not all) of its fusion-y attempts fall flat and it’s certainly much more modernist in its approach which won’t suit everyone. And while this might just possibly change with time, its atmosphere leaves much to be desired when compared to its elder neighbour. The service at both could do with a kick up the pants though, from the stiltedness at Indian Accent to the distracted aloof disinterest that passes for hospitality at Gymkhana.
Indian Accent is racing ahead in the culinary stakes. If it can get the rest of its house in order then it can certainly beat our homegrown haute Indian restaurants at their own game. We’ll just have to wait and see if JKS can pull their attention away from new openings, projects and partnerships for long enough to right their listing, rudderless flagship.
Name: Indian Accent
What to order: Fish; Stuffed breads; Chicken kofta; Puchkas; Treacle tart; Stuffed morels
What to skip: Ribs; Mishti doe cannoli
Branch tried: 16 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London W1S 4HW
Phone: 0207 629 9802
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.00 and 17.30-22.00. Closed Sunday.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £90-110 approx.
What to order: Samosa chaat; All the dal; Paneer; Lobster, eggs and paratha; Biryani; Kheer
What to skip: Nothing was truly bad enough to be worth avoiding
Address: 42 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London W1S 4JH
Phone: 020 3011 5900
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 17.30-22.15. Closed Sunday.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £90-110 approx.