Manoj Karnavar runs this 60-cover restaurant, through which he is spicing up south London. James Stagg reports
Latterly, the London borough of Croydon has been credited with having a destination restaurant quarter. While that may be stretching the truth at the moment, the range of eateries is certainly growing on the South End road out of the town. And with a £1b redevelopment in the offing, bringing the likes of Westfield to the area, there will be plenty of operators considering the location.
One who has already seen the potential is Manoj Karnavar, who last year opened his eponymous restaurant, having decided to go it alone and share his passion for Indian food.
Karnavar has spent 18 years working in five-star hotels in the UK, India and Dubai, latterly as sous chef at Claridge’s under Martyn Nail, and before that banqueting chef at Mandarin Oriental London.
“I’ve been thinking about running my own business for the past 10 years,” he explains. “I just knew there were thousands of dishes still to come out of India, and I wanted to reflect that in my business. In hotels you don’t get so many opportunities to prepare these dishes.”
But now, running his own 60-cover Croydon restaurant, Karnavar is able to call on all his culinary influences to create dishes that delicately fuse modern cooking techniques with traditional Indian flavours.
“It’s a combination of what I’ve learned working in international hotels, inspired by the cooking of grandma at home,” he explains.
“I’m cooking what I’d call traditional Indian food, but with slightly different techniques. The dishes are as you would experience in Rajasthan, Kerala, Punjab or Gujarat, but with more modern cooking styles, such as pan-searing and roasting.”
At lunch, Karnavar offers a two-course menu for £9.80, while a traditional Indian à la carte is on offer in the evening, with a selection of kebabs, biryanis and main courses with accompaniments including cabbage thoran (cabbage stir-fried with mustard, curry leaf and coconut) and dal makhani (black lentils with tomato and fenugreek), along with a selection of rice and home-made bread.
While the dishes are created to traditional recipes, many are accompanied by seasonal British produce and have a local slant.
Take the starter of Kerala poached egg masala for instance. This is a twist on what we would better understand as a breakfast dish of poached egg with hollandaise sauce, inspired by Karnavar’s spell at Claridge’s.
“When I worked at Claridge’s, we served poached egg with choron sauce, homemade crumpets and asparagus,” he says. “I thought about how in Kerala we eat appam [rice and coconut milk pancake] and egg masala for breakfast, so I decided to do an Indian version.
Instead of boiling the egg, I poach it, and everything else is a traditional Kerala dish.” The egg is served on a rice pancake and covered in a masala sauce; in spring it is paired with seasonal asparagus. It is served medium spiced, like all the other dishes, but diners are presented with delicately spiced chutneys, with which they are able to increase the heat.
The most popular dish is also the most spectacular – the lamb handi ka sula. A traditional dish from Rajasthan, it’s a curry that features a distinct smoky flavour, having been cooked in an earthenware pot containing charcoal topped with ghee.
“My twist is to use a smoking gun,” Karnavar says. “I make a traditional lamb handi ka sula and put it through the smoke. This is served with pearl cous cous along with an aubergine bharta. They all take the smoke flavour. I add a pan-seared and roast fillet of lamb into that.” The dish is served under a clear cloche, which is removed at the table to release the smoke and add theatre to the experience.
With this delicate cooking and spectacular service, Karnavar is certainly doing his best to put Croydon on the culinary map, while also looking to expand into the capital with a second site on the cards.
“I have a dream to take Indian cuisine tothe next level,” he says. “Every day I believe we’re cooking better and better. There are still thousands of dishes to introduce to the market, and I’m determined to introduce them to a UK audience.”
From the menu
- Organic barley and beetroot chat: golden and candy beetroot, pearl barley, goji berries £6.90
- Scallops mango coriander: pan-seared scallops, spiced cauliflower purée, mustard mango salsa £12
- Dover sole mappas – Kerala: poached half dover sole, garden peas, potato and fennel, mappas sauce £18.50
- Rara mutton – Punjab: popular by Dhabas, roast rump of lamb, lamb keema, cumin potato, vegetables £15.50
- Ada pradhaman: chocolate fondant-style served with crunchy tuile £6.80
- Bebinca, Goan: Nutmeg layered cake, fresh pineapple, poppyseed crumble and vanilla ice-cream £5.90
62 South End, Croydon, Surrey CR0 1DP