When Chutney Mary launched 20 years ago, it made a splash not only among Indian restaurants, but in the industry as a whole. Tom Vaughan looks at how the last two decades have influenced the menu.
A lot has changed on the Indian restaurant scene since Chutney Mary first opened its doors on London's King's Road 20 years ago.
At the time it was one of a few restaurants - alongside the likes of Kensington's Bombay Brasserie - to showcase the possibilities of fine-dining Indian food to a public more used to bog-standard balti houses. Since then, London restaurants such as Benares and Tamarind have picked up Michelin stars, while refined venues such as 2009 arrival Trishna continue to spring up in the capital.
When it opened, the 150-cover restaurant's fresh pan-Indian cuisine, with its heavy emphasis on seafood, swiftly built a legion of loyal customers - which it has steadily maintained.
Camelia Punjabi, group director of Masala World, the group behind the restaurant, says the key has been a refusal to compromise on authentic Indian flavours.
"We want to keep the flavours intact - we don't mess around with dishes by trying to change the spice level," she says.
"It'd be like playing jazz but changing the octave for no reason. You have to be relentless about the taste you want and the ingredients that you use to create it."
The menu, which changes with the seasons on the first of every month, is a mix of the dishes that have made Chutney Mary such a hit with punters over its lifespan, alongside new creations showcasing the constant innovation in the restaurant's kitchen.
One of the menu's star items is the tokri chaat (£8.50), a dish rooted in Indian street food but refined to fine-dining standards, which has been on the menu since day one. Served in a crispy potato basket, the dish contains classic street food items - stewed lentils, chickpeas and chaat potatoes - served with yogurt and pomegranate.
"It's a play on flavours of sour and spicy," explains Punjabi. "That's what street food is all about."
A recent dish that has made a splash on the menu is tandoori sea bass (£9.50), an item that encapsulates the fresh, seafood-orientated cuisine that first drew the public's attention to the restaurant.
A dish that you wouldn't find in India, says Punjabi, it is the creation of head chef Siddharth Krishna and a perfect example of the restaurant's ethos of combining refined Indian cooking techniques with the best of British produce. Marinated in lime, it is part-baked in the tandoor oven, removed, coated with cracked pepper and coriander seeds, and then returned to finish cooking.
This commitment to English produce results in unique takes on classic Indian food. For example, the kitchen uses duck rather than lamb for a starter of melt-in-the-mouth galouti kebab (£9.25), and serves it with a sweet, sticky blueberry chutney.
Meanwhile the quality of new season British lamb means the tandoor-cooked lamb chop starter (£14) is more tender than any equivalent you'd find in India, where goat is the pre-eminent meat.
"In India, the higher you go up the gourmet pyramid, the softer the meat becomes," says Punjabi. "The best meat dishes will be the tenderest."
Elsewhere, a main of Goa green chicken curry (£16.50) has been on the menu since day one and - with its balance of zingy spice - is understandably popular. Years ago, the kitchen's flirtation with removing it resulted in countless phone calls and complaints.
It's accompanied by a knockout Rajasthani aloo (£4), with crispy potatoes that are parboiled, cooled and fried, and a green apple raita (£4) that once again takes an Indian staple (it's served with pineapple on the subcontinent) and reinterprets it with English produce. Monkfish biryani (£19.50) is just one of a host of seafood dishes, with scallops, lobster and king prawns also on the menu.
The desserts are something of a mirror of what goes before. Western palates struggle with the sweetness of India's dairy-heavy desserts. So while the rest of the menu takes classic Indian dishes and tweaks the ingredients to give a dish roots in the UK, the dessert menu takes classic Western sweets and adds an Indian flourish.
Baked Alaska (£6.75) boasts a citrus middle while the meringue contains a touch of pepper, and crème brûlée is spiced gently with garam masala (£6.75).
Kudos to Chutney Mary - it is quite some achievement to remain, after 20 years, at the forefront of a sector you helped revolutionise, and which has rapidly evolved.
http://www.chutneymary.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Chutney Mary
535 King's Road
London SW10 0SZ
Tel: 020 7351 3113
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
• Crispy rock shrimp with lime and chilli chutney, £11
• Goa-style calamari, £10.50
• Nizami Seekh kebab, £8.50
• Slow-roasted lamb shank in a blend of 21 spices, with coriander mash, £19
• Butter chicken masala, £16.50
• Handi korma, £19
• Dark chocolate fondant with cinnamon, £6.75
• Gulab jamun, £6.75
• Peach tart, £6.75