Roasted vegetable salad and prawn curry served with a bap are not what you would usually expect from an Indian restaurant. Then again, Imli, in London's Soho and sister restaurant of the Michelin-starred Tamarind, is not exactly typical.
Executive chef Samir Sadekar says that the main idea behind Imli's innovative menu is to educate guests and "show that we do have light and refreshing things in Indian cuisine". That "light and refreshing" theme certainly applies to this bright, 140-seat restaurant, so much so that the words are used to describe one of the three sections of the menu, the other two being "new traditions" and "signature dishes".
Coming straight from Tamarind, where he was sous chef under Alfred Prasad, Sadekar wants to show a different style of affordable and authentic street food. However, he insists that there are some dishes for the diehard curry fan on his menu, including his keema pav - a sweet, slow-cooked, minced lamb dish simmered with spices and tomatoes (£4.75).
The pav served with this dish is a toasted bap. This traditionally British food item was taken to India during the Raj, then retained in the local cuisine as an accompaniment to curries. "It's the legacy of the British and is very authentic," Sadekar says.
The dishes, which he claims are "90% traditional and 10% modern", are not shoehorned into the typical starters-and-mains layout. Instead, the menu encourages sharing, and it suggests that three dishes per person, served when ready, are the equivalent of a two-course meal.
"The food is cooked exactly the way it is in India and is like street food," Sadekar says. This shows through in the pricing, which is a far cry from that at Tamarind. Two examples are bhel puri - a blend of puffed rice, cucumbers and roasted peanuts tossed with assorted tangy chutneys (£2.90); and banana dosa - sweet banana pancakes served with savoury chutney (£3.50).
The restaurant is aimed at customers willing to spend about £10-£12 on food and £3 on drink. The central Soho location makes this an ideal stop for local office workers and for tourists.
Sadekar is particularly keen to appeal to female customers, who often view Indian food as heavy and not suited to light meals, hence the introduction of his salads with an Indian touch, such as his bulgur bean salad - bulgur wheat, yellow beans and watercress tossed with a garlic lemon dressing (£2.90). There is also a lunch deal at £7.50 for a salad, one other dish and rice.
Ingredients you wouldn't expect to find on the menu do pop up from time to time, and always with an Indian leaning. Fennel appears in the roasted vegetable salad (£2.90), while cumin and turmeric mash and a cold avocado sauce are served with masala grilled chicken or beef (£6.50/£6.70). The mash is really a slightly Westernised version of the typically cubed and spiced potato found throughout southern India.
Imli chutney also appears on the menu - imli being the regional name for a tamarind.
Southern India provides the origin for most of the dishes, as that is where Sadekar trained. His favourite dish of southern lamb curry (£4.95) is one of the most popular on the menu and is made in the traditional way. Sliced onions are cooked with whole spices in a little oil before adding ginger and garlic paste. Tomatoes are then added, along with the lamb and coconut paste. The magic ingredient is two spices from southern India, kalpasi and marathi mugu, added fairly late so they don't lose their distinctive flavour.
Using authentic ingredients does create some supply issues, but Imli gets round these by asking members of its own staff and those at Tamarind to pick up some spices when they head back to India on holiday. The rest of Sadekar's unusual ingredients are picked up from specialist shops in London, including the jaggary used in his Indian caramel custard (£2.95).
Other desserts are a peculiar mix of Western and Indian staples, such as rice pudding with stewed prunes (£2.95), and confirm Sadekar's ability to surprise with his menu.
- Spiced potato cakes with ginger, chillies and imli chutney, £2.95
- Fruit chaat tossed in a tamarind and ginger dressing, £2.95
- Fried chicken wings coated in ginger, chilli and crushed pepper, £3.7
- Grilled tilapia fish with cumin and mint in a coriander pine nut sauce, £6.95
- Chicken haryali with cashews, coriander and green chilli sauce, £4.95
- Aubergine masala sautéd with fresh curry leaves and tomatoes, £4.75
- Carrot fudge, shredded carrots, melon seeds and raisins reduced in sweetened milk, £2.95
- Mango and basil sorbet, £2.95
Chef's tip "I couldn't live without the spices kalpasi [occasionally known as black stone flower] and marathi mugu, as they are used in all my favourite dishes."