Sleepy London outpost Sunbury-on-Thames now has a chic little Indian restaurant that would add zest to any high street in the capital. Rosalind Mullen sampled the menu
Chatting at a sunny table in his latest restaurant, Indian Zest, chef-patron Manoj Vasaikar suddenly confides that he's been developing a taste for European food - namely, blue-veined cheeses, and fish and chips.
Alarm bells might well ring. As a chef who has made his name in such progressive kitchens as Chutney Mary and Veeraswamy, he clearly takes a modern approach to his native cuisine. But panic not: while Vasaikar believes his dishes can make good use of British seasonal produce, he isn't about to launch some weird Anglo-Indian fusion menu.
"I try to get seasonal things, which I use in specials of the week. And I use British ingredients - why not?" says Vasaikar. "You can use any vegetables so long as you don't lose the basics, such as sauces and spices."
Indian Zest opened in February following the success of Indian Zing, which launched in Hammersmith in 2005, winning praise from tough critics such as Fay Maschler. Indeed, within a year, Square Meal had named it the Best Restaurant in West London.
No wonder, then, that Vasaikar has devised a similar, though shortened, menu for his Sunbury enterprise, again with dishes garnered from across the Indian subcontinent. Being outside London, however, it aims to give more value for money - with bigger portions.
The ethos of Vasaikar's menu can be traced back to his home city, Mumbai, where he reckons you can experience the gamut of Indian cuisines. He discovered a talent for cooking when he was rejected as a pilot and spent four years at a hotel school, followed by stints at international hotel companies in Mumbai. He was brought to London as deputy head chef at Chutney Mary by Masala World director Camellia Panjabi. Later he became head chef at Veeraswamy and went on to open Just India in Putney.
As the menu is regional, Vasaikar employs five regional Indian chefs. Unlike Indian Zing, he has a partner at Indian Zest, his front-of-house manager Bhanu Pratap, while he splits his time between the restaurants and acts as head chef.
Popular dishes include starters such as vegetable bhanavla (£3.50), which is a take on the traditional onion bhaji, and a version of nawabi lamb salli (£4.50), which is minced lamb with fresh fenugreek, mint, coriander and spices, stuffed with home-made cottage cheese.
Vasaikar notes that fish sells well - particularly the prawn and aubergine kharphatla starter (£4.75) and the main-course karwari fish curry (£8), which he describes as an unusual dish from the west coast that uses a spice, trifala, that is native to that area. And he singles out lamb dishes such as nilgiri lamb (£7), a hill station recipe using coconut, and ghatti lamb (£7) from the Sahyadri Ranges, which is a bit hotter.
"I keep educating people in a subtle way. My cooking is light, because I try not to use ghee, which is a saturated fat. I cook with vegetable oil instead," explains Vasaikar.
He finds authentic Indian spices and ingredients in the markets of Southall and Wembley. Duck comes from France but is served as duck Chettinad (£8.50), a Keralan-style dish with roasted coconut that is not often seen in the UK.
The wine list includes Indian wines from Sula Vineyards above Mumbai. The wine industry in India started only 10 years ago, and while Vasaikar admits that only a few wines stand up to the international market, he says they sell well.
So will there be more restaurants? Despite joking about registering up to four "Indian Z***" names, he is unlikely to open more in the near future. If he did, he says, it would be a simple restaurant, less intensive.
"A chef can't look after four restaurants," he reasons.
What's on the menu
- Bohri paneer samosa missal (£3.50) - Bombay's Bohri community paneer samosa served with whole black-eye beans and lentils
- Prawn and aubergine kharphatla (£4.75) - a medley of jumbo prawns and aubergine finished with a caremelised onion, tomato and pickle masala
- Mussel rasam (£4.75) - mussels simmered in tomato and tamarind broth with a prominent flavour of garlic and curry leaves
- Bujung biryani (£8.50) - a lighter version, made in the suburbs of Mumbai
- Jumbo prawns in pomegranate seeds and dill (£9.50)
- Khyber Pass raan (£8.50)
- Tandoori figs and organic apple muesli crumble (£4)
- Mango, roasted coconut and saffron kulfi (£3.75)
- Gulab jamun (£3.75)
•Indian Zest, 21 Thames Street, Sunbury-on-Thames TW16 5QF. Tel: 01932 765000. Website: www.indianzest.co.uk