A taste for the unusual, such as introducing game and offal to old Colonial club food, elevates this Mayfair Indian restaurant from merely intriguing to sublime. Neil Gerrard reports
"Would you like some goat brain with that?" is not, for better or worse, a phrase you hear often on the UK restaurant scene.
They'd find a nicer way of phrasing it, but it is the type of question you could conceivably be asked in Gymkhana on London's genteel Albemarle Street, the latest venture from restaurateur Karam Sethi, who also runs Michelin-starred Trishna.
Goat brain, or bheja, as it is properly described, is available as a £3 extra to go with the kid goat methi keema, salli, pao (£11). It is just one of the unexpected twists to a menu based on the type of food typically available at colonial Indian gymkhana clubs, set up at the time of the British Raj.
Sethi, who opened Trishna with his brother in 2008, has previously worked at Zuma and trained at the Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi, and says the new venture was inspired by his regular trips to Delhi every summer holiday as a child, and later on food tasting trips as an adult.
That may have been the inspiration, but Sethi has taken it to the next level, modernising dishes and introducing British ingredients; in particular, British game.
So instead of the usual chicken, lamb or fish you might find in a traditional Indian dish, Sethi has experimented. The seekh kebab with pickled green chilli chutney (£12) therefore uses quail, while the pepper fry (£10), a typical â¨Keralan dish, includes partridge instead of the more run-of-the-mill proteins.
Sethi has been able to source many of these meats from theâ¨network of suppliers he has established while running Trishna. But when it comes to dishes that use venison, such as the Achari wild roe deer, mooli pickle and roe deer keema naan, part of the five-course £65 game menu, he has had to look elsewhere. Both roe deer and muntjac are supplied by the Harwood Game Company, â¨co-founded by Harwood Arms â¨co-owners Mike Robinson and chef Brett Graham.
The best-selling dish at the 100-seater restaurant is another â¨to use the Harwood Game â¨Company's produce: the wild muntjac biryani, pomegranate and mint raita (£25).
The seasoning and flavouring of the dishes is notably delicate and balanced, and Sethi says â¨he likes to take the same approach as is used in home cooking. â¨"It is never too over-powering or heavy. The main ingredient inâ¨a dish should really stand out."
As for that goat's brain, it was a controversial choice, but one which Sethi had faith would go down well. "I have always liked brains and I was kind of warned against putting it on the menu - would people be receptive to it? But people love it," he says.
"Brain is a very popular dish in India - you see it in street food quite a lot. A lot of people do keema with kidneys and livers, â¨so I thought, let's try it withâ¨bheja. The liver and kidneys are really strong and offally in taste, whereas the brain is more creamy and kind of melts into the keema."
Those bold decisions and a modern approach has led to the creation of something markedly new and different, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by the critics, whose reception of Gymkhana has been overwhelmingly positive, including a rare five-star review from London Evening Standard writer Fay Maschler. More recently, The Times critic Giles Coren called it "thoroughly awesome" and awarded the food 10 out of 10 (see page 19).
All that has helped in ensuring that Gymkhana, which is open from Monday to Saturday, is fully booked most days, with 50 for lunch (when the lower floor is closed) and 120-140 for dinner.
What does Sethi, who says he is "humbled" by the reaction, attribute Gymkhana's early success to? "Over the last couple of years â¨people have been a little bit too obsessed with concepts and â¨restaurants have maybe become too concept-led," he says. "Butâ¨I think if you just go back to the basics with good food, good â¨service and good ambience, you can't really go wrong."
Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London W1S 5JH
Tel: 020 3011 5900http://www.gymkhanalondon.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">www.gymkhanalondon.com
Sample dishes from the menu
Amritsari shrimp and queenies, dill chutney £11
Masala peanut and â¨lotus root chat £3.50
Nashta Keralan moilee mussels, â¨curry leaf and garlic naan £8
Gol guppas, jaljeera, potato, sprouting moong £5
Kebabs & tikkas Paneer tikka, cashew nut,â¨corn chat £8
Tandoori broccoli, â¨green chilli raita £7.50
Curry & biryani
Suckling pig vindaloo £18
Goat raan, masala â¨tandoori potato, cucumberâ¨and cumin raita £75
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