This trail-blazing Anglo-Indian restaurant is continuing to innovate and modernise. James Stagg pays a visit.
When it first opened 30 years ago on the King's Road in London, Chutney Mary was a trailblazer. Back then it was marketed as the world's first Anglo-Indian restaurant, featuring the likes of grilled lobster and Bangalore bangers and mash.
Some three decades on and the restaurant, since 2015 located in London's St James's, continues to redefine authentic Indian cuisine, reinterpreting traditional recipes to suit modern tastes.
Recalling the early days, Camellia Panjabi, who founded the restaurant with her sister Namita Panjabi and Namita's husband Ranjit Mathrani, says: "It was a leap of faith to open an upscale Indian at the far end of Chelsea, even though Chelsea had an interesting resident profile, ready to be experimental about a more sophisticated interpretation of Indian food."
Panjabi adds that the original restaurant offered an exotic and luxurious tropical atmosphere, with comfortable cane chairs and an intimate dining room. Its newest incarnation dials up the luxury, with a bar featuring an intricately tiled floor, colourful artwork and low-backed blue armchairs, leading into a 110-cover restaurant featuring wooden – rather than cane – furniture, along with textured walls and more bright artwork.
Menus are varied, with an à la carte accompanied by a business lunch menu offering two courses at £29 and three at £33, as well as a weekend brunch menu offering Parsi akuri (Indian-style scrambled egg with onion, tomato and green chillies) and masala soldiers, alongside a selection of grills and curries.
The food itself has evolved in three decades, though some dishes have stood the test of time. From the starters tokri chaat (£13) has been on the menu since those early days, though various chefs have brought their own take on the potato basket filled with "veg goodies", accompanied by delicately spiced yogurt and chutneys. It's a timeless flavour and texture combination.
"Every chef who comes every seven or eight years wants to look at the dish a little differently," explains Panjabi. "Maybe it's the taste of the chutney or what the basket is filled with. Over the years it has become more avant garde."
The venison samosa (£14.50) is another Chutney Mary staple. Instead of a sturdy pasty designed for transport, this delicate dish has been refined to focus flavour rather than heft, with rich venison held within a thin cone of pastry.
"We had a young chef who left four years ago who wanted to modernise it," Panjabi says. "He didn't want thick pastry, which was the tradition, as it was traditionally eaten on a journey. He said ‘we don't need all that', so we made a light pastry and left one side open. We also bake it to make it lighter, as people don't want fried pastry. We haven't been able to take it off since."
From the mains the Goan green chicken curry (£27), packed with herbs, chilli and tamarind, continues to be popular, Panjabi adds, as does the butter chicken (£24), which features thigh meat cooked in a spiced tomato sauce that has been caramelised and reduced for three hours to provide a rich and intense flavour.
Though Indian food is mostly shared, Panjabi is conscious that her diners often want variety without the need to dip into each other's dishes, so the restaurant serves a selection of personal combinations.
"What we find is that people don't want 15 mouthfuls of the same thing," she explains. "So instead of sharing we've created a concept of a thali, but translated into a western way."
The seafood mixed platter (£30) includes tandoor prawn, a halibut fish tikka prepared in a light dill cream marinade, and fish bhajis, while the mixed platter comes with golden fried prawn, Afghani chicken tikka and the celebrated lamb chops, which are marinated in ginger juice before grilling.
"Chutney Mary was the first Indian restaurant to serve dishes like this, so that everyone can have their own but with plenty of variety," Panjabi says. "We brought Indian food up to date."
We brought Indian food up to date
Though the menu is slightly pared down due to current circumstances, there are still 13 main courses and 12 starters on offer, with plenty of subtlety on show to accompany the fuller-bodied dishes. When it comes to complexity and confidence with spicing, there is certainly no compromise on the creativity that has delighted guests for three decades.
73 St James's Street, London SW1A 1PH
From the menu
- Spiced corn ribs: corn, lime butter, Bombay street masala £9.50
- Chicken chaat salad: tandoori chicken, gem lettuce, rocket, roasted tomatoes, avocado, asparagus £10
- Goan crab cake: flaked crab, achari raita, tamarind chutney £15
Grilled and seared
- Tandoori seabass amritsari £23
- Grilled lamb glazed with smoked kashmiri chilli, crispy potatoes, peppers £26
- Alleppey prawn curry, fresh turmeric, raw mango, chilli, coconut £28
- Kosha mangsho: Bengal lamb curry with boneless lamb and osso bucco £31
- Kerala roast duck: breast of Creedy Carver duck, date pickle, ghee-roasted potatoes £32
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