All over the country, people are eating. They’re putting food in their mouths and grinding it into a paste for their digestive tracts to deal with at a later date. In lots of cases, they’re not even preparing the food themselves – they’re paying someone else to do it in “restaurants”. You might have noticed some of these popping up in your local area. There are, apparently, more restaurants in the UK today than there are pubs (27,500 to 26,700 and counting). We’re all at it, gazing into each other’s eyes, masticating together like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
There are many different flavours of restaurant – one of the most popular right now is the Indian flavour, of which there are absolutely heaps. Until recently Indian restaurants were looked down upon by the restaurant world, which still thought French cooking was ace (the first Michelin star awarded for an Indian restaurant, for instance, came as late as 2001). Now literally nobody eats French food and curries are without doubt the most exciting thing you can put in your mouth.
Which brings me to Chutney Mary, which is both a very old restaurant and a very new restaurant. Until the summer it nestled at the Fulham end of the King’s Road, where it had been quietly impressing the locals since 1990. A little too quietly, in fact, for owner Ranjit Mathrani, the curry entrepreneur with almost a dozen restaurants to his name including Veeraswamy on Regent St and Amaya in Belgravia. So Mathrani tore Chutney Mary from its moorings and set it down on St James’s Street, subsuming the original restaurant into his Masala Zone chain, lest there be any doubt over where his priorities lie. Uprooting the best restaurant in your group and plonking it within spitting distance of Gymkhana, the best Indian restaurant in the country, is called putting your money where your mouth is. It’s inevitable the two will be compared, and inevitable that Gymkhana will come out on top, which is a bit unfair because they’re really very different types of restaurant.
Where Gymkhana is cool and understated, Chutney Mary is flamboyant and in your face. Where Gymkhana sticks rigidly to its Maharaja gentleman’s club vision, Chutney Mary is happy to pluck influences from across the sub-continent. One is the place to eat curry, the other is the place to be seen eating curry. Even the waiters at Chutney Mary have swagger. On Monday evening the place was packed – I had to wait until 9pm to get a table. Good luck trying to book on a weekend night.
The dining room, which is split into two sections, is long and low. At the front is a relatively airy lounge bar, where some very good Indian-inspired cocktails are shaken (the chilli Margarita is particularly good). Further in is the main dining room, which takes visual cues from provincial curry houses – floral carpet, shiny tiles, decoratively placed pots – but makes them look chic and relevant. The low ceilings hold onto noise like an echo chamber, making the place feel even bigger and busier than it already is.
The lighting is what you’d charitably call atmospheric. How well you can see what you’re eating is down to pot-luck: the spotlights above me were well positioned but the table next-door resorted to using an iPhone to illuminate the menu.
The food is mostly excellent. Even in high-end Indian restaurants, the menu alone is rarely enough to excite, but Chutney Mary has a good selection of unusual dishes to pique your interest. Cornish crab in garlic butter, for instance, was perfect: simple but masterfully balanced, avoiding the pitfall of overpowering the delicate meat. The Afghani chicken tikka was even better, impossibly tender, its dry sauce full of cardamom and garlic and a hint of mint. Venison samosas were beautifully presented, the plate decorated with pretty blobs of tamarind and date chutney, but they were as heavy as the sun, dripping with oil, and the kick of chilli was a little too fierce – “It’s halfway to being a mince pie,” said El Pye. Chargrilled Jaipur lamb with a cucumber and mint dip was very good – fat and full of flavour, although £11.50 for two pieces is a bit of a mugging.
But then everything here is mouth-gapingly expensive. Being seen at Chutney Mary is a privilege that doesn’t come cheap. My lobster biryani, for instance, cost £38. Granted there was a lot of lobster in it, and also granted it was delicious, but brace yourself for an outrageous bill. Four starters, two mains and a reasonable selection of sundries came to well over £200 (beers at £8.50 a pop quickly mount up).
I can still remember my father complaining about getting a bill for £50 in a curry house in Manchester, and that was for four of us. I can’t imagine many of Chutney Mary’s clientele batting an eyelid at their three- or four-figure bills: can there be a greater testament to how far Indian food has come?