7-9 Paddington Street, W1U 5QU,
tel: 020 7935 3353
Cost per person without wine: £50
Anyone who has eaten at Benares will have a soft spot for its executive chef and owner, Atul Kochhar, who makes brilliant, inventive Indian food that made it the first Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star.
You might, though, look forward to Kochhar’s new baby, Colony Bar and Grill, which he co-owns with “the best host in town” Carlo Spetale, formerly owner of First Restaurant Group (The Ebury in Pimlico, the Waterway in Maida Vale). Colony is a completely different beast to Benares, and it is with a melancholic air that Spetale tells me that despite all intentions and efforts, Colony is being described as an “Indian restaurant”. Foodwise, I can see where people get the idea. Decor-wise, not.
On first glance it is chicly neutral with a dash of funky, and doesn’t look anything like either Benares or a curry house. The bar has great vintage-lite style furniture, big glassy windows looking out on Paddington St, and some palm plants. Look closer and you see art and sculpture reminiscent of southeast Asia – add to this the palms, the colours (beiges, brows, yellows), and the contours of the furniture, and you may start to make out the colonial element.
“We wanted to evoke the Raj,” says Spetale. He is talking about the clubs throughout the British colonies in Asia, with their elegance and breeziness, their men and women in linens and jewels, smoking, the heat hanging in the air. The bar achieves an elegance akin to such a setting, though I certainly wouldn’t be able to say for sure, being somewhat unfamiliar with the institutions of the Raj. The political implications of all this may be dubious, of course – but nobody seems to mind, least of all northern Indian-born Kochhar, so I’m not going to get hung up on it either.
Besides, I’m hungry. In the bar, there is colonial Asian “street” food, which Kochhar and Spetale are very excited about. Dishes such as calamari with chilli, garlic and yuzu dip, and chicken livers with chilli, cumin and ginger in puff pastry sound a treat (especially when taken with a “cool beer” as the menu advises).
But we’re here for proper dinner, and are led through to a dining room that is far less exciting a space than the bar. It’s dark, it says “fine dining”, with muted colours, the odd painting and understated, comfortable modern furniture. The room is a gloomy rectangle, and one rather wishes one were still in the spacious Raj-style chairs looking out the windows to the street. My poor guest had a view of the wall and an abstract painting.
But enough grumbling. The food arrived in a fast-paced parade of intense flavours, textures, styles and ingredients. The idea is sharing plates, and four to six dishes are suggested for two people. Yet we found we over-ordered. There was tandoor-glazed monkfish with crab vermicelli – a decadent dish whose charcoally fish was refreshed by the creamy crab. Falling off the bone in almost ridiculously melting strips were both mutton confit shoulder with caramelized onions and tomato, and roast fillet and cheek of veal, that had been slowly braised in its juices along with garlic, red chillies and white wine vinegar. There were coriander crisps in there somewhere but we had no time to find them, for we had lightly burnt nan bread to dip into the copious, brilliantly aromatic red fenugreek and honey-flavoured sauce that came with a chicken tikka.
There was also a pan-fried sea bass with ginger-infused coconut stew and garlic mash about which I remember nothing but that I enjoyed it. This memory loss is due to the overwhelming composition of the dishes. Each is a full party in itself, and there is so much going on within each plate and across the board too that your tongue and brain get quite confused, and you cease to process and appreciate what you’re eating to the degree that it deserves.
For all that, desserts were plainly heaven: crisp sesame tuille filled with home-made mango yogurt, mix berry coulis and yoghurt sorbet was a staggering blast of sweet fruity cream and crunch, while the home-made kulfi (a type of grainy Indian milk ice cream) “from the sub-continent” took on a divine form in the flavours of lychee, mango and pistachio.
I’d always rather have an overenthusiastic menu that is so excited with its many ideas and flavours that it confuses you a bit. Because at Colony, every bite, whatever it contains, and whatever you remember, is delightful.
Service is very smiley, very assured, and very good – we received good wine advice and were waited on like we were the only ones there. If Colony is anything to go by, the days of the Raj had much to recommend them.
IN A NUTSHELL:
Atul Kochhar’s new project is a bar and restaurant inspired by the clubs of the British Raj. The slinky, elegant bar serves great cocktails and posh Asian street food: move into the dining room for top notch, if slightly overwrought Indian-inspired food.