It's strange that Indian food is often considered to be too heavy to be eaten at lunch time. After all what do people in India do - run out for Sushi or a pre-packed cheese sandwich? Admittedly, it's perhaps not wise to practice your fire breathing skills if you plan to spend the afternoon making friends and influencing people. But then the same could be said for garlicky Mediterranean dishes, washed down with a couple of glasses of wine. - unless of course you're influencing them over lunch and they're enjoying the same.
At Tabla, a new Indian restaurant recently opened in
Manhattan on the Thames just by Canary Wharf there was a surprising amount of
people happily under the influence; a trio of bright young things at the next
table pitching for some dot.com capital and a whole party of affable,
cobra-chugging Garys at the next. If this is a business lunch, then sign me up.
The restaurant is in the graciously proportioned former Dockmaster's House, unmistakable due to the pungent, exotic scents drifting across the road as you approach. It's set in a large walled garden complete with weeping willows where, optimistically, they plan to barbecue at the weekends, weather permitting.
The main restaurant is on the ground floor - a flock-free Dulux white room with elegant windows overlooking, through fronds of sobbing greenery, the brutal concrete facade of the cinema complex opposite. We arrived early - the schlep from West London taking much less time than anticipated, but there were already eager diners munching away in the corner. Our waiter, detecting my invisible microchip, led us immediately to the table crammed in the corner beside the service station. Honestly, it's like some sort of Masonic handshake - the secret sisterhood of sit-me-next-to-the-silverware, please.
There's nothing like a duff seat to bring out my inner Amazon, not - admittedly - that mine is so very deeply buried. We moved to the window and enjoyed warm poppadoms, damson chutney (including stones - so watch your fillings, lest you think they're almonds) and pink pickled onions which my husband, bless his short-sighted eyes, thought were lychees. I merrily popped the garlic cloves with lime into my mouth like peanuts - I am garlic breath, hear me roar.
The menu is impressive and tempting - albeit with a few worrying Anglo-sounding concoctions like smoked salmon samosas. Otherwise there is a wide range of tandoori and biryani dishes, all a par above your local take way in flavour, ingredients and price, but nothing too contrived. Currently, for example, they're serving Goan style haddock (okay, I know it sounds like a contradiction in terms) with a hot and spicy sauce, black lentils slow cooked with cream and a salad of chicken with moong lentil shoots, but don't get too excited - the menu is due to change soon.
For the sake of simplicity and impossibility of choice, we had the specials - all of them: two properly plump spinach and potato cakes that had actually been formed by a human hand somewhere in the vicinity, then pan fried, and crayfish served with a South Indian 'rasam' relish that tastes like a sort of concentrated fish broth. Not food for the fastidious, lots of peeling, crunching and dipping - splashing rasam relish all over the tablecloth and your neighbour's Paul Smith tie.
Thankfully he took it rather well.
We followed with some swordfish smeared with a lime chilli paste, then steamed in banana leaf, and a biryani. The latter arrived underneath a bread crust in an earthenware pot, with chunks of fragrant chicken tikka hidden like lucky dip prizes in the depths of piping hot spiced rice. Wonderful. There two side dishes were a sweet rich orange mash of pumpkin with molasses and tamarind, and a blow-your-socks-off (if indeed you were wearing any with your Gucci loafers), mixture of root vegetables. The accompanying dill paratha was also delicious.
I have a lowish threshold for hot food - in this, if nothing else, I tend towards the mild, so my spice-ometer readings may be lower than the norm. Yes, I've been to Southall Market, and done the package tour to Goa - but at heart, I'm still a one-chilli symbol on the menu person. Thankfully everything here was well within my wimp limits, and unreservedly, enthusiastically, refreshingly bloody/italics/, bloody good.
We shared a portion of cardamom and cracked pepper ice cream - not quite as good as those made by Hill Farms and available from all good delicatessens, but undeniably home made and the perfect ending. Then, since long boozy lunches tend to bring on that playing truant in the middle of the day feeling, we married people who do it cinematically, came out and saw a film.
For a meal that is lighter on the pocket and the digestion, Mela by Cambridge Circus in Shaftesbury Avenue (tel 020 7836 8635) does a range of incredibly cheap (under £5), spicy bread based snacks at lunch time. It's also conveniently situated near a multitude of cinemas for playing post prandial hooky. Furthermore, if you breathe heavily you can be sure of having the back seat, nay the whole theatre, all to yourself.