Times may be hard but there’s still enough dosh swilling around the City to keep this atmospheric Indian busy. Maybe it even benefits from the economic downturn; City boys who once splashed out a ton a head on dinner now spend £35-£50 for a subcontinental feast and a drop of reasonable wine in this plush, crepuscular basement. Service is charming and the atmosphere is great but a few menu and cooking tweaks wouldn’t go amiss.
‘Anokha’ means ‘marvellous’ in Urdu, and this restaurant certainly strives for visual fabulousness. Both the ground floor entrance, in a narrow street in the shadow of the mighty Gherkin, and the basement dining room are a riot of Asian and Moorish styles and artefacts. This is somewhat confusing for a first-timer; why Thai statues and fretwork screens, why Moorish tiled floors in what is a purely Indian restaurant?
It’s a big room of up to 150 covers plus a substantial bar. The smart, masculine black and white colour scheme is rendered intimate by clever use of suspended ceilings, different floor levels and subdued lighting. Chairs are wide and comfortable, and tables sport proper white cloths and napkins.
Business lunches are the backbone of this establishment. Even so, on a Tuesday night at 8 o’clock, it’s about two-thirds full. Overwhelmingly, the customers are City boys still in striped shirts and suit trousers, their jackets and ties discarded after the day’s financial toil. Conversation is animated and relaxed but stops short of raucous.
Service is attentive and helpful, even slick, and regular diners are greeted with great enthusiasm. So dependent on City trade is Anokha that it closes on Saturdays and Sundays - nice work if you can get it.
The menu is mercifully short for an Indian, divided into categories including Old Favourites, Specialities, Tandoori, Vegetarian and Seafood Specials.
Crispness is an issue with the starters. King prawn puri (£7.75) features good, charred prawns in a subtle sauce with delayed chilli hit. But aren’t puris supposed to be crisp and puffy? This one is as soft and flat as an omelette. Two huge crab cakes (£7.95) are undeniably pleasant, with gentle crab flavour, delicate spicing and a similarly lovely delayed chilli hit but, again, a crisp exterior is needed to contrast with the comforting, mashed potato texture. A decent sized pot of sauce would help too, instead of the artistic, irrelevant, miniscule circle on the plate.
A lamb shank main (£14.95) is as big and tender as one would hope, with a rounded, tomato-y sauce with another of those delayed chilli hits of which the chef is evidently the master. Tandoori sea bass (£13.95) is a whole, huge fish, simply cooked with a little pot of sweetish sauce and an unadvertised, dressed, mixed salad. It’s delicious but barely seems Indian. Swap lemon rice (£4.25, no lemon flavour, odd suggestion of plastic) for sauté potatoes and you could be in a taverna on the Med.
Bhindi bhajee is simply shredded and just-cooked ladies’ fingers. It makes a perfect side dish (at £4.95) as its lack of spicing means it doesn’t fight the flavours of the mains. However, all vegetable sides are also available as mains (£7.95), and it would prove disastrously dull in that role.
Things plummet downhill with the arrival of the dreaded, laminated menu of pictures of obviously bought-in ice-creamy desserts (any lingering hope that some might be made in-house is extinguished when the waiter explains the unavailability of chocolate tart: 'We’re waiting for a delivery tomorrow.' Oh well, 10 out of 10 for honesty, at least).
Tiramisu proves to be nothing of the sort; it’s a biscuit base (a la a cheesecake) with ice creamy, Indian spiced topping. Pistachio kulfi has little flavour and that foamy, mass-produced texture instead of the deep, dense fudginess that makes this dessert such a treat.
We’re in the City, so even Indian restaurants offer half a dozen champagnes (from £44.95 up to Louis Roederer Crystal 2004 at £295). There are also 10 whites, eight reds and three rosés from £16.95 to £64.95. Two whites, two reds and one rosé are available by the glass which is just about an acceptable proportion these days. Wines arrive in appropriately sized glasses and at the right temperature, not a given at Indian restaurants.
Broken Rock Chenin Blanc 2010 from South Africa (£19.95 by the bottle only) is crisp, clean, and quite complex with tropical fruit. Shiraz GB65 2009 from Australia (£4.95-£19.95) is equally good with plums, red berries, soft tannins and a long finish. Even the obvious, entry level Rive Haute Merlot Tannat (£4.25/£16.95) is a hit.
There’s one dessert wine – Chateau Belingard 2009, £19.95 for a half bottle – but nothing by the glass. Beers are restricted to the predictable trio of Tiger, Kingfisher and Cobra. There are plenty of ports (at up to £10.50 a glass), cognacs, brandies and spirits.
The Last Word
Anokha is doing good business during difficult times so it’s hard to be overly critical. However, some of the cooking definitely needs a tweak. Puris should be puffy, fish cakes should be crisp, and vegetarian mains should be interesting. Most of all, take puddings seriously or don’t bother. There is, though, plenty to enjoy here, not least the attentive service and reasonable prices.