Tucked away at the bottom of a narrow City courtyard, this spin-off of Chelsea’s exemplary Indian, The Painted Heron, isn’t easy to find. It’s worth the effort, though, for modern, good-looking food in cool, slick surroundings at eminently reasonable prices.
A ground floor bar leads down to a basement restaurant, and both are the epitome of City chic with walls covered in black, grey, burgundy and red triangles, dark wood floors and moody lighting. Upstairs, sip a cocktail whilst perching on mauve stools; downstairs, choose from conventional tables and chairs or groovy booths (where a cushion or two to avoid numb bums wouldn’t go amiss). It’s a big restaurant but feels of human scale thanks to the clever way the 140-odd covers have been split into three distinct dining areas.
On a weekday evening soon after opening, there isn’t much, thanks to the dearth of fellow diners: in the heart of the City, it is always going to be easier to attract a crowd at lunchtime than at night when the whole area is pretty dead. Cool, ambient music mitigates for the lack of diners. Staff are efficient, informed and tirelessly eager to please.
If you’ve splashed out at posh parent restaurant, The Painted Heron in Chelsea, you’ll spot the similarities straight away; generously proportioned, artistically presented plates of innovative Indian food involving a fair amount of fusion are the order of the day.
The bar has its own snack list including a stunning bowl of nuts: peanuts, cashews and almonds come flecked with finely chopped red onion, tomato and coriander, boldly spiced, and with half a lime to squeeze over. Or opt for a row of shot glasses each containing a dollop of sauce, a cone-shaped poppadom and something lovely on a stick – tender, spicy chicken or marinated Indian cheese, for example. These are delicious but not easy to eat: you’ll certainly need the proffered napkins.
As for the restaurant proper, the placemat on your clothless table is also your menu, and offers nine starters, dishes from the tandoor (all available in starter size or main), dosas, vaguely Indian salads, low fat dishes, Thalis, big plates (including Indian fish and chips, masala burgers, Indian style folded pizza, and even Caribbean curried goat), a mix-and-match section (where you select a fish or meat, sauce, vegetable and rice), plus sides, carbs and puds.
As if that were not enough to induce a paralysis of indecision, there is also a separate, short menu of more expensive deluxe dishes borrowed from The Painted Heron, from which a pair of soft-shell crab fried in sesame and chilli Cobra beer batter (£8) disappoints. The crustaceans have been flattened, and appear more crumbed than battered. They are crunchy and well-seasoned but only now and then does any crab flavour get through.
From the main menu, paneer cheese tikka stuffed with pickled lemon and clotted cream (£5) is better but still not faultless. Three generous triangles of cheese are pleasingly crusty round the edges and soft within. Artistically arranged beetroot and coriander relishes cheer things up no end. The problem is the description: pickled lemon and clotted cream have been promised but prove hard to identify.
Onto the mains. From the deluxe menu, guinea fowl supreme stir fried with spring onions, masala and cottage cheese with potato naan (£14.50) is a hefty but elegant portion of tender meat on the bone with a creamy, warmly spiced sauce. The blandness of a little pot of cottage cheese and potato bread provide welcome contrast.
Back on the main menu, a mix-and-match combo of fish in a rogan josh gravy with chickpeas and spinach, and lemon a chilli rice (£9.50) also pleases. The haddock fillet is meltingly soft – perhaps too soft – whilst its sauce is rich, rounded and spicy. It sits upon an insanely generous portion of fragrant rice which would easily feed two. There’s a lovely, seedy, nutty little side salad.
Puddings, all £4.75, include Indian favourites like saffron rice pudding and kulfi and international staples like chocolate fondant and sticky toffee pudding. The kulfi is amusingly presented as a pair of ice “lollies” on sticks, decorated with drizzles of Technicolour sauces and chopped nuts. Both the mango and pistachio varieties are well-flavoured with that glorious sticky, dense texture that comes from slow-cooked condensed milk.
There’s a reasonable cocktail list with classics like Manhattans, margaritas, mojitos and Martinis (£7 - £8.50). The house special, Bangalore Indian Summer (£7.50), winningly combines Tanqueray Rangpur gin, coriander, lime, sugar syrup and ginger.
If having to choose between still and sparkling water is enough of a dilemma, brace yourself: here, there are two types of still and five sparklers, all at £3.50 for a large bottle. All the spirits, soft options, teas and coffees you would expect are present and correct.
As for vino, they’ve hit upon a novel idea, Flights of Wine (£12), in which you get three 125ml glasses, each containing a different example of the same wine variety (or three wines of different varieties the sommelier thinks go together). Taste and compare Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Shirazes, Malbecs, even sparklers (£18.50). The rose Flight is well thought through, starting with a bone dry Hungarian Pinot Grigio and working through to a fruity, medium offering from New Zealand. One slight drawback is that all three glasses arrive together (and with quite a flourish) so wine number three might have warmed up a little by the time you get to it.
The wine list proper features 11 whites, 11 reds, three roses, and seven Champagnes and sparkling wines, from £17 to £48. Most commendably, every one is available by the 175 or 250ml glass. Well-heeled oenophiles may wish to consult the list of 11 vintage Champagnes (top of the shop: Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2002, £290) or the short list of deluxe wines accompanying the deluxe dishes (£48 - £62).
The Last Word
This is the second branch of Bangalore Express. The first opened last year on Waterloo Road opposite Waterloo Station where it benefits from endless passing trade and is invariably busy and buzzy. The new branch ought to do well at lunchtime once word gets around City workers, but filling it for dinner is going to prove far more challenging thanks to the double whammy of its tucked-away location in a part of town which is all but deserted once the office workers head home. Let’s hope it makes it, for here is a chance to enjoy big plates of artistically presented, exciting, modern Indian cuisine in sophisticated surroundings for a fraction of what you’d pay at parent restaurant The Painted Heron over in Chelsea.