The team behind Michelin-starred Trishna bring exceptional Indian food to a new Mayfair enterprise laid out like a British Raj gentlemen’s club.
Attention to detail is impeccable at Gymkhana, where plush leather seats in British racing green complement deep, dark wooden tables, walls and floorboards. Further wood is used for ceiling fans that spin languidly up above. Stag heads are mounted on the walls at random, as are clusters of picture frames – these hold original, aged photographs of colonial period cricket and hockey teams, as well as vintage illustrations of Indian sultans and dashing heroic figures in exotic clothing. From the glass panelled-booths to the marble-topped bar, and even down to the pull-chain toilets, the small venue is turned out so impressively and fits in to its prim and proper Albermarle Street setting very well indeed. A bar is nestled beneath discreetly and feels more regal than the restaurant upstairs, with rich-looking rugs on the floor and two vaults for intimate groups, with leather seats in a deep, emerald blue.
You can just as easily turn one direction and see friends tucking into informal curry and beers as you can look the other way to find a sophisticated couple quaffing a fine wine made to match headily spiced game chops. This is all down to Gymkhana’s relaxed setting – the playful colonial club theme allows for a laid-back evening if that’s your fancy, but the impressive service and respect for aesthetics means it can just as easily be an evening of fine dining. A lady at the front desk is dressed in a beautiful black lace sari with her belly exposed, and waiters tiptoe around with metallic trays elevated above shoulder height. Modern Indian sitar sounds complete the theme, although the occasional chanting sound or orgasmic wail in the throes of some tracks can steer you away from the thread of conversation at your table, but it’s more humorous than anything. All in all, it seems the team have transferred their successes in modern Indian dining across from Trishna in Marylebone, just as effectively as they have the fine food.
With Trishna racking up a Michelin star in 2012, there’s already a bit of a buzz about what’s on offer from chef Karam Sethi at Gymkhana. The menu is ideal for sharing, and a tandoor oven and charcoal grill make sure its Indian food as authentic as it comes in the capital. And with dishes that take their roots from Kerala, Goa, Amritsar and many more, there’s a real variety to what’s on offer, which is probably above and beyond the food dished up a the gymkhana clubs of yore. However, one dish on the ‘nashta’ starter or snack menu may sound more like pauper food to the uninitiated; but kid goat methi keema, salli and pao (£11) with the addition of bheja, goat’s brain, for an extra £3, is actually fit for a sultan. This is perhaps one of the most fragrant dishes to be found on the menu, with fried flakes of the offal-tasting bheja adding texture to an already thrilling minced meat mix.
Also good as a starter is gilafi quail seekh kebab (£12) served with a picked green chilli chutney that shouldn’t be applied too liberally to the meat since its fiery intensity builds with each bite. It makes a cracking accompaniment to the tender and moist sticks of gamey and herby meat. Mussels in a Keralan moilee sauce (£8) come with curry leaf and garlic naan, which is a good idea since there is so much of the subtle, creamy and coconut-tinged green sauce to go around. It makes the mussels so tender and full of extra flavour.
Not to be missed is a suckling pig cheek vindaloo (£18), a unique and intensely hot curry that can be amped up by a pesky red chilli lurking in the depths of the ruby red sauce. Chunks of meat flake apart perfectly and the heat of the curry is never too much but keeps you tantalizingly close to the edge at times. More subdued is a butter, pepper and garlic crab curry (£22), which is creamy and full of a perfectly strong garlic tang that rounds out the sweetness of the meat.
Desserts are not always as much of a success story with oriental dining, but the short, succinct menu cleverly fuses east and west with the likes of a crème brulee with jaggery sugar and black pepper (£7), for example. A rose kulfi (£8) in sundae form is really unique too, thanks to a delicate rose jelly base, tiny balls of tapioca and strands of vermicelli with basundi, a condensed milk, poured over the top. Or mango kheer (£7) is just as good, a comforting sweet rice pudding that tugs at the nostalgia strings perfectly, but pulls you back to India immediately with its heavy cardamom overtones.
You can definitely expect a mean gin and tonic at Gymkhana, be it fashioned from Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Hendricks, Sipsmith or Beefeater. But go one further and explore those gin-based cocktails. The Quinine Sour (£10) is an extended version of the classic G&T, with Tanqueray, tonic syrup, ginger and lemon, with an egg white froth and curry leaf on top. The Regiment (£12) is another brilliant fusion thanks to its thoroughly British marmalade flavour but a Bangalore whisky base courtesy of Amrut single malt – with its Champagne top, it’s a right royal treat. And in honour of India’s trade route past, punches are made with aplomb, including a Ruby Punch (£12) with port and green tea.
Wines are matched with expert attention from a sommelier who knows his spices, so much so that it can be quite illuminating to discover just how well a white Burgundy can wash down a fiery curry. And traditionalists are given the option of specially brewed beers, should a curry and lager be the only imaginable option – Gymkhana Pale Ale or Pilsner are on draught for £5.50 a pint.
The Last Word
Gymkhana takes you on an exhilarating culinary journey through India in a setting a whole lot less staid than the Mayfair postcode or gentlemen’s club theme would otherwise denote.