Despite its Borough address, this tiny Indian is tucked away down an unexceptional side street and so doesn’t benefit from much passing trade. To hold its own against countless eateries thronging the main drags, plus those within ever-trendy Borough Market, a restaurant in this location would have to be exceptional, and Simply Indian is. What’s more, the locals know it – even on a weeknight, every table is taken with diners enjoying superior, sometimes surprisingly innovative dishes, pleasant service and more than fair prices.
You’d be hard pressed to squeeze more than 30 customers into what was probably once a domestic front room. The decor is non-scarily contemporary with grey and green walls, restored, wooden floors and modern, pendant, dimmed lighting. You might expect bare tables and paper serviettes in such a setting, but crisp white cloths and napkins add a touch of traditional luxury. The only neighbouring food outlets in the quiet, predominantly residential street are Chinese and pizza takeaways – the bustling centre of Borough could be miles, rather than a minute’s walk, away.
Groups of young friends or workmates and more mature couples account for the majority of the relaxed, animated clientele. The curtain-less windows and carpet-free floors mean it can become noisy at times. Customer turnover appears fairly rapid, although there’s no sense of being hurried. Service is friendly, informed and well-paced with only the occasional stumble.
The menu is substantial and full of treats you don’t find at the average curry house, like whole Dover sole, crab cooked in its shell, halibut and whitebait. Duck appears in many guises too, including as a filling for samosas (£3.20), although chicken and mixed vegetable equivalents are available for the less adventurous. The pastry is crisp, and the duck meat dark, rich and tender with subtle spice heat, whilst the accompanying, surprisingly non-sweet mango dip marries well. Sundal, also £3.50, is just-warm chickpea, mango and coconut salad, a popular street snack in the southern region of Chennai. The neat little mound predominantly comprises chickpeas and initially seems a bit worthy, but then all kinds of complex sweet, hot and sour flavours kick in to win the diner over. Crispy whitebait (£3.25) is unusual and moreish; a fabulously fishy, succulent and spicy bowlful of tiny fish.
From the bewildering array of mains comes the oddly-named jumbo king prawn patio (£7.90). Lest the name suggest a seafood and paved outdoor area combo, rest assured it’s merely four fine crustaceans in a mildly-spiced gravy that allows their natural flavour to take centre stage. All the vegetarian mains are £5.10 and are available as sides at £3.50. Okra is a difficult ingredient to get right but in bhindi dopiaza, the ladies’ fingers are al dente without any of the ghastly goo that comes with overcooking. Maybe this dish could do with fewer, or smaller, chunks of pepper and onion. It is only as the main course is delivered that diners are told sambhar, a south Indian vegetable and lentil curry, is unavailable – clearly this should have been mentioned earlier. However, a perfectly pleasant and correctly sloppy dall is soon rustled up in its place. As for accompaniments, there’s nothing to fault about the steamed basmati rice (£2.25) whilst a humble, plain naan (£1.50) turns out to be a high spot; outstandingly light, crisp and flavoursome.
This is assured and clever cooking with none of that oiliness that often mars Indian cuisine, and the portion size is well-judged. Even the desserts (all £3.25), so often an anticlimax in ethnic restaurants, are worth saving room for. Gajjar Ka Halwa – grated carrot fudge – arrives comfortingly warm and authentically sweet, whilst the punningly named spice cream is white chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate ripple and an intriguing backbeat of chilli heat.
No alcohol is sold at Simply Indian, though the smiling staff are most happy to provide glasses and openers for customers bringing their own. Why not forgo booze for once and enjoy a sweet, salted, vanilla or mango lassi, all £2.75, refreshingly yoghurt-y and served ice-cold in metal goblets? Juice combos (£1.60) include pear and apple, and carrot and apple. There’s elderflower or summer berries presse, still or sparkling water, alcohol-free beer and top-brand softies like Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta. Tea and coffee options (£1.80) are limited to cappuccino, latte and Americano, green or mint tea, and Bombay chai, India’s traditional milky tea, here infused with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.
The Last Word
Simply Indian claims on its menus to be one of London’s best kept secrets. This is, thankfully, balderdash: even on a weeknight, more than a decade since it first opened, there’s not a free table to be had. Bearing in mind that you’d be hard-pressed to spend over £20 a head (plus the cost of your BYO) on accurately-cooked, clever and unusual dishes, charmingly served in a pleasant environment, it’s no wonder countless cognoscenti feel it’s worth walking a few extra steps from Borough’s bustling centre.