Alternative Indian cuisine is all the rage in the modern era and whilst those hoary high street haunts will always occupy a considerable slice of the market place, it’s clear to see that Indian chefs are becoming more and more ambitious, adding elegance, invention and artistry to otherwise familiar fodder. So for ardent and erudite curry connoisseurs The Painted Heron is a must. It’s everything you’d want from a contemporary Indian eatery.
There’s little chance of city stragglers happening upon The Painted Heron so unless you’re lucky enough to have bagged an apartment on Battersea Bridge or you’re aware of the reputation, the Heron is likely to hoard either locals with lavish lifestyles or curry fiends looking for a treat in town. The embankment opposite lends the venue a sense of grandeur as it casts rippling moonlit reflections in its waters and the fact that Cheyne Walk is slightly off the beaten track (a 30 minute walk to Battersea Park - the nearest train station) adds an air of exclusivity. As for the interior, it’s stripped back minimalism – white walls and tablecloths amidst a room that arcs and bends into unassuming apertures, whilst the artwork is simple, undemanding and even a little austere. Crucially, it manages to maintain a sense of splendor and sophistication without shouting from the rooftops and making an almighty fuss of itself.
As you’d expect, customers are generally of the suited variety and most are sure to have scaled the heights and visited many of London’s modish restaurants if their incessant, analytical tattle is anything to go by. Staff make light of this continuous critical analysis (albeit mostly favourable) by remaining predominantly unmoved for the majority of the evening. At first they appear one dimensional - subdued and even a little solemn but as time goes by they seem to gain in stoicism, nonchalantly nodding their heads at the right moments and intervening at convenient intervals during the meal. Theirs is a nuanced and measured approach and one that suggests complete confidence in everything that comes out of the kitchen.
Banish any thoughts of onion bhajis and chicken tikkas and prepare to embrace the elaborate treats on display on this savvy, streamlined menu. But for those feeling a little too out of their comfort zone and in search of some familiar favourites, there’s solace to be found in the Cobra beer battered wild soft-shell crabs which are fried in sesame and chilli (£8). The concept is more intriguing than the final product with only the merest hint of beer seeping through the brittle batter. Otherwise, it’s appetising, authentic stuff. The encrusted crab is fully formed with legs pointing every which way, the meat itself is soft and succulent and the batter is light and flaky and falls away when prodded or poked. It arrives with a lentil bowl with yoghurt and tamarind and pureed coriander dips to further heighten the tasting sensation. Squab pigeon breasts in hot and sour marinade (£7.50) are a real delight. The accompanying sweet apple and red grape sauce and chickpea, spring onion and salsa vinaigrette – that perfect combination of sweet and sour – serenades the moist, tender bird though it’s the unexpected burst of heat from the tandoor that really sizzles, forcing your palate to temporarily surrender to the ensuing explosion of flavours.
Choosing a main course may prove to be one of the trickier culinary decisions you could make, such are the enticing alternatives on offer. Veggies have little choice and have only a platter to choose from but for the rest of us the enjoyment may be soured by the knowledge that you couldn’t sample every dish on the menu. Guinea fowl supreme, diced venison korma and black tiger prawns and Scottish sea scallops in a hot and sour Goan curry are just some of the appealing courses on offer. Duck in pumpkin and tamarind curry (£14.50) is a simple yet satisfying delight. Again fusing the sweetness of the pumpkin and the sour spice of the tamarind – it’s a winning combination and enhanced by the tenderness of the duck. Skewers of game mixed with boneless pheasant, partridge, rabbit and venison in mushroom curry and served with masala roti bread (£16.50) threatens to confuse and over complicate things but is another triumph. It would take a hardened game aficionado to decipher the different meats on offer though doing would be beside the point. The meats mesh together whilst the roti adds a dose of rustic modesty to the mix – recalling that age old Indian tradition to eat with your hands. Aubergine and tomato chutney (£5) makes for an excellent side. It’s rich and fragrant as an array spices jump around your palate, jostling for attention. All rices and breads are £3.50 with the chilli and rosemary naan a particular highlight – it’s perfectly seasoned and pretty as a picture.
The oft lightweight and subsequently ignored dessert section on an Indian menu is given new life at The Painted Heron. It’s still on the small side but certainly an improvement. Chocolate and pistachio fondant (£5) abides by all the technicalities – a solid, fluffy base oozing goo at the moment of impact though it could have done with a little more heat in order to provide that oh so satisfying hot and cold combination. Sundae of mangos, strawberries, gulab jamun, pistachio ice cream, wild berries sorbet and chocolate sauce (£6) is another dish that sounds more complicated than it tastes. It’s the chunks of mango and the deep, rich chocolate sauce that sets it apart and makes it a better bet than the fondant though in truth it was never likely to top anything sampled in the starters and mains.
Aside from the Champagnes on offer which range from between £38 and £120, wines are half price on Sundays and Mondays. And there’s certainly plenty of choice. Whites span from French Cotes de Gascogne (£18), Pinot Grigio (£35) up to the Puligny-Montrachet (£98) whilst reds range from a £22 bottle of Chianti, an Italian Barolo for £36 all the way up to the Chambolle Musigny (£140). And after both lists there’s a new world section which includes reds and whites from far flung destinations like Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and the US. New world whites are priced between £23 and £72 and reds are £19 to £85. If you fancy a single glass it’ll cost £5 for either a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and the aforementioned Cotes de Gascogne (white).
The Last Word
For those not part of the Battersea bridge brigade, it’s well worth braving the bop from Battersea Park and indulging in some seriously good Indian food. And what’s great about this elegant establishment is that for all its culinary spark, fizzing flavour combinations and sassy sauces, it’s simple food at heart, exquisitely cooked and perfectly presented. So why not flash the cash for a special occasion, paint the town red and head to the Heron. You won’t regret it.