“Indian restaurants are all the same,” someone said to me once. And it’s true that you can go around the vast majority and see an identikit menu, though gone are the days of the flock wallpaper and sitar music. Nowadays Indian restaurants are keen to stand out from the crowd and present a modern face both in decor, service and dining.
But what differentiates a good restaurant from a not-so-good is generally the attitude of management and staff alike. Even for an identical description, dishes can be cooked with passion and flair or served up like slops from school dinners; the manager and/or owner can create a truly welcoming environment where staff are attentive to just the right degree, where everything is relaxed, comfortable and conducive to great dining, even if there are no Michelin stars in sight. Restaurants with the right attitude will attract you to return, but those that don’t will be forgotten in a trice.
The Star of India in Leytonstone is a prime example of a restaurant with the right attitude, and a few dishes out of the ordinary. It’s also a regular haunt of the friend who accompanied me on a Friday evening, she being on first name terms with the owner, Shah, and clocked by all the waiters who served us (always a good sign in any restaurant.) The good news is that even if neither of us had been there in our lives, the service and food would almost certainly have been just as good and the sincerity of the welcome would have been in sharp contrast to the artificial rictus smiles found at almost every chain you visit.
Shah is apparently a pillar of the Leytonstone community, a man who can talk the proverbial hind legs off a donkey – but he also has his finger on attracting a relationship with locals. Via his unusually well-designed website you can place orders online, you can see what events and offers are available, even find recipes in what amounts to a curry portal. In short, rather than being a marketing machine, the SoI is responsive to the interests of the community, which in my book deserves three cheers.
Once we were shown to a table and drinks were ordered, the next challenge was ordering, since my companion announced I was to have the pleasure of selecting food for both of us. This was daunting only in the sense that the menu is impossibly long and incorporates a raft of options that you could never combine in a simple meal for two with any hope of munching through. Over-ordering was always the bane of Indian dining, but unlike our American cousins we don’t ask for doggy bags. In the modern vogue, the Star of India chooses to compensate with adjusted portions that don’t over-fill the diner before they have ordered three courses and sides, of which more anon. My preference would be for shorter menus and more fresh specials, but this approach obviously works for the regulars.
Of the starters, I couldn’t decide between three dishes: my companion is the mushroom queen, so there had to be a mushroom dish specially in her honour, in this case mushroom chatt; the tandoori lamb chops are a weakness of mine, and what can be better comfort food than picking up the bone to gnaw off the remaining vestiges of lamby goodness? But then there was the aubergine and coconut dish too, highly tempting… nothing for it but to order all three to share, tapas style.
This was a roaring success, since all three were excellent, each accompanied by an unusually excellent dressed salad garnish, a far cry from the wilted lettuce leaf, tired tomato slice and perfunctory dried cucumber. By the salads alone I was impressed, slightly to my own surprise. Actually, the aubergine coconut dish was the best of the three. It worked far better than I could have anticipated, consisting of an aubergine shell filled with mouth-watering cooked shaved coconut – simultaneously lip-smackingly sweet and savoury – a hit!
The main courses, plus garlic nan and two rice variants, also impressed. The lack of a film of ghee helped, but lamb passanda and king prawn jalfrezi both stood out as well-crafted dishes. The lamb proved tender and the sauce avoided the temptations of being creamy but not overly sweet and sickly. The jalfrezi included chilli, but thankfully not huge clumps of birdseye chills replete with seeds. Some thought had been given to precisely how many seeds would make an acceptable trade-off between hot and tasty, and in this case the tongue tingle factor was about right – as were the big meaty prawns.
The good news is that the food was not what my good friend would normally have ordered, but evidently it the right spot with both of us, and more than that you cannot ask of any restaurant. We drew the line at desserts, but in the event I am back in this corner of East London then it would be a great pleasure to sample more of the delights found on the menu at the Star.
Thanks Shah – all power to your elbow!