Taste of India is located on Drummond Street, among the roads behind Euston Station. Drummond Street is lined with Indian restaurants, of which further mention is made in my forthcoming blog on London Lunches. To survive in this competitive environment you have to be good and find ways to attract the punters to your place instead of many other options, as witnessed by the excellent £6.95 lunchtime buffets available.
In this context, when I went for an after-work drink with a good friend, knowing we would be choosing one of the restaurants along this road to eat afterwards. I expected to head for one of the Keralan-inspired vegetarian, having agreed with my friend that she should have a taste of the South Indian delicacy, the dosa.
For your information, a dosa is a pancake made from rice flour, filled generally with spiced veg such as potato, and served with coconut chutney and the rich and spicy condiment that is sambal. It is also delicious, but since UK restaurants serving food from the Indian subcontinent are dominated by Bangladeshi, Pakistani and north Indian/tandoori styles, southern Indian specialties are harder to find. Using the clay oven makes a huge difference to flavour, so there is no substitute if you want a taste of northern end of the subcontinent, but “Indian restaurants” are now diversified into regional specialities (see my review of Kayal, for example.)
Anyway, back to the point at issue. Two factors made up our minds over which restaurant to choose: people handing out 20% off vouchers in the street, and the fact that although the core of ToI’s business is of the typical curry house genre, they do also serve dosas!
From the outside ToI is designed to attract, being newer and plusher decor than most of nearby competitors, though it has to be said that some of the shabbiest premises I’ve tried have resulted in the best food, so never judging by appearances can be a good motto. That notwithstanding, the place was fairly humming even quite early on, and with a varied audience too – some undoubtedly attracted by the discount.
We chose a varied selection from the menu: a saag paneer dosa (spinach and home-made Indian style cottage cheese for the uninitiated), mixed shashlik (kebab cooked in the tandoor), channa masala (chick peas in a spicy gravy) and bindi bhaji (okra or ladies’ fingers in a different spicy gravy, not deep fried street snacks like those made with onion), plus garlic nan and pilau rice, most of which my friend had never tried but ended up enjoying greatly. Best of all, she adored the mango lassi, which is now widely available in supermarkets, can easily be made at home and is occasionally made fresh by restaurants.
In the sense that most of these dishes are relatively easy for a competently set up kitchen, you would expect nothing less than enjoyment, but the real test of whether a dining experience is a success depends rather more on whether product and service are orchestrated to deliver a memorable experience, the stuff that memories are made of. Done right, the occasion and the company will be all that matters, while the mechanics of restaurant operational processes will be practically invisible.
With my reviewer hat on, the reason I like restaurants like Indians is that they are cottage industries, making dishes from scratch using fresh ingredients (and almost every ingredient is now available fresh from every corner of the globe). They might occasionally use canned ingredients (such as chick peas and tomatoes), but you can be assured they make up their own spice mixes, and you really can tell the difference in the subtle layering of flavours (never just buy anything labelled “curry powder” – make up your own mix of fresh spices and you’ll never do it any other way!) Even chains stick by their principles, which you could not say of the many chains that churn out factory-made produce with no love or passion.
My abiding memory of the food and service of Taste of India was that while they made have created a menu mixing up some of the regional variations, somebody did indeed love and care for the dishes served; that the service was moderately slick but sufficiently relaxed that we did not feel pressured; and that the experience was pleasurable and all the better for 20% discount.
Would I go there again? Sure! However, I may try the other restaurants of Drummond Street first, since I feel quite certain they set equally high standards and do a fine job in catering for the discerning diner with quality foods, lovingly served. If they can make even buffets a special experience, they are bound to be on to a winner!
Oh, and the dosa? It was excellent, even if they broke with tradition by offering some meat fillings!
PS. Less than a week later and I was back at Taste of India. A member of my team was leaving and had chosen the buffet lunch as the way to mark her departure. It was the same price as other buffets on Drummond Street, differed through the inclusion of a couple of meat curries, and was excellent value.