Monday, March 12, 2012

Veeraswamy: London's Oldest Indian Restaurant

Opened in 1926 by Edward Palmer, the great-grandson of the private secretary to the 18th century governor-general of India, and a beautiful Indian princess, Veeraswamy is the oldest surviving Indian restaurant in the United Kingdom. Originally named 'The Veerasawmy' in honour of Palmer's grandmother, the restaurant acquired a new name in 1934 after a printer's typographical error on a menu. Located where London’s fashionable Regent Street meets Swallow Street just up from Picadilly Circus at 99-101 Regent Street, Veeraswamy is accessed by elevator from the discreet entrance off tiny Swallow Street.

Veeraswamy's fabulous jewel-toned interior

Recognized by critics and loved by stars, Veeraswamy has long been a favourite for lovers of Indian cuisine from around the world, as well as the rich and famous, with notable diners including King Gustav of Sweden, Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, King Hussein of Jordan, Marlon Brando and many others, including myself. My favourite Indian restaurant for years, making reservations at Veeraswamy is one of the first things to do in my itinerary whenever I'm in London.

Veeraswamy's vibrant interior

Decorative light fixtures, sculptures and Maharaja's turbans accent the room

A glittering oasis of fine Indian cuisine, Veeraswamy is chic and glamorous with an exotic decor evoking Maharajas' palaces of the 1920s, with silver painted ceilings, glittering latticed screens, a sea of Moghul carpets which line the dark wood floor and an original 1920’s Venetian chandelier from when the restaurant opened in 1926. Delicate crimson rose petals are lightly scattered on each table, and elegant wine glasses reflect the room's deep jewel-toned scones and vibrant colours of silk Maharaja’s turbans that line the walls. Everything is so beautifully appointed, stylish and sexy — even the menu shimmers. Along one whole wall large palladian-style windows offer great views over Regent Street, but the real star of this show is the stunning cuisine.

Veeraswamy's bank of Palladian windows overlook Regent Street

Dinner guests are treated to a flurry of vibrant red rose petals that accent every table

Culinary legend Camilla Panjabi, works with Chef Gopal Kochak and a team of regional cooks, each producing their own specialities from their native cuisines, and in some cases, creating innovative variations of traditional dishes from India's northwestern frontier to the tropical shores of the Indian Ocean.

Veeraswamy's head chef Gopal Kochak

Camellia together with sister Namita Panjabi and Namita's husband, Ranjit Mathrani, are the owners of Veeraswamy, part of the hugely successful restaurant group Masala World, the empire which includes some of the best Indian restaurants in London: Chutney Mary, Amaya and three Masala Zones. The restaurants all offer a different style of Indian cuisine. Chutney Mary, in Chelsea, serves dishes from diverse regions, while Veeraswamy focuses on food from the north and west of India. Michelin-starrred Amaya in Belgravia, is based around ancient grill techniques, while Masala Zones are hip cafés offering popular street food and thalis for less than £14 a head. 

Raj Kachori – puffed puri filled with lentil dumplings, potatoes, chutney and sweet yoghurt
and topped with pomegranate seeds

Veeraswamy Mixed Fenugreek and Beet Bhajis

Veeraswamy's menu focuses on classical dishes from the Royal Courts as well as dishes baked in tandoors from the North West frontier, such as Nizami Murgh from the Royal kitchens of Hyderabad, which is a fragrant dish of chicken breast and koftas with pine nuts, lemon and rose petal; Kashmiri Rogan Josh, an intensely aromatic curry with small shanks of lamb, saffron and cockscomb flower, as well as serving specialties from the coastal regions of Maharashtra, Goa, and the Malabar Coast, which produce some of the most seductive seafood dishes in the world. Dishes such as Malabar lobster curry with fresh turmeric and unripe mango, Mussels Moilee in an aromatic ginger sauce, and Sea Bream Paturi, a Bengali classic of steamed fish in a banana leaf with a chilli and mustard sauce. 

Slow Roasted Duck Vindaloo, made from a Goan recipe

Moong dal Tadka with spinach leaves and Naan

Kerala Prawn Curry with coconut kokum flowers from Kerala

Chicken Mahkani - chicken tikka in classic Delhi sauce

Hyderbadi Biryani is one of the original recipes served in the restaurant — softly marinated lamb layered with rice, tightly sealed and steamed perfection with all of the spices and flavors permeating the meat and the rice. Other favourites include Rogan Josh which is served on the bone in a silky, saffron-laced gravy, and Barbary Duck Vindaloo slow roasted with a fiery finish. Grilled prawns with coriander, mint and chilli are also unmissable. The naan are warm, fluffy and buttery, desserts are creative confections like tandoor-roasted nectarine, and the wine-matching, like the service, is consistently excellent.

Camellia Panjabi's inspiring cookbook - 50 Great Curry's of India

Credited with introducing regional Indian cooking to the UK, Veeraswamy's Camellia Panjabi is a legend throughout the culinary world. Many chefs in both Europe and India have reason to be grateful to Panjabi. She mentors her cooks, and those who embrace her philosophy — no pre-prepared sauces, no frozen food, and all spices ground to order — are given unparalleled opportunities. "I often lend my chefs to European restaurants, so they can learn about French and Italian dishes, and they in turn teach those chefs about Indian food," says Panjabi. "Many of my chefs are now working in top-class restaurants all over the world." Her best-selling cookbook, 50 Great Curries of India, which has sold over a million copies, is a modern classic for Indian food lovers and an indispensable cookbook in my own personal library at home.