By Victoria Brown Ma Anthropology of Food
I had a hankering for Indian recently; I hadn’t had a good curry for a long time. Anyone who lives in London knows that finding a good curry in Brick Lane is like finding a guilty pickpocket in Chandni Chowk and I haven’t the time or inclination to venture down to Tooting on a lunch break. So what about the little enclave near Warren Street station? There are certainly plenty of options, but it turns out that finding a good one is a challenge. In fact the best I’ve found is in Soho at The Red Fort. It may well be the best I’ve ever had.
The food at the Red Fort is delicate and refined. A starter of spinach and cheese patties encased in fenugreek seeds was mild to taste and elegantly presented, the oozing cheese centre nicely contrasted with a crisp, fried exterior. Minced lamb skewers, so often tough and overcooked, were remarkably tender and the kick from the chilli was well balanced with a cooling tamarind and onion salsa. The Hyderabadi Bhuna Gosht, a curry of Herdwick lamb, was cooked long and slow to melting tenderness, with ginger, garlic, coriander and chilli.
The Red Fort is in the Michelin guide and the prices on the a la carte menu reflect that, but they do a set menu, which is a steal at £15 for two courses or £18 for three. Perhaps a little more than your average Indian feed, but the portions are substantial and the quality far surpasses anything else I’ve had in London. Sadly, we couldn’t manage dessert.
In the little enclave near Warren Sreet there are two cheaper options worth a visit. Ragam does great dosas – crispy pancakes made from rice and lentil flour – with a range of fillings. The rest of the food was disappointing, but a filled dosa would be more than enough for lunch and a good price at £5-7. If you are after a big feed at a low price, then the restaurant at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel is your best bet. A fish curry, two vegetable sides, rice, pickle and a chapatti cost me £8.80 and could easily have fed two. Fish curry was a bad choice on my part. It had been sitting in a bain-marie under hot lamps for rather a long time so the fish was dry and overcooked. Still, the sauce was tasty – hot and tangy – so I mopped it up with my chapatti and pushed the fish to one side.
The catalyst for my search was a Sainsbury’s curry; an inexcusable error for a foodie, I know. I didn’t go into Sainsbury’s with the intention of buying a curry, but it was a miserable rainy day and the smell of warming Indian spices slapped me around the face and dragged me over to the hot food counter. Silly me, I know very well that all you have to do is chuck some cumin seeds in a pan to get much the same aroma, but I was cold and very hungry so I was drawn in all the same.
I thought tikka masala would be the safest option – it was invented in the UK after all – but the chicken was overcooked and the sauce was bland and under -seasoned, the spices watered down by an obscene amount of cream. I am not a weight watcher, but I do object to eating highly calorific meals which are not the least bit enjoyable. What a waste!
If your main concern is getting a lot for your lunch money, then the YMCA is the place to go. If, like me, good value means quality as well as quantity, then head to The Red Fort. You won’t regret it.
Victoria’s blog is www.onedishcloser.com
The Red Fort: 77 Dean St, W1D 3SH; 020 7437 2525; www.redfort.co.uk
Ragam: 57 Cleveland St, W1T 4JN; 020 7636 9098; www.ragamindian.co.uk
YMCA Indian Student Hostel: 41 Fitzroy Square, W1T 6AQ; 020 7387 0411; www.indianymca.org