21 Apr Gymkhana in the heart of Mayfair
I entered my first and only gymkhana when I was 8 years old. I sat on my pony, frozen with trepidation, as I waited to be called into the ring. Once in the ring, my pony wouldn’t jump. I was humiliated in front of all 30 or so spectators in that field in Sway in the New Forest. A time I will never forget.
At such times, my mother would comfort me with an extra special chocolate cake at tea-time. This is probably why still to this day I look to food as a source of comfort.
Indian comfort food at Gymkhana
This week I found comfort food of a different type… from India. There’s something very comforting about Indian food: the warmth of the spices, the familiarity of the fragrances, the generosity of Indian hospitality
It was my first visit to one of Europe’s most popular Indian restaurants: Gymkhana, in Mayfair’s Albermarle Street, opposite the Ritz, down the road from the Royal Institution and across the way from Green Park. You can’t get more ‘British’ than that.
A gymkhana in the days of the British Raj was a sports club, & it is this that has inspired the Gymkhana in Albermarle Street, with its air of Victorian colonial genteelness… complete with boars’ heads, patterned English china, silver-plate dishes, wicker chairs & dark wood, with jazz and swing playing in the background.
The Michelin star adds a French touch, but then the French had their settlements in India, the most famous being Pondicherry, where my great-grandmother used to live.
Gymkhana is part of the group owned by the Sethi family. It opened back in 2013, but it continues to be a familiar favourite for many. My old boss, a very sophisticated, stylish Italian woman from Milan, would always like to eat at Gymkhana when in London.
Also in the Sethi stable are Trishna, their other Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, in Marylebone, with a more modern India atmosphere & coastal Indian food, and Sri Lanka-inspired Hoppers London, where it’s informal enough to eat with your fingers.
Perfect wine: a Graciano
The oranges, yellows & reds of the papads – or poppadoms to me – and shrimp & mango chutneys were crying out for a deep red wine to make the table look just right. On advice from the sommelier, I had a glass of Martinez Laorden’s 2010 100% Graciano from Rioja. It offered a low-key elegance & just enough richness to go perfectly with the food.
I went for the £25 for two courses, starting with the Cheela, Kid Goat Meti Keema, Rajasthani Chutney, translated as a gram flour crepe (popular for breakfast in Northern India) stuffed with minced goat mixed with fenugreek leaves & spices (style of Andhra Pradesh), accompanied with a chutney typical of Rajasthan, in northern India.
Then came the Kasoori Chicken Chops, marinated chicken with fenugreek leaves and Mango Ginger, together with Leg Chaat, Northern Indian street food-style with little strips of potato and chunks of chicken. This main dish also came with a potato dish, dal and naan. The chicken chops were divine… turning what I always consider to be a bland meat into something succulent and flavoursome… a dish I could eat day in, day out… real comfort food.
Now, I am more into the colours & rhythms of Bollywood and Indian silk rather the muted hues of the Victorian lifestyle under the British Raj. Every generation in my family that I had ever heard of had lived under the Raj in India, & they did not seem to have a jolly time, or at least that was what was passed down through the generations – far from home, plagued by illness & corruption, & by extremes of weather.
Yet, the club-like atmosphere at Gymkhana offers a reassurance that makes you feel good … feel comforted. Maybe it was the black & white photographs on the wall of various sporting events in what seemed like happy times, & which reminded me of my family photos. Luckily, when we look back, we as human beings tend to have a propensity to remember the happier times.
What better after a big meal to then go for a walk in the park … in Green Park, on what was a glorious spring afternoon, with London at its best … thinking of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, which I don’t often do, returning from their trip to India and the Queen due to celebrate her 90th birthday today. It made me quite reminiscent for years gone by.