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.

Gymkhana restaurant near Green Park, Mayfair

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