21 Apr Gymkhana in the heart of Mayfair
At eight years old, I entered my first and only gymkhana. I sat on my pony, frozen with fear, waiting for the bell to call me into the ring. Kicking and kicking my pony’s sides, he would not jump, let alone move. I felt humiliated in front of the small crowd gathered in an isolated field in the depths of the New Forest.
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.
[UPDATE February 2020: Gymkhana has reopened after a devastating fire in 2019. The Chandigarh-inspired cane chairs are back, together with the dark wood, deep red leather chairs and the lamps from Jaipur.]
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. The restaurant is 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.
The origins of the word ‘gymkhana’, a sports club in the days of the British Raj, inspire the decor. Boars’ heads adorn the walls. English china and silver plate on the tables. Wicker chairs. Dark wood. 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 French settlement was Pondicherry, once home to my great-grandmother.
Gymkhana belongs to the Sethi family’s restaurant group. 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 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.
A Graciano wine from La Rioja
The orange, yellow and red colours of the papads (poppadoms), and the shrimp & mango chutneys were crying out for a deep red wine to make the table resplendent. On advice from the sommelier, I had a glass of Martinez Laorden’s 2010 100% Graciano from Rioja. It offered a low-key elegance and just enough richness to go perfectly with the food.
Colourful & spice-laden food
- I started with the Cheela, Kid Goat Meti Keema, Rajasthani Chutney. This translates as a gram flour crêpe (popular for breakfast in northern India) stuffed with minced goat mixed with fenugreek leaves and spices (style of Andhra Pradesh), and served with a chutney typical of Rajasthan, in northern India.
- Kasoori Chicken Chops, marinated chunks of chicken with fenugreek leaves and mango ginger. I could eat this every day … real comfort food.
- The main dish of Leg Chaat, served with a potato dish, dal and naan.
I am more into the colours of Bollywood and Indian silk rather the muted hues of the Victorian lifestyle under the British Raj. Five generations of my family lived under the Raj in India, and 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 and corruption, and 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, and which reminded me of my family photos? Luckily, when we look back, we tend to remember the happier, rather than the dark, times. We hide the dark events in our subconscious.
A walk in the park
What better after a meal than to 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.