There has already been much said about Gymkhana, the Indian restaurant in Mayfair decked out to transport guests to the high-society social sports clubs (gymkhanas) of British Raj India. Most of it, if not perhaps all, consist of glowing testimonials: Jay Rayner advises getting ‘armpit deep in a menu which is not afraid to make a mark’; Grace Dent hails it as ‘one of the greatest restaurant openings London has seen in 2013’; and Fay Maschler gave it a rare 5 stars, describing the Muntjac biriyani as the best she’s had outside Hyderabad.
The nature of my interests (food and eating it) have me devouring as many restaurant reviews as I can cast my eyes over – they greatly influence the order in which I intend to visit my ever-growing list of venues.
Whilst I respect the opinions made by the industry stalwarts, I don’t always agree with them: Dent is in love with Casse-Croute – I thought it was marginally better than ok; I couldn’t get past the overriding flavour of ‘bland’ at Mishkin’s whereas Rayner loved the place despite acknowledging the shortfalls; not a lot of people like the filth-fest burgers from Shake Shack, however I think they are supreme.
But when it comes to Gymkhana, it seems those who enjoy good food are uniting in a collective gush of, ‘yep, this place is pretty great’ – me included.
Opened in September by Karam Sethi of Michelin starred Trishna fame, Gymkhana serves modern Indian food showcasing British ingredients, with a focus on the tandoor oven and sigri charcoal grill.
The restaurant is split across two levels. The lacquered dark chocolate oak floor on entrance is mirrored by the wood ceiling. The room is flanked by a handsome marble bar, furniture and booths are more heavy wood and leather, ceiling fans and wall lamps are cut glass from Jaipur, and faded sporting photographs and stuffed animal head trophies adorn the walls. Even the front door is an imposing and colossal thing of beauty.
If the interiors were designed to make guests feel like members of an exclusive club, the service and atmosphere is well matched. Whilst inside is saturated with classy grandeur and sophistication (even the kama sutra coat tags manage this), it is an exceedingly welcoming and comfortable place to enjoy a meal.
Any intention to stick to the value early evening menu that accompanied our 17.30 reservation was forgone once we caught sight of the a la carte entries all sounding too glorious to ignore.
Cassava, lentil and potato papads were light and crisp, tasting of their respective primary ingredients and served with a fresh and sweet mango and a spicy shrimp chutney delivered in brass pots. A venison keema (minced) naan flirting from the page is not something that can be easily overlooked – quartered and laced with fine strips of fiery green chilli it was very good for mopping up other delights on the table, but to stand on its own needed a greater presence of meat.
The butter chicken was very hot with chilli but lacked in depth to compete with the rest of what we engulfed, which were really very good indeed. Minced kid goat with methi (fenugreek) was a kadhai full of the sort of saucy deep rich minced magnificence you could easily fall face first into, topped with crisp fried potato matchsticks (salli), and served with warm and glossy soft buns to assist the scooping and devouring.
A small aromatic pile of minced duck hidden like treasure beneath a conical kimono silk thin dosa was just about as glorious in its existence as I suspect duck could ever be – heavy with a host of determined flavours jostling each other on the tongue for attention, utterly satisfying and my second favourite dish of the evening.
The number one spot was filled by the Gilafi pheasant seekh kebab – cooked to an unrivalled perfection rendering the texture of the skewed meat softer on the palate than I’ve ever experienced. Arrestingly aromatic and complex with such a well executed combination of flavours, it was simply divine. The vibrant pickled green chilli chutney it came with provided a much needed slap around my otherwise stunned face.
Sides and condiments consisted of small and perfectly round blushed pink discs of slightly sweet pickled radishes, creamy pomegranate and mint raita, red onion and chilli salad, and a metal basket of three quality flavoured naans (although one was crisp rather than soft which was a bit upsetting).
Dessert was a heavily perfumed carrot halva tart with crisp pastry and a cardamom cream that tasted like the smell of the liquid freshener doused onto your hands during long coach journeys in Turkey – a bit too much like eating an Interflora delivery but still enjoyable.
I made an odd observation considering the favourable and recent press: there weren’t that many other diners. We left at 7.45 on a Saturday night with the ground floor area not even half full and the downstairs completely empty apart from a couple of tables.
Perhaps my weekend dining hours are distorted and no one in their right mind eats out before 8pm. Either way, I noticed in the following couple of days Gymkhana welcomed Nigella Lawson dining with Salman Rushdie, and Yotam Ottolenghi. It’s clearly the place to eat at right now, and rightly so. With a menu as enticing as theirs, subsequent visits to work through the whole offering are imminent.
Liked lots: service, quality of design and interiors, welcoming and accommodating atmosphere, duck dosa, kid goat mehti, pheasant sheekh kebab, condiments, serving vessels
Liked less: butter chicken
Good for: higher-end Indian dining, a special occasion (or not – as Dent says in her review ‘Life is too damn short for special occasions’), interesting choices of meat for the cuisine (i.e. pheasant, muntjac, guinea fowl, partridge, duck), a really great meal
My rating: 4.5/5