Spread out across north, south, east, and west London, this was no easy undertaking. It required planning and a clean palette but also reverence for the mission on which I was about to embark.
For crowning the best curry house in London is no trifling matter. Bestowed unto me was a grave responsibility, enough to shatter a lesser man, and it was, therefore, only after careful consideration that I humbly accepted the duty. As a service to humanity, to gastronomy, to the very fibre of Great Britain itself, I would eat at London’s four best Indian restaurants.
I began with lunch at Bengal Tiger on Old Street, which took home the 2022 Regional Restaurant of the Year award for City & East London. Curry at lunchtime is not a popular choice, I realise, but I was surprised to find that I had the entire restaurant to myself, outnumbered by waiters three to one me, and other than a delivery of wine, nobody else came through the door the entire time I ate.
As a consistent method, I thought it fitting that I opt for one signature dish at each restaurant, then a side of rice and naan. Bengal Tiger’s list of specialities was extensive, but a duck jalfrezi caught my eye, as did all three waiters whenever I dared to look up from the menu.
As far as I can recall, I’ve never seen, let alone eaten, a duck curry before, but I like a jalfrezi, and it seemed authentic. It proved to be a good choice. The duck was tender, the sauce well balanced, and while it didn’t blow me away per se, it was a lovely meal. Pulsating dance music was an interesting choice, likely made worse by the fact that I was there alone, but other than that, I have no complaints. The best curry in London? I’d be surprised, but a thoroughly enjoyable meal for £25.
Bengal Tiger: 8/10
From the winner of the East London award, I next ventured ‘west’ to Madhu’s of Mayfair, in The Dilly hotel at Piccadilly. I did not want to overly research these restaurants beforehand, but a cursory Google search made it clear that Madhu’s was far away the grandest, most expensive of my outings. It was, therefore, the only one for which I had any company, a fellow office chancer, Max, who normally infantilises meals by exclusively dealing in foods of the beige, white and brown variety; with curry, that’s not really an issue.
Within The Dilly, Madhu’s is found in a towering ballroom on the ground floor. It’s a remarkable space, for some reason basking in a cheap therapeutic pink haze that highlights the room’s uncertainty over quite what it wants to be, seemingly sure only of the fact that until recently, it was not an Indian restaurant.
Most of the other clientele appeared to be wealthy men with young dates or pre-Christmas work dinner parties but ‘tis the way with Mayfair, and we ordered a beer and took our seats. To our surprise, the waitress returned with two ‘King Cobras’ rather than the standard lager we’d ordered. Looking at the drinks menu and seeing the absurd price of all the beer, let alone this premium Cobra thrust upon us, I asked if they were out of what we’d ordered. She said no, but assured me that this was much nicer. I replied that was presumably why it was double the price. She laughed. I didn’t. In the end, we just took the King Cobras – when in Madhu’s, as they say – but it left a sour taste in my mouth until the papadums arrived.
I’ve always thought a papadum is only as good as the chutney that goes on top of it, but here, the papadums alone were elite. They came in four varieties, each delicious, and no matter my lasting feelings towards Madhu’s, I will give them credit in the papadum department.
When we ordered mains, we got two Kashmiri rogan josh, two Peshwari naan, and two rice. The Peshwari naan was the clear standout, genuinely brilliant, and while there was nothing wrong with the curry itself, for an eye-watering £26, it just seemed so average. When considering that’s double the price of Bengal Tiger’s duck jalfrezi, Madhu’s lamb curry paled in comparison.
If you want an up-market Mayfair curry in a stylish setting, Madhu’s does the job, but not only is it not the best Indian restaurant in London, I fail to believe that it should come anywhere near the top four. It’s got none of the warmth that a good curry is all about. Like the rest of The Dilly, and so much of Mayfair, it’s all show, designed to cosmetically impress and perhaps help some greasy bloke with a Hermés belt get into the pants of a 20-year-old Ukrainian girl after three bottles of Laurent Perrier rosé, but, at its core, it’s simply not a very nice place.
Madhu’s of Mayfair: 6/10
A week later, I went south, only so far as Balham. Here you’ll find, just around the corner from the station, the succinctly named restaurant ‘Indian Room’. The winner of the Regional Restaurant of the Year award for South London, it was a welcoming, cosy change of pace after the extravagance of Madhu’s, already busy at 6:30 or so when I arrived.
The menu was extensive, but I chose a classic lamb madras from their speciality menu after polishing off some more papadums. The madras was divine. I’m not qualified enough to make madras to tell you what stood out or why this madras was so exceptional, but just every little thing on my table worked. The portion was generous, as was the naan and the rice, and I would not have changed anything about it.
As the rain teemed down outside, I munched happily away, watching the world go by in this little corner of South London before eventually asking for the bill. It was £24. I fail to believe you could have a better, more filling two-course meal anywhere in London for that price. When I thought it couldn’t improve any further, the waiter asked if I wanted a complimentary scotch. I did.
Perfect dining experience.
Indian Room: 10/10
Which left only the Bayleaf Restaurant – the fourth and final point to my compass of London’s best curries – in Whetstone. I’d never heard of Whetstone before going there, I must confess, but I vaguely knew of North Finchley, and apparently, Whetstone was just north of that.
I made the trek to this unknown land on a freezing evening the week before Christmas. Perhaps overestimating just how far the penultimate stop on the Northern Line actually is, I arrived earlier than planned at around 6 o’clock and again had the whole restaurant by myself. This time, however, it filled up, and by the time I left, it was comfortably humming.
A junction in Whetstone is not the best view to yourself, but I had plenty to mull over, trying to work out what to order for this, my last supper. I’d had lamb twice, so that was off the menu, while the duck jalfrezi satisfied the requirement of a rogue dish. What I really needed was a good old chicken something.
I opted for the North East Indian Chicken Stew (the spiciest thing on the menu, just saying), which seemed to be the right balance for my final order. After yet more papadums, the stew arrived, green in colour and already tickling my nostrils. As good as the lamb madras was, as good as the duck jalfrezi was, this stew just pips others as the best main course I ate. I’ve never had an Indian quite like it – a delicious stew with crispy bamboo shoots; I mopped it up perfectly with rice and naan. Considerably more expensive than either Indian Room or Bengal Tiger, but it still didn’t feel extortionate for how good the meal was.
Bayleaf Restaurant: 9/10
So what was the best overall? I had plenty of time to mull it over on the Northern Line home, and the crown has to go to Indian Room in Balham. Factoring in price, atmosphere and food, it was the best Indian restaurant I visited and, therefore, according to the adjudicators who picked the top four, the best Indian restaurant in London.