Major Thom called Ground Control suggesting the India Club might be the venue at which to see whether the Oddities theme could work for Indian food. As it turned out, the wines were not really very odd (on the whole), but we had a genuinely perfect lunch. The company was perfect too, augmented by the fact that all but one of us had distant memories of eating here more regularly years, even decades, ago. So, to steal another Bowie line from a different song, it was a small affair but far from a god-awful one. The newcomer, by the way, was not a girl with mousy hair but a very nice Frenchman, to whom we enjoyed feeding lime pickle and chilli bhajis and generally educating his barbarian palate (only joking, Antoine)!
The India Club restaurant is up a couple of flights of narrow stairs, above the Strand Continental Hotel (rooms from £25 breakfast included!) on the western side of The Aldwych. It was opened in 1946 and the “time-warp” description is wholly accurate. I am convinced it has not changed one bit since I discovered it in the 1980s, when it used to be full of officials from the Indian High Commission. The independence era photos, the formica-topped tables and the beautifully starched waiters echo a different London, and the nostalgia was palpable for several around the table.
You don’t go to the India Club for gourmet Indian cuisine. Reserve that for Gymkhana, and the now close by Chutney Mary (there’s a wonderful review of the new St James’s venue by Grace Dent in yesterday’s Evening Standard Magazine). The food here on The Strand is aptly described as South Indian home cooking.
We started out with chilli and onion bhajis with a selection of pickles and dips, plus ubiquitous poppadoms. The entrées were rounded off with a house speciality, a mild masala dosa with sambar. We then ploughed our way through lamb, chicken and shrimp currys with piles of fragrant pilau rice, masoor dal and naans. Some had room for mango and pistachio kulfi on sticks. No one left hungry, and at £20 each including service, it’s hard to put on so many kilos in Central London for as few pounds. As the restaurant’s web site states, diners are permitted to bring their own alcohol. So we did.
The idea was to bring a bottle we thought might accompany the meal. By and large the wines behaved admirably, surprising when you look at the list of what we assembled. The main thing was that none were tannic, but only one was off-dry (the PX excepted, which was not intended as a food accompaniment). Of course, nothing really managed to beat the heat of the lime pickle and chilli bhajis (which were merely batter-cooked raw green chillis). The “Wine & Spice” frizzante did best on that front, a blend of largely Muscat with Macabeo and other Catalan varieties. It’s slight sweetness and venerable age (a NV but in fact from 2004) helped on that score. But none bombed in the slightest.
- Wine for Spice Rani Gold, Catalonia
Just 11.5%, this wine used to be part of the Wine for Spice range marketed by Warren Edwardes’ Hyde Park Wines. No one would argue it was the finest wine at the lunch per se, but it proved you can drink wine throughout an Indian meal. Officially NV, but from 2004. How did this live so long? We tasted the age but no way was it OTH. Gently off dry, the sweetness, what remained of it, nicely balanced the spice (which in itself was well handled throughout the dishes we were served).
- Vincent Girardin Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru “Morgeot” 1988
Quite a revelation, lovely aged Chardonnay with a mineral edge, holding up really well. The spiciest food killed it, as expected, but it held its own with the rest. That was my biggest surprise of the day, and it was also my personal “wine of the lunch”. As to the mineral edge, blind I wondered if it was an old Chablis. Though it probably showed a bit too much weight for that, it was hardly plump.
- Guy Malbete Reuilly Rouge 2004
This was almost brown it was so brick red, so we all had this as a 1970s Pinot, with the odd nod to Gamay. It reminded me a little of Arnaud Ente’s Bourgogne Grande Ordinaire, very old vine Gamay from the Cote d’Or which can age well and becomes more Pinot-like with time. The colour may have been in part down to the seal, a nasty little plastic cork. The fact that it was lovely was probably down to it being a magnum. Scents of strawberry and nice, smooth, fruit. A gentle wine, not an aristocrat but like a sedate old experienced farmer in retirement. The estate is now run ably by daughter Florence, which makes that description of this wine from Guy quite accurate.
- Maillard Chorey-les-Beaune 1978
Another fruity, yet gentle, Pinot Noir, this time from one of the least heralded villages of the Cote de Beaune (and indeed the man who brought this reminded us that Chorey only became AOC in 1970 and was before that a Cotes de Beaune “Villages“). I remember 1978, it was one of the first Burgundian vintages I bought. I seem to recall some rot. At the time I’d never have considered cellaring a wine like this (not that I had a cellar in those days, just a wine rack under the stairs). But this proves another of the tenets of the Burgundy lover who brought this along…that even the so-called minor wines from the region can, and will, blossom if they are just given time.
- Valdesil Valderroa Mencia 2012
A darker wine than the previous two reds, tasting blind most thought this either a Pinot Noir or a Gamay. There’s a richness to the fruit and some concentration. Although the fruit has a slight crunch, there are no tannins to fight with the food. It lacked the venerable age of the other two reds but provided a nice contrast to them without clashing, and I felt it did go reasonably well with what we were eating. Made from high altitude bush vines, it’s a good example of a more commercial (around £12 retail) Mencia, offering a nice medium-bodied red with refreshing cherry fruit.
- Navarro Solera Fundacion, Pedro-Ximenez
From Montila-Moriles and a solera founded in 1830, it’s the kind of class PX which the provider is renowned for bringing to our Oddities lunches. Dark and caramelly, figs and raisins, sweet but fresh and not at all cloying (a fault which makes some PX good for just the one, small, glass, but not this one). This was not drunk with the food, and by this stage I was too full (after the second plate of rice) to try a kulfi stick.
A great lunch. We can be heroes another day soon, I hope…hit me with your kulfi stick (aarrrghghghgh!)