Why do we balk at spending money on expensive Indian food? A meal at Gymkhana is an education
42 Albemarle Street, London W1 (020 3011 5900). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £140
The story of Indian food in Britain is a complicated one full of self-loathing, fizzy lager and industrial quantities of ghee. At the heart of that narrative lies the high-street curry house. Obviously I want to be supportive. I know blanket generalisations can be cruel and unhelpful. Still: why do so many of them have to be so bloody awful? Meat of uncertain origin (who knows when that stuff died and what of?) is batch-cooked in sauces of a colour that only a Romford tanning salon could love. There are deep-fried doughy things, and pungent things full of the unprovoked violence of raw garlic, and staff who mostly give the impression of hating you.
Clearly none of this applies to your local curry house, which is lovely. Or yours. Or yours. But it does apply to loads of them, even now. And yet they do have their virtues. They have provided solid (if poorly paid) employment for great swathes of immigrant populations. They also taught this country how to eat out. For years they were all we had, if you don't count the Berni Inns and Golden Eggs, which I don't, because people only ever went to those for versions of food they could have had at home if they could have been fagged to cook it. Britain's curry houses offered a window on to something else. They inculcated us into the way of the exotic.
Back in the negative column, however, there's the major issue of the deadening effect these cheap and cheerful curry houses have had further up market. The attempt to create a rarefied version of restaurant food from the Indian subcontinent has always felt like a reaction to what's going on at the mass end of the business. Fans of luxury Indian restaurants will point out, quite fairly, that it's grossly patronising to argue that Indian restaurants can never be expensive just because so many of them are cheap. True enough.
The problem is that luxe Indian restaurants can also be painfully dull. Partly this is because they are a product of the five-star hotel sector in India. Until just a few decades ago there was no restaurant culture in India to speak of - theirs was a domestic culinary tradition. As a result, chefs had to invent a restaurant style, one which matched the thick varnish on hotel coffee tables. And in so doing they created something devoid of genuine fire and punch; it's just castrated food as a cure for insomnia. London is now littered with these places, garlanded by tyre companies, where you only come out whistling the decor.
Give thanks, then, for Gymkhana, the new Mayfair restaurant from Karam Sethi of Trishna in Marylebone, which manages to be glossy and yet still deliver food with a serious kick and intent. Sure, there's lots of decor to whistle. A gymkhana is a Raj-era Anglo-Indian sports club, and here it all is: the dark oak wood panelling and the booths with rattan trim, the sepia hunting photographs, the ceiling fans and the wall lamps of cut glass from Jaipur. You'll feel all that craftsmanship and theme-parkery in the bill. What matters is the strident, full-on food which my companion, the cookery writer Ravinder Bhogal, described as pure "Ghar ka Khaana". That's Hindi for home cooking; I'm not one to argue.
The star dish comes early amid the starters: a rust-coloured, powerfully spiced curry of sweet minced goat flavoured with nutty fenugreek. For £3 extra they will make it with pearls of brain and I'm not sure I could ever be friends with anyone who declined the option. It brings a richness to the dish, a kind of slippery indulgence that lifts it far beyond a mere bowl of fiery mince. There are soft bread buns to eat it with so you scoop and dredge until the dish is clean.
A deeper darker duck curry, alongside a little cooling coconut chutney, comes with a still-warm, crisp and feathery cone of dosa - a thick buttery kind of crêpe - again to be used to tear and scoop.
Main courses are divided among curry and biryani, kebabs and game and chops. I very much like the sound of the kid goat raan, traditionally a whole leg which has been spiced and marinated and then cooked for at least eight hours. I'm less keen on the £55 price tag - I'll have to save up. Instead we order the lamb nalli barra at a mere £25. No, none of it is cheap. It is not cheap in the same way that I am not a marathon runner.
It is this dish which raises the most questions. Essentially this is tandoori lamb of the sort done so well at the Pakistani grill house Tayyabs in Whitechapel for a third of the price. Here you get two pieces of slow-cooked, spice-slathered shank that tumble away from the eye of the bone with very little prompting, plus two chops. Are those chops three times better than those at Tayyabs? The quality of the meat is certainly much higher. At Tayyabs it's all about the crisp, dark stuff that clings close to the curve of rib. Here it's about the earthiness of the meat itself, which really is of a different calibre. Plus no one will be chasing you off your table after 15 minutes. You takes your seat, you pays the price.
From the curries the butter pepper garlic crab is an outrageous bowl of freshly picked white meat under avalanches of the good stuff. It reminds me of the more lavish French way with hot seafood, the crab becoming ever more strident the more hot, molten garlicky butter you throw at it. We eat all this with impeccable breads and a little chopped "coastal spiced" okra, which almost feels good for us.
Dessert is less thrilling, but good for all that. A tooth-achingly sweet carrot halva tart has a certain rustic charm; a saffron pistachio kulfi falooda, full of light jelly, vermicelli and wild basil seeds, plays out as a less indulgent and aromatic trifle. The wine list is very Albemarle Street, which is to say the cheapest white, at £25, comes from Slovenia. Still, they do serve an astonishingly good cocktail called a quinine sour, essentially a gin and tonic flavoured with lemon, ginger and curry leaf. It has a nose on it like a young Barbra Streisand. Order one or two of those and get armpit deep in a menu which is not afraid to make a mark.
Jay's news bites
■ Given the taste for late-night Indian takeaways in Downing Street, David Cameron is well placed to endorse Bradford's Mumtaz, as he does on their website. It's certainly worth the trip. Over the past 30 years Mumtaz has grown from a cupboard-sized caff into a glass-and-chrome edifice specialising in the food of Kashmir. Go there for big-fisted meat-on-the-bone curries, killer fish stews and naan breads the size of Belgium. Most main dishes are less than a tenner. Mumtaz, Great Horton Road, Bradford (0127 457 1861, mumtaz.co.uk)
■ It seems Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is less interested in his business remaining a cottage industry. He has just signed a deal with Marriott Hotels and Resorts to provide menus across its 50 UK properties, with a commitment to sourcing 80% of produce from within 60 miles.
■ Gentrification ahoy! Both Thomasina Miers's Wahaca and the Spanish food group Brindisa are opening in Brixton, south London. Cue soul searching by locals over rent inflation. Which won't be helped by another threatened arrival: Waitrose.
Photo: The duck dosa at Gymkhana. Photograph: Katherine Rose for the Observer