I nearly ate a hand towel. This was not a frivolous impulse or a drunken dare, but a genuine mistake. Understandably, the mind boggles to fathom how a man could come so close to eating such an obviously inedible item by accident, but permit me to explain.
The venue: The Bombay Brasserie in South Kensington; the opulent, upmarket Indian restaurant that has occupied the same premises since 1982. The scene: having ploughed through a magnificent amuse bouche, a delicious starter and some awe-inspiring main courses, I sat back, dabbed my curry-stained lips and watched with intrigue as the waiter placed a pre-dessert upon the table. What a splendid touch. I love a good pre-dessert!
In the centre of a little white dish was a large white mint; a palate cleanser. Fabulous! As I leant forwards to inspect the mint, I noticed the word TOWEL embossed on the mint’s surface. Ah, it’s like a Love Heart sweet. How quaint! Towel must be the Indian word for mint. Grinning smugly like the knowledgeable food critic who thinks he’s seen it all, I motioned to grab the mint and pop it into my mouth when the waiter interrupted me mid-grasp. He appeared at my side holding a steaming jug of hot water and proceeded to pour the water over the mint. Oh! I say!
What happened next was one of the greatest displays of restaurant-based theatrical magic I have ever seen. The mint suddenly expanded vertically like a little white tower growing several inches out from my plate. I watched in awe, dumbstruck, passing my hand over the rising top to see if there were any invisible strings attached. This was sorcery of the finest kind. I glanced hesitantly at the waiter, expecting to see David Blaine hovering in his stead.
The waiter, noticing my confoundment, chose to elucidate me. “It is a hand towel, sir.” I stared at the thing, speechless. The magical expanding white tower was a hand towel! Of course. Towel. It wasn’t the Indian word for mint. It was actually a towel. “It’s lucky you came when you did,” I said. “I almost ate that!” A close call from what would have been the end of my career as a respected multi award-losing food writer, if not the end of my life. Death by hand towel; a rather embarrassing way to snuff it.
I last dined at The Bombay Brasserie in the early Nineties. I was a brooding teenager, dragged along to a family luncheon in South Kensington for reasons I forget. All I remember from that meal is the imposing dining room. So let’s slow-fade to the present where the grown up Jonesy (let’s rephrase that – the older Jonesy) finds himself walking through the very same restaurant which has recently had a slick but sympathetic makeover. The dining room is still a grand, commanding space, sporting the biggest chandeliers this side of Liz’s palatial drawing room.
Service is old school in the best possible way; polite and attentive, with just the right amount of austerity to remind one to sit up straight and pay attention. The menu has had something of a makeover along with the interior; this is upmarket cuisine that is closer to a fine dining experience, holding its own against the numerous Michelin-starred Indian eateries in London (including Quilon, the sister restaurant in the Taj Group’s portfolio).
The scallops I had to start were quite possibly the most delicately cooked scallops I have ever eaten, anywhere. The galouti aur roti pe boti – fine lamb mince patties with lamb morsels on roti bread – were lightly spiced, carefully presented and executed with a finesse that belayed a very experienced hand in the kitchen. We regretted not ordering the ganderi seekh – lamb kebabs on sugarcane candies – which appeared tantalisingly at a neighbouring table. I made a mental note to order that next time.
For the main course, I made the mistake of ordering the chicken tariwala; a home-style chicken curry. I say mistake, because the chefs are capable of so much more. This is the sort of restaurant where it pays to be more adventurous. Nevertheless, the curry was delicious and if that’s what you fancy, then by all means go for it my son, but the second dish – a Goan style John Dory marinated in a lime pickle, pan-fried and served on a bed of spiced shrimps – was utterly sublime and testament again to the skill within their kitchen. Seafood is not easy to cook perfectly, let alone spice in a delicate manner, and they accomplished both with gusto.
Those with a sweet tooth are also well catered for; I had a delicious honey-soaked cake for dessert while my dining companion had spiced banana ice cream.
I left the restaurant with a feeling of great satisfaction. Not only had I narrowly escaped choking to death on a sanitary accessory, I had also eaten some of the finest Indian food this side of Bombay. Or Mumbai, for the geo-politico pedants. The restaurant has been going strong for 28 years and I dearly hope it lasts for another few decades. I intend to return for the candy kebabs and the magical expanding hand-towel-mint experience, and this time, I won’t leave it so long. In fact, I have a free evening next Tuesday…