Young and ambitious, chef Karam Sethi has already proven definitively that Indian food in London does not have to be a prosaic, predictable affair. Gaining huge popularity – not to mention a Michelin star – with Trishna, his Marylebone restaurant specialising in the coastal cuisine of South West India, Sethi is out to make this point again with his latest venture, a more informal affair recently launched in Mayfair.
Gymkhana, named after the high society social clubs established by the British Raj, has a paired-back Imperial aesthetic: ceiling fans, dark wood, low lighting, and staff in Nehru shirts. Dishes are served on Burleigh plates with silver accoutrements. Tapping in to the trend for punch, but also smartly looking back to its roots – it was India that introduced punch to England in the early 17th century – the cocktail menu includes individually bottled punch mixtures that are served with whole spices and small graters. We especially enjoyed the Ruby Punch, made with Ceylon arrack (coconut sap liquor), ruby port, lemon juice, gomme syrup, and green tea – an unexpected combination to be sure, but wonderful with a fresh grating of cinnamon.
"Karam Sethi has proven definitively that Indian food in London does not have to be a prosaic, predictable affair"
The way to go at Gymkhana is the tasting menu, seven courses with optional wine pairing, and a genuinely considered vegetarian version available. Our first dish proves that the kitchen here is clearly not afraid of a little – or, indeed, a lot of – spice. Potato chat, chickpeas, tamarind, and sev (crunchy noodles), matches its considered but definitive chilli flavour with detailed texturing, setting the bar high for the evening. Similarly spicy is the Lasooni wild tiger prawns with red pepper chutney, perfectly cooked – prawn as it is meant to be – and the Gilafi quail seekh kebab with pickled green chilli chutney. A standout for us was the Tandoori broccoli with chilli raita; exquisitely smoky and ever so slightly sweet, this work-a-day vegetable is transformed into something divine during its time in the tandoor.
The downstairs at Gymkhana houses private dining rooms – cloistered and comfortable – and a bar where the staff indulge in a bit of boozy theatrics. We were invited to watch the preparation of a cocktail called Respect Your Alder, which involves burning alder wood chips to trap the smoke in a jar, then adding cognac and allowing it to infuse with a cumin and mango syrup. The bartenders, and our sommelier in particular, are full of enthusiasm for their offering, and the wine list is indeed brimming with unexpected finds, such as a Gewürztraminer from Argentina, and a Riesling from Washington State. The unconventional drinks menu is a testament to the high level of care and attention that has gone into all aspects of Gymkhana, which is bringing a bit of welcome drama and spice to the West End.
Text by Ananda Pellerin