Monday, 18 February 2013

Dawaat: lacking spice...

...and less atmosphere than in space.

There are two kinds of hotel restaurant. First there's the Berkley, the Dorchester or Claridge's – what lazy PRs would call "destination restaurants". To extract meaning from that nasty phrase, it's somewhere with a reputation for exceptional food regardless of its location and context. People want to go there.

Then there's the kind of hotel restaurant no one wants to go to. The kind that feels like an airport lounge, full of practised solo diners or tired tourist families staring into space, waiting for nothing but the passage of time. Like the Jumeirah hotel restaurant in Kensington, where I had a torrid time while working for a West London mag.

At first glance, Dawaat at the Strand Palace Hotel belongs to the latter, with all the atmosphere of public library and beige hollow walls straight off the set of Shortland Street. You even have to walk past a boutique that sells cuddly bulldogs in Union Jack waistcoats. I shudder to recall it, especially because it jarred with the fact that we were on our way to an Indian restaurant. I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that someone's first taste of British cuisine might be Ryan Air plane food and then a curry.

Still, at times the curry was damned fine and the portions absolutely insane, bizarre given that the head chef use to work in headline cost-skimming airline food. The papdi chat was moreish – sweet, crispy, spicy – and the onion bhajis crispy as sin. The poppadoms too were special, full of bitter seeds and spices, although we had to ask for mango chutney to suit our western tastes. With the snacks out of the way I ordered the Aapam and stew – essentially a rich coconut and beef curry in a crispy rice pancake bowl. It was decent, with nice soft meat and a little kick that reminded you this was Indian stew, not a beef and ale cobbler. But so enormous it could, with rice, comfortably be a main – and I still had their signature biryani to come.

Perhaps my appetite had already failed me, but it was a disappointment. Slow-cooked the "dum pukht" (tee hee!) way – in a pot sealed with dough – it should have been chokingly aromatic, with the meat falling apart after cooking for ours in its own juices. Instead the hunks of lamb were bland and stringy, while the rice was pretty much spiceless. It came with a riata but needed the yellow dal tadka give it depth. The dal brought the price of my main course to £17 – eye watering for what was on offer and a lot of food for a man who ate an entire curry for a starter.

Luckily the selection of puddings is excellent; an unusual and happy departure from most Indian restaurants. Our coconut ice cream was exquisite, whether it was made in house I have no idea, but that's less important if things are working. Sadly, the most important course coming from the kitchen isn't. Even though the food is more exciting than your standard Taj Mahal/Rose Tandoori/cliché named Indian, at least when you're paying £7.50 for a chicken tikka masala, invented in Scotland and cooked by a family with stronger roots to the UK than you, you expect something a bit trashy. Here I was expecting something special, but for all its honesty and integrity, did that reach the flavours? No. So, given the higher prices, soap opera décor and the suited man next to you weeping over a picture of his ex-wife, would you skip the curry house and go to into a Hotel. I couldn't condone it.

That's not to say it's a bad restaurant, and to the patrons of the hotel I say it's a good last ditch resort. Having dropped your bags in your room and half-heartedly considered hanging up your Moss Bros suit, you've wondered downstairs, seen the rain and thought: "Screw it, I'll eat at the hotel". At this one you'll be pleasantly surprised by the food. But as a general rule, buy an umbrella. Get outside: you're in London for god's sake.

Daawat at Johnstons on Urbanspoon

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