Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Britain’s Grub Street

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Column in Business Standard, October 16, 2015

As posh London addresses go, Albemarle Street is a Mayfair original. A short walk from the Green Park underground station off Piccadilly, it is sedate and super-smart, artsy, risque and ritzy. It has a past both literary and scandalous. At No. 50 stood the reputable publishing firm of John Murray that published Lord Byron and Arthur Conan Doyle. It once housed the Albemarle Club, which attained notoriety in 1895 when a note accusing an esteemed member, Oscar Wilde, of homosexuality led to a failed libel action that made legal history and ruined a shining literary career.

Some of London’s best-known art galleries still flourish here. About half way up the street a large swathe is occupied by Brown’s Hotel that, in less expensive times, might have been the sort of place where Agatha Christie set a murder. An equally large section across from it is now occupied by the couturier Paul Smith who purveys everything from striped socks to antiques and vintage furniture. Top jewellers like Graff, Boodles, Garrard and Tiffany & Co rattle their rocks in glittering show windows. Further up is Michaeljohn’s hairdressing salon where Princess Diana had her hair cut.
But that is not the only reason why people frequent Albemarle Street nowadays. Among its most sought-after addresses is at No. 42, home to Gymkhana, among London’s hippest, priciest Michelin-starred Indian restaurants. Spread over two floors, with buzzing bars, oak-panelled booths, banquettes in deep green leather and sepia-tinted photographs of cricket matches and polo games, it recalls Raj-era clubs. It takes days to book a table ever since the hard-to-please Giles Coren, restaurant critic of The Times, gave it a perfect score of 10 in 15 years of reviews. “Is Karam Sethi the best chef in Britain?” raved his headline, going on to describe “the tastiest meal” he’d ever eaten.

The accolades haven’t stopped for the 30-year-old, Finchley-born Mr Sethi (no relative) who taught himself cooking from scratch. It isn’t just the Gymkhana’s recherche decor the cosmopolitan clientele loves; it’s the range of cooking, an inventive cross between ghar ka khana (kid goat methi keema with pao) and stylish innovations such as Guinea Fowl Pepper Fry, Wild Boar Vindaloo and crisp pyramid-shaped dosas with spicy duck stuffing. The drinks are as original: a cocktail called quinine sour, which is gin and tonic with a dash of lemon, ginger and curry leaf that has, according to The Guardian, “a nose on it like a young Barbra Streisand.”

The prices are as stiff as the queues are long. A meal for two, including drinks and service, comes to about Rs 14,000; the wine list “is very Albemarle Street”, that is, the cheapest bottle, of Slovenian red, is for Rs 2,500. The enterprising Mr Sethi, who started in 2007 with Trishna, a London collaboration with the celebrated Mumbai eatery, is on to becoming a restaurant czar. He also owns a chic joint called Bubbledogs with a menu of hot dogs and champagne.

Culinary Britain can’t get over its subcontinental stars. The nation held its breath last week when Nadiya Hussain, a 30-year-old hijab-clad housewife of Bangladeshi origin and mother of three from Leeds, won television’s toughest cookery competition. The Great British Bake Off is a peculiar BBC show that consists of a group of aunties pitching tents in the open-air to judge contestants produce impossibly complicated cakes. It has had wildly successful run for five years; this season drew a TV audience of 14.5 million – the biggest of the year – including David Cameron. “Go for it, Nadiya” tweeted George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, when diminutive Mrs Hussain, who is not quite five feet, became one of three finalists.

Like Mr Sethi, Mrs Hussain is entirely self-taught. Her winning cake looked nothing like anyone in the British Isles had seen before. It was a composition of three sponge-filled cylinders of varying heights encased in the blue-red-and-white of the Union Jack – these were actually bits o\f colourful saris further embellished with distinctly Indian gold ornaments. Through her incredibly arduous innings (she would often practice baking till 4 am, even after keeping 18-hour fasts during Ramadan) her husband, parents and children supported her resolutely. She is now a household word – a symbol of multicultural, racially assimilated Britain – with fans who call themselves “Nadiyators”.

Asked what she will do next, she said: “Yes books, yes TV – if I could bake for ever I would be happy. My best dish is cod and clementine curry – it’s my grandmother’s recipe. And my mum’s korma – it’s the bee’s knees.”

Grub Street in Britain is a favour with a flavour. But it’s not any old curry.

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