Mark Bibby Jackson returns to a familiar Indian restaurant of his youth now transformed into the swish Grand Trunk Road, to see whether it justifies the accolade of the best Indian restaurant in London.
If the lockdown has taught us anything surely it is that some things are worth the wait. So, it was with great anticipation that I entered the Grand Trunk Road, reputedly the best Indian restaurant in London.
On my previous visit to the Grand Trunk Road I had been wowed by how the Meghna Grill of my childhood memories had been transformed from a flock velvet interior so typical of the 80s and 90s to a sophisticated metropolitan restaurant which would not look out of place in central London rather than suburban South Woodford. This should come as little surprise for the Grand Trunk Road manager Rajesh Suri established The Tamarind in London’s Mayfair, the first Indian restaurant to receive a Michelin star.
However, it was not the décor that was the greatest transformation I discovered on my previous visit, rather the cuisine. There was none of generic curry sauce that you discover in so many Indian restaurants in London; I could taste the individual spices. On my current visit I wanted to check whether the high standard set, with talk of a Michelin star to go with its Best Fine Dining Indian Restaurant 2020 at the Asian Curry Awards, has been maintained.
A Safe Setting
The first thing I noticed was that the restaurant had introduced stringent Covid safety measure, including a temperature check upon entrance and perspex screens between the tables. The restaurant, like everywhere in London had been closed during lockdown, although there were a few tables on the street as well as a delivery service for its loyal customers. However, the Grand Trunk Road is not really your typical Indian take away. To fully appreciate the experience you have to dine inside the restaurant.
As my companion settled into her martini I chatted with Rajesh about the concept of the restaurant, to showcase the finest of Indian cuisine from along the old 2,500km Grand Trunk Road, which stretched from Peshwar to Kolkata. Rajesh himself went travelling and tasting along the road in order to develop the dishes.
Grand Trunk Road Menu
This journey is reflected in the menu, for we were about to embark upon our own culinary journey through India. As were finishing our popadums, that included a wonderful cumin flavoured variety as well as a great tangy mango and chilli-flake relish, the waiter enquired whether we were happy for our starters to arrive.
In truth Dilli ki chaat has never been my favourite Indian dish, as I have always found it too sweet and a little overwhelming on the yoghurt. However, here the juxtaposition of the textures with the crisp wheat crisps and crunchy chick peas contrasting perfectly with the creamy yoghurt worked a treat. It also was an excellent combination with the Orkney scallops, a wonderful surprise, that were pan seared with cracked pepper and served on a spicy tomato, roasted garlic and pepper chutney, together with crisp lotus root. Once more the textures reacted perfectly to each other. While the mild yet lingering heat of the dish complimented the ki chaat perfectly. My companion had a chapli kebab which was equally as good, she says, and set us up perfectly for the main.
The dishes lined up in front of us represented the Grand Trunk Road itself. From the dal bukhara that was inspired by the Peshwar to the Kolkata coastal prawn curry.
For me the stand out dish was the steamed nariel fish, a stone bass that was served in a mustard and coconut marinade, topped with shaved pickled fennel. Now I am neither a lover of coconut nor of fennel, but the flavours in the dish were so well balanced that my mouth was buzzing with excitement. The pickled fennel was a revelation. The steamed stone bass fish absorbed all the flavours without becoming too flaky or overwhelming them.
However, it really would be wrong to highlight this dish as all were cooked to perfection. The masala baingan took baby aubergines to another level, the prawns in the coastal prawn curry were sumptuous and the dal bukhara was perfection. My companion couldn’t stop talking about how great the GTR classic lamb curry was. Indeed our only problem was that there was far too much food for us to complete.
It’s All in the Detail
Rajesh had earlier explained that part of the success of the Grand Trunk Road lay in the way that the menu had been carefully constructed. The aubergine dish they chose was based on a recipe from Varanasi, where meat is banned. This is something that chef Arup Dasgupta echoed when he joined us at the conclusion of the meal. According to him, the most complex dish to create was the dal bukhara, which took two days to prepare. By using the black urud lentil he was able to create the wonderful creaminess of the dish from within the lentil itself, only adding a dash of actual cream. Similarly Arup spiced up his dishes with Kashmiri chilli, which they get delivered from their own supplier.
It is this eye for detail, and lack of compromise on standards, that has elevated the Grand Trunk Road to a level above other Indian restaurants in London. This perfectionism also extends to the service, which was impeccable throughout, informative and heedful without being intrusive in the slightest. It also comes at a cost, especially during lockdown, where the restaurant had to simplify its menu in order to develop some delivery trade for its loyal customers that Rajesh was keen to point out had supported them throughout.
Surely it cannot be too long before the Grand Trunk Road receives the Michelin star to go with the other accolades heaped upon it. I left reassured that the lockdown had done nothing to diminish the restaurant’s flame. If anything the standard this time was even higher than on my previous visit. The Grand Trunk Road gets my vote as the best Indian restaurant in London, and I am convinced it will maintain its crown for a long time to come.
For reservations call 020 8505 1965 or visit https://www.gtrrestaurant.co.uk/