Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Curry house blues are out of tune with today's diners

My last half-dozen visits to different curry restaurants across London have been distinctly underwhelming. My February 11th post In praise of curry reflected my life-long love affair with the Subcontinent’s national dish. So it pains me to say so.
I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. I don’t mourn the passing of flock wallpaper and Bombay duck (actually a small dried fish). But change – if that is what’s going on - shouldn’t start to erode what made curry houses so successful in the first place.
I won’t name and shame because all six establishments have proved perfectly adequate in the past – otherwise I wouldn’t have returned. It could be a coincidence that each was having a bad day but I worry if the struggle to survive in the tough economic climate might be having unfortunate consequences.
The quality of the raw ingredients might vary but I had come to expect generous portions. In my miserable six I had to fish around in the curry sauce to trawl bits of meat. The sauce itself appeared to be the same whatever the dish. The overall quality didn’t seem any better than to be had in my local supermarket – and it was a lot dearer.
Nothing was remotely as inviting as in the above illustration. The food arrived only lukewarm and in a couple of cases had to be sent back to be introduced to a microwave. There were no plate warmers.
But the real chill was in the welcome – or rather the lack of it. It used to be like the return of the prodigal son on entering an Indian restaurant even if it were a first visit. Your waiter would guide you through a long menu and advised when you had ordered enough for a decent blow-out. You became firm friends for the evening.
At the end of your meal there might be a heated towel to wipe your hands, a complimentary sliced orange and with your coffee a ‘free’ brandy of dubious origin. Finally, handshakes all round. None of these were on offer in any of the six.
A couple of the waiters were pleasant enough but the attitude of the majority ranged from bored to downright surly – especially the one who didn’t take kindly when I asked for a glass of tap water.
I’m prepared to make allowances. As I said it might just have been a bad day. But I rather suspect the squeeze might have had the effect of reducing staff numbers and forcing economies in the kitchens.
Pub food is raising its game. Thai is the new Chinese; there’s sushi and fusion. And all the while it’s better value and getting easier to wine and dine friends at home.
The missing ingredient in all the curry houses I visited was the most important one of all – a sense of fun.

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