Friday, 6 April 2012

A MANGO LASSI AND A MASALA DOSA

An enjoyable morning at the wonderful, quirky, treasure-trove museum at Sir John Soane's house ended with lunch at the India Club at the Hotel Strand Continental. This may sound very glamorous, the word "club" adding a certain cachet. In fact, the hotel and the restaurant are rather shabby, redolent of the cheap hotels I stayed in when I was travelling through northern India as a student in the 1980s. Yet, there is a certain faded charm too; indeed, both restaurant and hotel have hardly changed since they opened in 1946. The hotel and restaurant were a hub of political activity in the late 1940s, where discussions about the newly-independent India took place.

The restaurant is hidden away on the second floor. You access the hotel from a small door on the southern side of the Strand, east of Waterloo bridge. Curling paper signs promise "an authentic experience of 1940s India". When I first ate at the India Club, way back in the late 1980s when I was in my first job at Macmillan Publishers on the Strand, the restaurant was lit with harsh fluorescent tubes and the formica tables were chipped. The waiters wore grubby white jackets and served you silently. But what I do remember were the delicious Masala Dosas, giant pancakes made from fermented rice and urad dal flour, filled with a mixture of potatoes, onions and spices, and other south Indian specialities.

The restaurant hasn't changed that much, though the strident strip-lighting has been replaced by rather elegant pierced-metal lanterns. And the waiters' jackets were cleaner. My husband takes visiting colleagues from India to the India Club for dinner and they say it is most authentic. They are also surprised that such a place exists in central London, a stone's throw from the Savoy.

Mango Lassis, Coconut Sambal & Chilli Bhajis
A word of caution before you go: the restaurant does not accept credit cards, and there was a moment of panic as we read the menu to check we had some cash with us (we did). We ordered "mixed bhajis", Masala Dosas and mango lassis to drink (a sweet "milkshake" made from mango pulp and yoghurt). The food arrived quickly: the bhajis were clearly cooked to order, and were served with a sambal (relish) made from coconut and spices. It came as something of a surprise to discover that the bhajis were actually whole chillis, deep-fried. The mango lassi was deliciously cooling. The Masala Dosas were as good as I remembered, again freshly made, a crisp tasty pancake with its spicy filling. We were the first customers (hungry, at 12 noon, after our forays around the Soane Museum) but the restaurant soon filled up, employees from the Indian Embassy (on Aldwych) coming in for their lunch.

The India Club is open for lunch from 12-2.30pm, and for dinner from 6-10.50pm. Guests are permitted to bring their own alcohol, though a small selection of Indian beers is available off the menu.

Mango lassi recipe

Hotel Strand Continental website

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