Gymkhana … a workout for your taste buds

When I visited: August 2015, March 2016 and July 2016

Location: London, Mayfair

Team: Karam Sethi (Head Chef), Sunaina Sethi (Head Sommelier)

Rating in the Michelin Guide: 1 star

Dining Owl Hoot rating: 4/5

What to wear: Men – jeans or nice trousers and a shirt; women – jeans and a smart top or a smart dress / workwear

Ambience: Bustling, booths

Course of the meal: Methi Malai Jheenga curry

If I could change one thing: Leave menu cards on the table

Review:

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I first visited Gymkhana with my partner Owl and two friends, one of whom is a vegetarian. It is a good choice for vegetarians due to the variety of dishes on the a la carte menu as well as the 7-course vegetarian tasting menu (£60), which my friend had while the rest of us had the 7-course meat tasting menu (£65). Both menus contain a few ‘option courses’ throughout where you choose between two dishes.

We started with cocktails, and unusually I opted for a non-alcocholic one – the Cucumber Cooler – which was delicious and refreshing. The others went for the Dill or no Dill (always funny) and The Spice Monopoly (which comes with orange blossom ice cream) – a good way to bookend your meal with desserts either side.

To go with our meal, we enlisted the help of the sommelier who recommended a bottle of red 2014 Rotgipfler, Johanneshof Reinisch, Thermenregion. This was quite soft with not many tannins and went well with all the dishes, some of which were much spicier than others.

We all started with cassava, lentil and rice papads with various chutneys – shrimp for the meat-eaters and mango and mint for all. We didn’t realise until towards the end of the meal that this counted as a course as poppadums are normally just a free bonus at Indian restaurants, but we were relieved that they did constitute a ‘course’ as the whole meal is pretty filling as it is. They were left on the table for a while so we could nibble on them throughout. We all then moved onto samosa papdi chat with tamarind, sweet yoghurt and green chutney verdejo which was absolutely delicious (if intimidatingly substantial for the second course of 7).

The meat and vegetarian menus then diverged: we had Lucknowi scallops with kadai courgette while our friend had a beetroot kebab with kasundi chutney. The scallops were wonderfully cooked, really soft and sumptuous. The next course was the first of the spicy ones – between us we had quail seekh kebab with pickled green chilli chutney, kasoori chicken tikka with sprouting moong kachumber, and tandoori gobhi with green chilli raita. The quail was decreed the spiciest but my chicken tikka was pretty hot too, although I’m not the best at having spicy food so I’m sure some people would be absolutely fine with it.

The meat-eaters moved onto kid goat methi keene with salli, pal and bheja. This was essentially the cutest mini brioche-type burger bun into which you put the goat meat, with onions and the tiniest lemon wedge on the side. The vegetarian option at this point was chola bhatura with red chilli pickle. The main courses then came to an end with the biggest selection of food on the table yet: between us we had wild boar vindaloo, methi malai jheenga curry (which is made of prawns and you could have mild or as it comes – I had it mild) and mushroom and jack fruit pilau with cucumber and cumin raita. There was also an amazing array of sides: dal maharani, aloo anardana, a bread basket full of delicious naan, basmati rice and baingan masala. I love a bit of naan bread but we didn’t do a good job of finishing all the sides even with 4 of us, as all the courses were pretty filling. However, for me the methi malai jheenga curry was the course of the meal as it was creamy, satisfying and went wonderfully with the carb-licious sides.

I’m not normally the biggest fan of desserts at Indian restaurants as I find they tend to be extremely sweet, but the ones at Gymkhana are definitely exceptional. Between us we had cardamom kheer (a kind of rice pudding), ras malai with raspberry fennel chutney (milk dumpling) and plum rabri (a bit like an Indian tiramisu in style). All were well-balanced, not too sweet and a nice mild counterpart to the main courses. We finished off with green tea and coffee and got a piece of pistachio fudge each. This was the only ‘bonus’ course not listed on the menu, which is unusual for a 1-star restaurant, but I would never complain about this as the meal would be way too filling with bonuses added as well.

I thought the overall experience at Gymkhana was fun, and the quality of the food was consistently high throughout. The serving staff was friendly and helpful too, and more than willing to explain the various menu options to us and help with wine choices. One of the waiters had a little joke with us when we weakly asked whether the boar and methi malai were the last main courses – he said “no this is just the starter!”. (The problem was, we weren’t sure if he was joking as we couldn’t remember the menu at that point!) The restaurant seems to be very popular even on weekdays and the bar was full too. My partner Owl saw Heston Blumenthal eating downstairs in Gymkhana on the previous visit and you can see why Heston might enjoy the restaurant – it’s innovative, with interesting mixtures of flavours, and makes you want to go again.

2nd visit:

I visited again with my partner Owl and started off with some of the weird but effective cocktails (a Kohli margarita and Mysore martini). To accompany the meal, we had a big glass each of red 2012 Tobia Graciano, Bodegas Tobia (Rioja) from Spain, which was velvety but managed not to overpower any of the food.

We opted to share a la carte dishes this time, starting with the well-balanced venison keema naan with cucumber and cumin raita, and the kid goat methi keema with salli and pao, which you squeeze lime over and make into a mini burger (cute AND tasty).

The Tulsi scallops with masala parsnips were perhaps a little on the spicy side for this Owl but their texture was absolutely perfect, and the same probably applied to the the tandoori chicken chop with mango ginger and leg chat.

Our ‘main’ was the wild muntjac biryani with pomegranate and mint raita – this raita was probably one of the best accompaniments as it complemented the biryani perfectly without being bland.

I was brought back to my time as an owlet when condensed milk was poured over my blackberry and apple falooda with berry ripple kulfi, while my partner Owl had the chocolate samosa with malabar coffee kulfi, marinated cherries and a small chocolate brownie. As on our last visit, I was struck by the unusually high quality of these desserts, which aren’t normally a strong point in more casual Indian restaurants. We also got gorgeous petits fours in the form of a mini frangipane sponge cake each.

I noted on this visit the cool music, which included jazzy versions of Michael Jackson songs, show tunes and 1920s swing pieces. We also ate downstairs this time and the basement is just as busy and fun as the upstairs section.

Gymkhana continues to justify its 1-star rating and is holding onto its 4 hoots from me. Future visits are expected …

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