There’s a point about six dishes (and some brilliant poppadum) in at Kahani where it suddenly clicks. The postcode and the decoration scream upscale Belgravia, ditto the quality of the clothing on most of our fellow diners. The prices do too, to some effect, but not as loudly as you might expect: besides, good ingredients cost these days and Kahani is clearly using the very best it can.
No, the “click” moment comes after a spoonful of tadka dal. I looked down at the table, at my notes, and at those well-heeled fellow diners. On the table were a vegetable biryani, a bowl of life-affirming butter chicken, the afore-mentioned dal, some good breads. My notes listed the earlier dishes such as paneer, the prawns, the poppadums and, particularly, a spicy, sweet, pineapple-y condiment I’d declared to be the “king of chutneys”. Our fellow diners were a mix of families, business discussions and social gatherings. And that’s when it hit me. Kahani is, at heart, a local, neighbourhood Indian restaurant. It’s just that the neighbourhood happens to be Belgravia, and the cooking and staff are approximately 17.3 times better than at YOUR local, neighbourhood Indian restaurant.
It could be so deeply pretentious and, this close to Sloane Square, you’d almost forgive them for being that way. The basement setting – pleasingly cool on a sticky London night – houses a private dining room. There’s a sommelier, a cocktail list… so far, so posh London. Then you start to notice the little touches, the clever use of screens to break up the room, adding privacy and atmosphere in the process. The pleasing distance between tables. The smiling, genuinely helpful, well-informed staff. It’s not pretentious: it’s just smart, thoughtful and relaxing.
Drinks are exemplary. Gulab Martini – vodka, lychee juice and liquor, lemon juice and rose syrup – is declared refreshing and delicious and is promptly dispatched between mouthfuls of poppadums and long overdue catch-up chatter. My Darkness – chosen mostly because it fitted my (rapidly diminishing) cynical mood – threw single malt whisky, lavender syrup, lychee juice, dill tincture and ginger beer together in a manner that list of ingredients does not necessarily suggest. Give me a chance and I can – and do – rant for hours about cocktails that don’t taste of alcohol. I like alcohol. I mean, I REALLY like alcohol and I want to taste it. If I want something that only tastes of fruit, I’ll have squash. Cocktails should taste of booze and, despite the odds, the Darkness let the single malt do its deliciously smoky, peaty thing all over my tongue.
Given the nature of the visit – as I keep saying, it’s not greed if it’s research – we open it up to suggestions from the floor and it’s all glorious. Spicing is unapologetic, fresh and sometimes eye-popping. Flavours are big. Ingredients are superb. The paneer is the best I can remember – a delicate crust of tandoor-grilled pickling spices yielding to the just-the-right-side-of-fluffy innards – and the tandoori broccoli, with honey, nigella seeds and wheat crisps might just be the best dish of the evening. “It smells like happiness!” exclaims my dining companion and she was right, it did. Which is not, frankly, the normal state of affairs with broccoli. (I’ve also just noticed that the broccoli is an option on their bargain £20 three course lunch menu, so that makes me happy for two reasons.)
Desserts, too, are rather impressive and, for those like me who struggle with a decision, there’s a shareable platter of several, from impressive “melt in the middle” raspberry and cardamom cheesecake to interesting kulfis – of which the peanut butter version was the standout this visit. It used to be that Cadogan Hall was then only reason I ventured to this part of town. I’m adding Kahani to that list as well.
1 Wilbraham Place