My first night in London and I had a taste for Indian food. Actually, I wasn’t very hungry at all when dinnertime rolled around because I had spent the morning at Borough Market, one of the most incredible collections of food stalls anywhere, and with all the nibbles and noshes and samples I had at the market I was still full. (I’ll tell you about Borough Market in greater detail later.)
But there I was wandering around Covent Garden when I happened upon Punjab, a restaurant that had been recommended to me by trusted travel writer Jason Cochran. Jason, who writes frequently about Walt Disney World and Orlando, also has a London guidebook. So I figured a bite of Indian would help stave off jet lag (there’s absolutely no scientific proof of this, but you have your methods and I have mine).
Punjab claims to be the oldest North Indian restaurant in London, established in 1947. My guess is that’s when the carpeting was installed. The floor was most unattractive, with that worn-down shiny look as well as detritus from previous diners. Frankly, if it hadn’t come highly recommended I might have turned around and left.
But the rest of the place was kempt and attractive. The tables had white cloths underneath saffron cloths. The serving staff, watched over by a couple of stern looking men in turbans, was courteous and prompt.
The host stand just inside the front door doubled as the bar and tripled as the serving point. A couple of Dumbwaiters, one to whisk dirty dishes away and one for fresh plates from the kitchen, stood behind the small space.
From there we were served gobi aloo, a vegetarian dish of cauliflower and potatoes, sauteed and spiced but without sauce.
We also had the acharri gosht, a lamb dish listed as a specialty of the chef, made with “the same ingredients that go into a pickle.” It had wonderful layers of spice and a rich gravy that went well with the rice.
That rice, however, was extra, nearly 3 pounds ($4.80), a hefty supplement for such a small bowl of plain basmati -- and something that should come with the meal. (I’ve seen this practice in only one Central Florida Indian restaurant, Dakshin, at Lake Buena Vista, probably because there are so many British tourists about, for whom the extra charge is normal; still it rankles me.)
The cheese naan was wonderful. It was pliably soft but still had a crispy crust from the tandoor oven. The cheese -- French, the menu said -- was subtle but tasty.
There are, according to information on Punjab’s Web site, over 8,500 Indian restaurants in the U.K., so good Indian is never too far away.
Was Punjab better than any Indian restaurants in Florida? No, but that’s more testament to the quality of Indian restaurants we have than it is a condemnation of Punjab. The meal here was fine, a fitting welcome to a city with a rich Indian community.
Punjab is at 80 Neal Street, Covent Garden, London.