Sunday, 29 January 2012

Restaurant Review: Lovage

I've always thought that Indian restaurants shouldn't try too hard to be fancy, and for my money Lovage near Tower Bridge gets the balance of sophistication and simplicity just right.This is my review for South London Press.

A stone’s throw from the foodie bustle of Borough Market and mere minutes’ walk from touristy Tower Bridge, Lovage feels like it’s in a different world.

This vast Indian restaurant occupies a corner spot on a residential Bermondsey street and makes the space its own. A tout dressed in traditional Indian costume stands outside, acting to attract attention from passers-by as much as to greet customers. Giving a first impression which recalls the bartering and competition of Brick Lane, albeit in a competition-less area, it’s ironic that our waiter later finds the time to tell us how the restaurant isn’t like the majority of establishments on the famous East London curry street, but rather a higher end dining establishment offering a series of unique and specially prepared dishes alongside the classic options.

Both tout and irony are left at the door. An impressively furnished, modern, glitzy bar area that’s as big as many a restaurant welcomes us, and a wide list of cocktails, wines, beers and spirits is indeed a welcoming change to most Indian eateries. A cocktail made with vodka, ginger and topped up with Champagne (£7) is a refreshing and suitably exotic start to a meal that comes recommended.

It’s hard to work out whether the huge space Lovage occupies has more seats or more items on the menu, but there’s no shortage of either. Advice and descriptions of dishes from our waiters is gratefully received to aide decision making, but choosing is made easier by plumping for the unusual dishes that won’t be found elsewhere.

A starter of Tokri Papri (£4.95) sees a mixture of lightly spiced chickpeas, potato and onion served in a crisp pastry basket drizzled with tamarind chutney and yoghurt. The stacked presentation and artful swirls of sauce aren’t all makes the dish stand out. The subtle yet intricate spicing, crisp pastry and assortment of textures create an exotic eating experience.

Another unusual starter of Shecom Puri (£6.95) catches the eye. A mixture of cheese and mince spiked with spring onions and ginger is served in bite-size portions in a fresh tomato sauce, forming Indian meatballs which are as good to eat as the Italian versions. A final starter of Achari Paneer Tikka (£4.95) is a simpler option, but the skewered, grilled paneer sets it apart. Homemade in the restaurant, the cheese is firmer and milkier tasting than the often rubbery version bought in supermarkets. Imparted with a smokiness from the grill and a tingle of spice, the verdict is not only that this is the best paneer my guest or I have eaten in London, but also that it could rival any meat or fish for a centrepiece.

Mains follow the impressive example set by starters, and come in generous portions with relatively small price tags. Chicken Khumbi Bahar (£10.50) sees a succulent chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms, coriander, nuts and sultanas along with more of the homemade paneer. Served in a light black pepper sauce, it’s another dish that smacks of flavour and expert cooking, and one that’s unlikely to be found elsewhere. Baigun Mirchi Ka Salan (£7.95) is simply baby aubergines in a tomato-based sauce, but is made special by complex spicing that spans sweet, sour and spicy. Shorisha Butter King Prawn (£12.95) is listed on the menu as including whole mustard and mustard paste, and is the only dish that could be said to possess only one overriding flavour, tasting practically just of mustard. Though the intricacy of spicing isn’t on a par with everything else eaten, the prawns are meaty and well flavoured. The mains are served with steaming hot garlic naan (£2.95) and tangy lemon rice (£2.95), expertly cooked sides which shouldn’t be overlooked and which complete a thoroughly impressive dining experience that can barely be faulted. With a wide choice of dishes and drinks, food of clearly high quality and service that’s both knowledgeable and friendly, Lovage stands head and shoulders above your average Indian restaurant, yet unlike other more well-known venues doesn’t charge an arm and a leg for it.

Lovage, 13-15 The Circle, Queen Elizabeth Street, SE1 2JE

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