Curry has long been to London what pizza is to New York City or cheese steak is to Philadelphia: the one thing you can order at almost any corner restaurant and count on getting a reliably decent meal. That's not surprising, since curry is a word coined by the British while they were governing India during the 1800s. In England curry has become a blanket term for almost any Anglo-Indian dish served in a spiced sauce, such as vindaloo or masala, with flavors as generic as the premixed spice blends all the shops seem to use.
Now London is starting to offer Indian food as diverse as India itselfwhich, with almost a billion people, 14 main languages and a climate that ranges from the icy Himalayas to monsoon-drenched tropics, is diverse indeed. When I returned to London after living in southern India in the mid-1980s, I could find south Indian food only in small cafés in suburbs that had large Asian populations, like Tooting, where I now live. But in the last few years, high-end Indian restaurants serving authentic regional cuisine have been opening up all over the city. Some have even taken the next step, creating inventive renditions of regional dishes that are so refined they have earned the restaurants Michelin stars.
For years it was difficult to bring in top-caliber chefs from India because of Britain's strict immigration policies, but the government relaxed the rules last year. That helped Cinnamon Club hire its chef, Vivek Singh, from an exclusive hotel in Jaipur and open to great fanfare in April. Iqbal Wahhab, the owner, spent three years and nearly $5 million to build the Cinnamon Club inside a grand and sober former library. Part of Wahhab's mission is personal vindication: The founder and former editor-in-chief of Tandoori magazine, he is determined to confound his critics, to "modernize" and elevate London's Indian food by using less ghee (clarified butter), subtler flavors and the elaborate presentation normally associated with European haute cuisine. Singh turns out dishes that any Michelin-starred chef would be proud of: kedgeree (Indian risotto) that's artfully topped with deep-fried lentil patties and desserts such as samosas made of carrot halwa served with cardamom yogurt sorbet. We'll have to wait and see if the Michelin inspectors agree.