Here’s a curious thing. The menu at your average British curry house boasts any number of different sauces. Korma, bhuna, masala, balti, dansak, jalfrezi, madras, vindaloo. A huge and teeming variety.
In actual fact, however, they’re all the same.
At the start of each day, the chef prepares an enormous, bath-sized vat of ‘base sauce’: a warm beige gloop from which each of the night’s orders will derive. Lamb balti: the base sauce plus lamb and medium spice. Chicken vindaloo: the base sauce plus chicken and maximum spice. And so on.
I learnt this from an article in a newspaper last year. I suppose it should have occurred to me before, but even if it had, I wouldn’t have cared. I loved curry houses. Had done ever since my first visit, at the age of 15, when in a moment of imbecilic teenage bravado I ordered the vindaloo, and managed barely three mouthfuls before giving up, tongue ablaze and cheeks awash with tears. Not that it put me off. Throughout university and the whole of my 20s, curry houses were my favourite restaurants. So easy. So relaxed. So cheap. So beery.
But then, at some point during my 30s, my enthusiasm started to fade. I still liked curry houses. And I still liked curry. It was just that it all felt a bit… well… I don’t know… samey?
According to that article, I wasn’t alone. Britain, it said, was falling out of love with the curry house. The old Friday-night crowds were swarming instead to Nando’s or Wetherspoons, or trying the countless other foreign cuisines newly arrived in British cities.
But, while the bog-standard curry house has declined, another kind of British Indian restaurant has grown. This kind is more upmarket, modern, creative, distinctive. Dishoom, for example (five branches in London, one in Edinburgh), or Calcutta Street (two branches in London, both launched in the past year). And then there’s ‘The Cinnamon Collection’.
Vivek Singh opened the Cinnamon Club in London as long ago as 2001. But in recent years he’s begun to expand. Now he’s also got: Cinnamon Soho, near Carnaby Street; Cinnamon Bazaar, in Covent Garden; Cinnamon Kitchen City, near Liverpool Street; Cinnamon Kitchen Battersea, in Battersea Power Station; and his first Cinnamon restaurant outside London – Cinnamon Kitchen Oxford.
The original Cinnamon Club is housed in the book-lined grandeur of the Grade II-listed Westminster Library. The venue for Cinnamon Kitchen Oxford is a little less opulent: it’s a shopping centre. The Westgate isn’t a bad shopping centre, as shopping centres go: every square inch is dazzlingly polished, and the top floor, where Cinnamon Kitchen sits, offers fine views of the city. All the same, there’s no getting away from it: it’s a shopping centre. No matter how well your romantic dinner date has gone, the mood is liable to be somewhat deflated by a ride down two escalators, before exiting via John Lewis.
Cinnamon Kitchen itself, though, is still reasonably swish. In response to a question about one of the puddings, our waiter said, ‘Excuse me a moment, sir, I’ll just check with the pastry chef.’ Not a sentence heard often in the average curry house. The prices are a fair bit steeper than in Brick Lane or the Curry Mile, too. Take the drinks. Tiny bottle of Cobra beer: £4.50. Pint of Stella: £5.50. A single Tanqueray No. Ten gin and tonic: £12.
I’d taken a friend who is a long-standing fan of the original Cinnamon Club. We ordered a range of dishes to share. First we had sweet little slices of aubergine with sesame, tamarind and peanut crumble, followed by organic cured salmon, sprinkled with what appeared to be Rice Krispies, but was in fact green-pea wasabi jhalmuri (spicy puffed rice). Next, chargrilled sea bass in banana leaf with lime pickle: superbly soft fish, the pickle adding proper punch.
My main, though, was outstanding. A row of tandoori king prawns, simply a different species to the prawns I’d had in curries elsewhere: stout, firm, juicily superior, each comporting itself with a resplendently regal plumpness. Alongside them, a carefully constructed turret of fluffy ghee rice, and a pool of coconut-y sauce.
My friend, meanwhile, had the Rajasthani laal maas: essentially a lamb curry, the closest thing we’d had to a straightforward curry-house dish, but in texture and flavour so much lighter. The standard lads’-night-out curry leaves you with a gut like a cannonball, but this was gentle, airy, almost delicate.
Pudding wasn’t so great. Sticky ginger toffee pudding for me, lassi panna cotta for him – neither of them at all bad, but nothing special either. Then again, unless you’re a six-year-old gagging for a Punky Penguin, no one goes to an Indian restaurant for pudding anyway. Personally, I would forget it altogether, and just order yourselves an extra main to share.
I liked Cinnamon Kitchen Oxford. In fact, I can see the Cinnamons becoming a successful chain, supplanting old-fashioned curry houses across the land. At which point, of course, I’ll complain that they’re all the same, while yearning for the days of delicious base sauce.