Last night, Chris P. and I were invited over to Chiba by our dear friends Naoshi and Chizusu, who we have gotten to know through the music and bar scene down there. Apart from running Toppers, a cool little music bar and hangout for those on the Chiba gig circuit, and playing in their own band, Lionheart, Naoshi and Chizusu also have been running their own Indian restaurant since 1984: Sunsar.
We were invited to dinner by another dear friend, Toni R, who is a mainstay of the Chiba musical circle and a performer well loved by everybody who has had the pleasure to meet him or see him play. We were also joined by some great friends we have made over the past year, as well as a few new faces. After a well-balanced and flavourful set meal at Sunsar: three curries (Saag Chicken, Keema, and Butter Chicken), Chicken Tikka, Sheek Kebab, salad, and naan on repeat, we headed to Toppers for beers and an open mic night, where Toni took the stage and was joined by a plethora of talented musician friends. All in all a brilliant night!
This week, I was taken out to dinner by a very good friend of mine who is also keen on the delights of Indian and Nepalese cuisine. He took me to his favourite Indian/Nepalese restaurant in Tokyo, one which he has been a patron of for the past 10 years. As I rarely find myself in Meguro, it was totally new to me (one of the many benefits of doing JIMC is that there is a seemingly unending flow of great restaurant recommendations). We have been introduced to a plethora of restaurants recently, and Laxmi is the latest restaurant going on the list of places lovers of Indian cuisine should visit.
Jiei, the restaurants proprietor, greeted us warmly as we entered and put us in a corner seat, looking out over the whole restaurant. Laxmi's decor is inviting and well thought out and you get the sense that you are going to be treated well there.
We started with Masala Papad and a couple of pieces of Chicken Tikka. Then, after some serious deliberation, went for Mutton Dopiaza, Chicken Hydrabadi, chapatis and basamati rice. Jiei asked about spice level and I asked for hot (super hot, actually). After a bit of spice-level negotiating, defining what "super hot" or "super super hot" actually was, he said OK he'd make it hot, but didn't seem totally convinced it was a good idea.
The starters came. The papad were the soft variety (I'm a fan of the crispy type), but they went down well with two bottles of Kingfisher, though my friend had a bit of a gasp at the heat delivered from the heavily spiced masala garnish. The Tikka were a little dry but nothing that a squeeze of lemon and a bit of mint sauce couldn't fix. Overall, a nice little starter.
Then the curries arrived, with Jiei explaining that he told the chef to make the Dopiaza just "spicy" and not "extra spicy" as we'd agreed. He needn't worry, but I guessed he is the kind of host that is very attentive to his customers' overall experience and didn't want to overwhelm me by going over the top. By the time the food had hit the table, I lost any focus on what I'd asked for anyway. We dug in. The first bite of the Dopiaza was my favourite bit of the meal - soft mutton in a rich sauce. The lack of kick didn't diminish the flavour in any way - the combination of onions and green peas in a rich, ghee-based gravy complimented the meat perfectly. My dining partner's favourite dish, the Hydrabadi, was going down a treat - the chicken was soft and the sauce just the right level of tomatoey. I took a few spoonfuls. You could tell immediately that it had been made with care and attention. A very satisfying dish. The spice in the Dopiaza accumulated a bit and I started to get a bit of a sweat on, but no more than the reaction I get from most slightly hot curries. The chapatis were light but filling, and the basmati, well, like I said to my friend, I could have eaten that as a meal all by itself (I love basmati rice).
Before we left, we had a quick chat with Jiei. I told him that he could double (triple) the heat for next time, which he said he'd be happy to do. The curry was a good one but the thing I'd be most tempted to go back there for would be for Jiei's hospitality. A truly nice gentleman. Just goes to show, the quality of the food, the value, the atmosphere, and the hospitality all really do count.
It can be difficult to judge the merits of a restaurant on the first visit. Sometimes chefs and staff members have off days, sometimes the reviewer simply orders the wrong thing, and the first impression of a place might not be indicative of its overall quality. To increase the chance that we’ll get the best experience, we here at JIMC have a fairly steadfast set of rules for ordering Indian cuisine: order off the dinner menu if possible, order basmati rice and non-naan flatbreads, try to order dishes that the chef ought to be able to do well etc. These little techniques help us get a great meal, but “The JIMC Way” isn’t exactly reflective of how most Tokyoites get their Indian curry - I refer to the dreaded lunch set.
For Japanese locals and foreign residents who haven’t delved as deep into Indian cuisine, the average lunch set is par for the course for Indian food. A choice of two curries (with generic names like “Vegetable Curry”, “Egg Curry”, “Bean Curry”), a massive slab of naan, and a little salad, finished off with chai or lassi - this is Indian food to many people in Tokyo. It’s understandable that restaurants would want to cater to the tastes of the locals, and I know nothing sells better in Japan than mild Butter Chicken or Keema and a naan the size of your head. Our mission at JIMC is to raise the bar amongst our readers and introduce a better way, but in the meantime there’s no denying the lowest common denominator. With that in mind, I set out recently to try the well regarded Ghungroo in Omotesando, this time sidestepping the JIMC way to see what they can do with their lunch sets.
Ghungroo is located a short walk from Omotesando station, in the stylish side street next to the Spiral Building. Like the neighbourhood in which it’s located, the shop’s facade is modern - so much so that I’ve never noticed an Indian restaurant there, despite having walked that street hundreds of times. The interior is also modern and simple - clearly attempting to fit in with the other kinds of shops and eateries in this monied area. One wall is entirely lined with wine bottles - not exactly the drink I most equate with Indian food. That said the staff were perfectly friendly as they sat me down in front of the menu.
The first things I noticed were very good signs. First, their lunch plate (just over ¥1,000) offered a choice of Paratha instead of Naan, and even included a short description to inform people who think Naan is the only bread from that part of the world. The other happy omen was the option of a Dosa lunch. The chef is said to hail from Kerala, so I was very tempted to try this celebrated South Indian dish, but in the end I chose to test Ghungroo on the merits of their curries and opted for the lunch plate.
Unfortunately the curries on the menu matched the aforementioned trope and all had vague names. I chose the “Mutton Curry” and the “Beans Curry of the Day”, which turned out to be Chana Dal. Of course, I opted for the paratha, but stupidly forgot to ask if they had basmati rice. I later discovered that they did, after suffering through an entire portion of short-grain Japanese rice. But I’ll take responsibility for that blunder. Always remember to ask!
The Mutton Curry was decent - big chunks of mutton (though a bit tough) in a sauce that was well balanced and moderately fragrant. I wonder what they would have called it on the dinner menu - Mutton Masala I suppose - and though it was well prepared, it was a rather unexciting dish. The Chana Dal, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Chock full of chick peas it was almost hard to scoop up with the paratha, and the flavours were much more vibrant than the mutton. The highlight of the meal, however, was the paratha - hot and fresh it was expertly cooked, with just the right amount of buttery glisten on the top. Naturally everyone else around me had their giant naan boards, but I was grateful that the restaurant had at least offered us the choice.
The lunch also came with a bland side salad (shaved cabbage and dressing) and a perfectly normal lassi. I had asked for my curries spicy, and while they were barely on the radar of hot for my taste, the spice was properly cooked in, rather than just ladled on the top. All in all I would say Ghugroo shows promise - the basmati and paratha options are very welcome, and I think with a more unique order the chef(s) could really do something special. That said, I left my lunch plate feeling unimpressed. I want my Indian cuisine to delight me and excite my senses, and there are only a few places we’ve discovered in town that can do that at lunchtime (Dhaba India, Andhra Kitchen, Mandara). I’ll go back to Ghungroo for dinner one day and truly put them to the test. In the meantime, if your only experience with Indian cuisine in Tokyo has been lunch sets like these, you have an amazing new world waiting for you when you crack open that dinner menu.
There are a couple of good Indian restaurants in my local area. Atithi, until now, has been my second favourite - Sapna, with their fantastic Chicken Masala, has always been the best in my opinion. Though just for the sake of experimentation, I chose Atithi over Sapna for my evening meal last week. Then I found myself there again yesterday. Reason: the 0-20 spice challenge.
On Atithi's menu, they have a range of heat levels: 1-5, then 5-10, then 10-20. Last week I went for level 10, and I must admit that was a fair challenge to eat. So, hey, why not double up and see what happens? Last week I went on my own, but this time I was with Chris P., and we were both in the mood for something hot.
We ordered Chicken Tikka and papad to start, then for mains went for Chicken Hydrabad (level 20), and Buna Goshth (level 20), with saffron rice, roti, and a creamy bowl of raita on the side. The owner there gave us a few chances to change our minds on the heat level, but we were pretty sure that's what we wanted.
The food arrived. The papad were just right - crispy and with a slight peppery flavour. The Chicken Tikka was standard but did the job. Then came the mains. We started with a few huge mouthfuls. Chris P.'s Hydrabad was basic, but had some tender chicken within a sauce with a decent array of flavours. My Buna, on the other hand, was replete with green peppers and onions, chunks of soft mutton, and with a pinch of sliced ginger on top.
I've eaten some hot curries in my time (I was brought up on UK vindaloos), but this curry was incredibly hot. I had noticed as the dishes were being prepared, a dry, pungent aroma in the air, which emanated from the open kitchen, and as they were being brought over to our table, steam jettisoning from them. All of this was a good sign, of course, but I had no idea how it would be while shoveling it down.
After three spoonfuls, I was literally gasping for air. It was amazing. I told Chris to have a few spoonfuls of mine, and though he was fully into one the best, and the hottest, Chicken Hydrabads he's had, he was equally blown away by the Buna, agreeing that it was on a whole different level heat wise. The main difference was in the amount of liquid there was in the ingredients in the two dishes. In the Buna, each bite of juicy mutton gave a similar experience to eating Space Dust - it literally crackled in the mouth. It felt like you were eating whole chillies when chewing on the peppers and onions, and I had a burning sensation from my mouth all the way down the front of my chest as the capsaicin went to work. Thank god for the yogurt-based raita; without that, it would've been hard to finish everything. Though we did - no sauce remained in either bowl at the end.
It gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing that the hottest curry I've had in Japan is only a few minutes on foot from my home station. If you like it spicy, then give it a go. If you do go there, make sure you pick a curry with vegetables that have a high water content, though. It's an experience, I can tell you. Compared to other hot curries I've had since moving here, it's head and shoulders above them all. When they say it goes up to 20, they are not joking.