Nick goes off-piste into the depths of Chelsea to try an Indian restaurant that’s become an institution.
Walking the backstreets of Chelsea, heading south towards the river, is a great way for inveterate window peerers like me to pass the time productively. As interior lights flicker on as dusk falls, the wealth and comfort on display is heartening in its Englishness; lots of fringed table lamps and chintz plus chaps who look like retired brigadiers sitting with their good lady wives and listening to the wireless.
The houses that front the river are gorgeous, if quite narrow, and it is a bit of a surprise when one turns out to be the Indian restaurant I was looking for, I rather assumed it would be among shops, but then this is Chelsea.
The Painted Heron, no standard Indian name here, has been flying high since opening in 2002 under chef patron Yogesh Datta, picking up awards all the time. It is a neighbourhood restaurant in a neighbourhood where the locals tend to go further afield to spend their money. And yet I can see it’s pretty much full even on a midweek evening.
Inside is unremarkable; it’s calmly posh with muted colours and heavy linen. Some people don’t like linen, they find it intimidating but not me. I love the weight of decent napkins and the sound deadening effect of tablecloths. God help me I even like a waiter refilling my glass.
The menu won accolades for being often experimental (at the time), although fourteen years later it has become in some ways mainstream to experimental. Personally I am happy to eat what might be called clichÃƒÂ© dishes as long as they are done well with careful, selective fresh spicing and not great handfuls of pre ground stuff. It does of course make all the difference.
Poppadum seemed if not homemade certainly one up on the often frazzled cardboard served elsewhere and had been folded before being fried, creating a nicer appearance than the usual stack.
Chilli crusted wild soft shell crab was excellent, although I do always find myself a bit creeped out by what is clearly a crab, on my plate, covered in batter, sustainable Pollock fish tikka was excellent, as were tandoori black tiger prawns. S had the mixed game platter; wood pigeon breast, quail, gressingham duck tikka and was happy although the pigeon was, as pigeon often is, a little overcooked. But then pretty much anything but raw is overcooked with pigeon, it has so little fat to defend itself from the heat.
Avocado Lassi as a kind of palate cleanser was remarkable, I’d have never thought it would work but it did and it managed to be both a bit thick and weirdly refreshing at the same time, rather like some left-wing comedians.
Good to see Chicken tikka on the menu, it’s a classic for a reason and while purists might sneer at the cream it tastes so good it’s hard to stay sniffy for long. Here the spices were smoothly balanced and the addition of sweet chili just enough to add a mild fire.
I don’t like lamb shank in any cuisine, the sight of it repels me rather. Yes, silly I know but there you are. Lamb shank’osso bucco’ in super hot curry and sorrel was something I sampled warily, the lamb was very tender and the sauce seriously fiery. I liked what I ate but had more than enough with the forkful. On the other hand, Rose veal, stir fried, griddle ‘tawa’ spices, red onion, chilli powder (sic) was more my taste although I don’t know what the tawa reference was about as a tawa is a cooking pan. Nor did I quite see why’chilli powder’ needed to be mentioned.
Fried,’poryal’ vegetables – cauliflower, mange out, were a novel treat and I also liked yellow lentils with spinach as well as a cooling raita with the unusual addition of pomegranate seeds, but a watercress, mango and sweetcorn salad was less successful as sweetcorn, unless grilled, always seems bland to me. And, it’s subjective I know, I just never like the look of those kernels on the plate.
Carrot halwa profiterole, gulab jamun black forest and rose petal ice cream were all good, it never ceases to amaze me how carrot can actually be turned into something so extra-delicious but then I was raised on over-boiled carrots and the horror has never quite left me.
The Painted Heron certainly lives up to its reputation and it’s no wonder it’s become a fixture in Chelsea. A smart interio, cool terrace withits own dishes, and a menu that remains carefully poised between unshowy innovation and careful, accurate renditions of the classics.