Friday, June 30, 2006

Imli Restaurant

Imli Restaurant, 167-168 Wardour Street, London W1F 8WR
Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Rd
Cuisine: Modern Indian
Telephone 020 7287 4243

Where best to take a friend who has just spent two weeks attending an Indian wedding with family in Toronto than an Indian restaurant in London. A rather odd choice, but he looked forward to experiencing Modern Indian.

Imli is the more laid-back cousin of Tamarind, London's only Michelin-star rated Indian restaurant. The warm orange tones complement the dark wood-grain furniture and Indian accents like beads, prints and the odd sculpture give a chic and stylish feel to the place. Lots of natural light flood the place giving an airy and vibrant atmosphere.

The waitstaff seem to be divided into a sort of hierarchy. The friendly woman who attended us was helpful and knowledgeable, but the others who brought dishes out seemed uninterested, perhaps shy. The manager on the day seemed tense and on-guard.

The highlight of Imli are its juices, made on premises. My thyme lemonade had a herbal and refreshing tang, the mango passion was fragrant with the slight grittiness of fresh passionfruit seeds and the lychee pear juice had a floral berry-ness to it.

Our waitress informed us of the nature of Imli: Indian Tapas. Dishes are priced from £2.95 to £6.95 with most being around the £4 to £5 mark. The portions are small, but it's recommended that everyone order three to four dishes each to share. Nine dishes for three of us was more than enough.

The tender bulgar bean salad had a slight tart aftertaste, perhaps because of excessive bicarbonate used when soaking the beans. This was cooked in flavoursome vegetable stock and seasoned with a hint of asafoetida. The mushroom tikki came as three crumbed oversize nipples, or giant Hershey kisses; deep-fried crispy 'kebabs' flavoured with ginger and coconut. My favourite was the aubergine masala: succulent eggplant morsels in a thick dark gravy, served with rice or pratha. We also had a roasted vegetable salad, crispy chicken wings, deep-fried seafood platter, fish curry, masala grilled beef and pav bhaji - cumin-flavoured vegetables served with a fried bun.

A sweet and rich base of ghee-sauteed onion and garlic provides the general flavour of most dishes. Green curry leaf, tomato paste, ginger, mustard seed and fresh coriander provide variety and accents to the sauces. I prefer lighter, less rich Indian; the dishes were on the satisfying side. On a hot day, I'd stick to the light-and-refreshing section and maybe choose one or two from the other parts of the menu. Just under half the dishes on offer are vegetarian - a sizeable but not unusual number for an Indian establishment.

Dessert provided a small range of exotic treats. We chose an Indian caramel custard with coconut and jaggery, carrot fudge and raspberry and black salt sorbet. My Indian friend informed me that black salt is pungeant, strong and tastes like pork crackling: his father hates it. However, it pleasantly complemented the raspberry, offsetting the berry tartness with a slight savoury edge. The minute flecks of black on deep pink were also attractive. The silky-smooth caramel custard and the bitter caramel sauce paired well with the rich coconut. Our resident expert thought the carrot fudge ordinary, but I found it tasty as it was my first time sampling this. Sweetened milk is reduced with shredded carrots, melon seeds and raisins to give something resembling moist cake-crumbs.

Imli is the perfect location for a quick pre- or post-theatre snack, afterwork drinks and nibbles or a casual drop-in for lunch. The small portions allow one to sample a great variety of tastes and the fresh juices are a must.

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