Ruby Murray’s Anniversary
Right back in the very depths of time, and here I’m talking almost 40 years ago, when I was fresh into London from Germany, I coincidentally found myself a boyfriend who, like me, was of German extraction. As he’d grown up in Ireland and spent many years at a famous English public school, he couldn’t have been more anglisised if he’d tried. He was a real cool dude with handmade leather shoes but holes in his jumper, a cut glass accent but a penchant for seedy cocktail bars and a messy flat at a smart address. You know the type. He also had a sharp intellect, good looks and a wicked sense of humour but was so reserved that, had he been any more so, we’d have never got beyond shaking hands. As it was, we mainly socialised, talked, drank and ate. After my heady student days where my friends and I moved around in a great tidal wave of a group from cheapo Chinese eaterie to cheapo Greek taverna and everyone counted out their bill contribution in the small denomination coins they’d scraped together from treasures found under and in the sofa, this guy, barely older than I, was pretty much the first to book a table for a proper date and then pay for us both in what seemed like a most sophisticated, grown up gentlemanly way. I was smitten, holey jumpers and all.
I liked wearing the super short skin tight black lycra dresses of the day, bum pelmets, really, and we listened to Ultravox, the Boomtown Rats, the Pretenders, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, dancing the night away at some understatedly cool and laid-back club in Fulham or Chelsea.
Notting Hill, in those days, had a decidedly rough reputation and was far removed from the sleek, chic area it is today. We all seemed to know someone who knew someone who had been mugged there, so we rarely ventured into that particular neck of the woods. But this boyfriend and I were a little more adventurous than our Sloaney compatriots and were rather drawn to the West Indian vibe of the area, the Portobello Road, which was then still a genuine antiques and flea market, and the crumbling elegance of the formerly grand houses and villas there.
People in the know were soon talking about an amazing Indian restaurant on Westbourne Grove, Khan’s, possibly the first in London without flock wallpaper. Still exotic looking with frescoed walls and huge columns disguised as palm trees, this unusually large airy dining room prided itself on its very contemporary concept. The food was delicious, copious and very reasonable and soon it became very much the place to be seen for the trendy young avant-garde.
Wind on several decades: our early twenties romance predictably fizzled out as they are prone to do, and eventually, much later, both of us settled down happily, and this time for the long haul, with other partners. However, as luck would have it, we remained very good friends, incorporating our new partners into this friendship. We went to each other’s weddings and we stay at each other’s houses in Berlin and London respectively.
With all of this backstory in mind and now living in Notting Hill, the Lovely Husband and I thought a trip down my memory lane for a curry might be great fun. A table was booked and off to Khan’s we tootled with great anticipation.
Khan’s is at the less salubrious end of Westbourne Grove, the stretch that is teeming with people entering and leaving supermarkets and queueing at the bus stop right outside. Inside, it is spread over two large dining rooms with a further function room downstairs. It still sports the painted walls and the palm tree columns but these days, there’s a take away counter by the entrance and several TVs showing sports on the walls. Now, as back then, it’s heaving with people and every table is filled with the waiters hurrying back and forth almost hectically. The clientele, it seems, is an even mix of South East Asian, Middle Eastern and Anglo Saxon locals, some in large family groups, a promising omen for the food yet awaiting us, which, as signs assure us, is Halal. Gone, somehow, is the sense of generosity and airiness, these days it just seems vaguely untidy and quite insanely busy.
We get shuffled to a small table at the front of the restaurant, feeling slightly in the way of everyone. As we dither a little over our choices, the waiter gets impatient and moves off. He’s busy and can’t be doing with explaining the items on the menu. The Lovely Husband chooses a Chicken Chilli Masala with Basmati rice and an okra side dish of Bhindi Bhaji and I, most unusually, go for a Meat Tikka, marinated lamb chops barbequed in a clay oven, Raita and garlic naan.
Khan’s doesn’t serve alcohol, so we make do with glasses of tap water.
We sit, people watch and chat over the background din and, in time, our meal arrives. The naan is instantly disappointing. It lacks the buttery spongeyness which normally makes this bread so very good and perfect for sauce mopping. My chops are okay but a little dry and bland. I’ve had a lot worse but I’ve also had a lot better. The curry is tasty and nicely spiced and comes with a large bowl of raita making our separate raita order completely unnecessary. It would have been nice if the waiter had mentioned that when we ordered. The ‘Ladies Fingers’ taste good too. and the portions are just about adequate. All in all, it’s a perfectly acceptable Friday evening curry experience but it’s not really anything to write home about.
The dessert menu is a long list of ice creams and kulfis, all with matching pictures, always a worrying sign, I’d say. They don’t ring our bell and anyway, by now we’re ripe and ready for a glass of wine. It is Friday evening after all! Besides, the intense hustle and bustle of the restaurant does not make for a relaxed post dinner chill out, so we ask for the bill.
Here, unlike in other Indian restaurants, each and every item is listed and priced. Popadoms and chutneys are not automatically served to begin with, for instance, nor are those little bags of minty breath fresheners produced at the end. If you want all that, you can order it individually. Prices are very reasonable though. Main courses are around the £7.80 mark with only the Thalis and some fish dishes slightly more expensive. Side orders cost about £4.50, starters mostly less than that, with the different breads each for under £3. The little extra bits and pieces soon add up, but even so, we only pay £29.10 including service charge for our food.
We fight our way through groups of people waiting for tables and speed home to a calmer and, dare I say it, more civilized environment for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine and a slice of Torta de Almendras recently brought back from Barcelona. A deep sigh of relief escapes us both. Our dinner was nice enough but I can’t see us dashing back to Khan’s anytime in the next 40 years, frankly.
N.B. For the Non Brits among my readers, Ruby Murray is Cockney rhyming slang for curry and a Ruby anniversary is after 40 years of marriage
Khan’s, 13-15 Westbourne Grove, London W2 4UA Tel.: 020 7727 5420 www.khansrestaurant.co.uk