“ Address: Victory House / 99-101 Regent Street / London / W1B 4RS / Tel: 020 7734 1401 „
The Veerswamy is advertised as London's oldest Indian restaurant (not the first which was Gaylord's) and it has long been the wish of our household to eat there. Himself would spend hours looking at their website planning what he would choose if he had to pick from that day's menu and on our most recent visit to the capital I decided to put him out of his misery.
We booked through TopTable and confirmation from the restaurant came through within a couple of hours. We chose to visit at Sunday lunchtime and booked for 1.00pm as we wanted to leave enough time for a leisurely lunch and still have plenty of time to catch our train north. As a result we were among the first in the restaurant which is perhaps why, at first, we felt a bit overwhelmed by the number of staff fussing round us.
Although the restaurant is on Regent Street (the Piccadilly Circus end) the rather modest entrance is on Swallow Street. The lobby is tiny and can get crowded as people hang their coats. We were able not only to hang our coats but to stow our weekend bags too. We were given plastic tags matching those attached to our belongings but when we came back down after our meal the receptionist remembered exactly which items were ours. It was raining very heavily on this particular day so our coats were very wet when we handed them over. What we did not know until we were leaving was that she had hung one on top of the other making the lining of my coat cold and damp and I felt quite chilled when I out my coat on.
Uncoated and de-luggaged the lift was called and we made our way to the next floor where the main restaurant is. Here we were met by a young lady who took us straight to our table. The decor is fantastic and really quite eclectic. I understand it has recently been refurbished. We were sitting at a separate table for two but opposite us there were tables for two which had one free standing chair, the other being part of a long white leather upholstered seat that ran the length of that section of the restaurant. A massive chandelier is rather striking but surprisingly doesn't dominate because of clusters of colourful glass bell lamps suspended from the ceiling. On one wall was a lovely touch - a series of dolly mixture- coloured turbans suspended from hat pegs. Framed black and white photographs of the waiters and staff in the early days of the restaurant were dotted here and there.
We were given a special drinks card and a menu but we weren't pressed to order a drink immediately which I was pleased about. The card listed a number of beers as well as alocholic and non-alcoholic cocktails. Only hours earlier I had been very ill with food poisoning from something eaten the previous day and had managed to drag myself to Regent Street with great determination so I decided that a non-alcoholic option was probably the wisest choice and picked a long drink flavoured with lime juice, ginger and mint priced at £5.25. It was very refreshing and I am sure the ginger had a settling effect on my stomach. The curry connoisseur chose a Meantime Pale Ale (£5.50) which he said worked very well with his food. The drink was brought out in the glass and Himself, being as nerdy about beers as he is about food, was disappointed not to be able to have a look at the bottle.
The menu was very easy to navigate and it was good to learn that the lunch time "prix fixe" menu is clearly indicated on the menu so you don't have to ask for an alternative menu. Personally I don't find it demeaning to ask for the "cheap menu" but I have been to places where the staff have been obviously snooty about being asked for the cheaper menu. The "prix fixe" menu was billed as three courses for £22 which is tremendous value when you see that the cheapest main course is a shade under £20 and most come in around the £20 or £21 mark. No dishes were excluded from the "prix fixe" menu which I found surprising: you simply choose a starter, a main course and a dessert from the main menu for the set price. Rice and naan bread were complimentary.
The menu was not extensive but it did manage to cover a variety of styles of Indian cooking and included meat, fish and vegetarian dishes. I did struggle to make my selection but that was only because everything sounded so delicious. "Veeraswamy" is a contemporary Indian restaurant rather than the British style "curry house" so while some familiar dishes may appear on the menu, you are more likely to see some dishes you don't already know. In the end I chose the crab and ginger soup to start followed by a prawn curry from southern India. Himself picked a starter of tandoori red snapper followed by a green lamb curry.
It should be said now that one member of staff took the order after which another brought our drinks. Yet another brought napkins which were dramatically unfolded and placed on our laps: this kind of fussing makes me uncomfortable. Another member of staff came to ask if we would like water; a bottle of expensive looking sparkling water (it turned out to be £4.35) was brought to the table and our glasses were regularly topped up during the course of our meal. I wonder if some diners had requested tap water because I saw staff pouring glasses of water from rather stylish pewter-look jugs at other tables.
Two waiters came with the starters. The food was always served from a collapsible table. Himself's starter was placed in front of him without ceremony while one waiter placed a small white bowl containing a little heap of crabmeat in front of me, then the other poured in the broth from a small jug. The aroma was wonderful, mainly ginger but also subtle hints of other spices. The soup was hot in two ways - it was piping hot in temperature and it had a hefty chilli kick to it which was not immediately apparent and took me by surprise when it did appear. The crabmeat was of good quality, very white and shredded very finely. The other starter was presented as two chunky pieces of red snapper fillet, red on the outside revealing beautiful white flesh once you cut into it. It came with a small dish of tasty relish. We were delighted with both dishes.
After a suitable wait, our main courses arrived and the metal dishes were placed on plate warmers. Something I did notice was that the white plates that were put in front of us were quite scratched which, given the standard of presentation in the restaurant in general, was very noticeable. Both dishes were very generous and I was surprised how many big juicy king prawns my dish contained. The lamb dish was also packed with plenty of sizeable chunks of meat and in spite of the slightly disconcerting grey appearance of the meat, once cut into the flesh was still slightly pink and nicely tender.
The prawn dish was excellent; the prawns were just right and the tomato based sauce was hot and flavoursome without being too fiery. The lamb dish was also good but not so hot in spite of having been marked on the menu with a chilli to indicate it was a hotter dish. The rice was brought in small bowls and was cooked to perfection. The naan bread was not the standard giant kind served in curry houses but light and slightly crisp even if it was drenched in a frightening amount of butter. We tried not to eat all of the bread and rice too quickly (because we were too mean to order extra) and we were surprised to be brought more rice and bread later on.
We asked for a short break before deciding on desserts. Himself does not normally have a dessert but since it was included in the price and it was a special occasion, he decided to make an exception. There were only a few choices for dessert but there was enough variety. Rather than picking a dessert and being disappointed I asked the waiter to tell me which ones did not contain nuts. A caramelised banana split and the mango sorbet did not contain nuts, another could be presented without the nuts sprinkled over the top. I chose the mango sorbet which came in a martini glass and looked very colourful garnished with two raspberries and a mint leaf. Himself chose a traditional Indian dessert comprising which deep-fried little strips of dough that looked a bit like pretzels, which came with a clotted cream over which a nut and spice mixture was sprinkled. Not normally one for very sweet desserts he declared it delicious and thought that although it didn't look very substantial when it was presented it was actually just the right size because the cream was so rich. Meanwhile my mango sorbet was very tangy and an excellent way to cleanse the palate.
After we'd finished coffee was suggested but we decided to pass as we knew we'd be drinking plenty of it on the train. There was no pressure to free up the table and we were able to finish our drinks at leisure. The bill was all correct and a 12.5 per cent service charge had been added though we could have removed this and decided on our own tip if we'd have wanted. I do feel that 12.5 per cent was a lot to add but there are an awful lot of staff for this to be shared among. While I'd have preferred to pay less, I suspected that if we'd have decided on our own tip it would have been questioned and I didn't feel I had a concrete enough reason to object (can you say you thought the staff were too attentive and "tip down" accordingly?).
Having had lots of staff attend to us and make myriad check-backs during the meal it was odd to note that none of them bade us farewell as we left. Downstairs in the cloakroom the receptionist was as friendly as when we first met which she must get credit for as it must be lonely standing down there all afternoon alone. I hope she shares in the tips because I was too mean to tip her separately.
Veeraswamy was every bit as good as we'd expected and, unusually for us as we like to try new places, we both said we'd happily go back. The prix fixe menu was exceptional value and you can't imagine anyone not taking advantage of it. However, I would say that the main courses are a little expensive if you don't order the prix fixe menu.
Although I'd have preferred few check-backs from the staff, the service was on the whole excellent; nothing seemed any trouble and I was impressed by the way the waiters checked with the chef about whether any of the dishes we ordered contained nuts (not just the dessert). I'd have preferred to have had one waiter attend to us throughout as I wouldn't have had to explain twice about my nut allergy, but this is a minor niggle.
I would recommend Veerasway without hesitation. It's in an easy to reach and find location, is stylish and comfortable and offers an excellent standard of cooking. I enjoyed a meal that I will remember for a long time to come.