Pahli Hill (known as “Pali Hill” when it opened) is a new Indian restaurant in the heart of media land, in the site once occupied by Gaylord – an institution which was, let’s face it, in dire need of an upgrade. Pahli Hill is on two floors: a brightly lit ground floor with an open kitchen led by chef Avinash Shashidhara, and a basement bar called Bandra Bhai. The atmosphere feels like a bit like a Nando’s with the occasional relic or painting inspired by the restaurant’s namesake Mumbai ‘building society’ to remind you that you’re here for chicken of the bhuna kind, not peri peri. Perhaps that was intentional of restaurateurs Rahul Khanna and Kabir Suri of New Delhi’s successful Azure Hospitality; a traditional curry house this is not, and that’s rather refreshing.
Indeed, I don’t really remember any traditional Indian restaurants offering such an interesting array of drinks (except Dishoom perhaps). Whilst waiting for small plates of roast aubergine and chickpea sundal to arrive, I succumbed to the temptation of three mini Martinis marvellously called the “Flight Rider.” The flight starts with a ‘naked’ Martini (just plain old Hendrick’s and a vermouth that remained a mystery), then one with citrus and then finally a dirty one with olive brine. Each one was fairly diluted, I hasten to add, but they got the juices flowing.
The menu is designed for sharing and each dish, inspired by all corners of India, is reasonably priced allowing you to work up an appetite for repeat visits.
To start with, roasted aubergine with mint, yoghurt, toasted cumin and pinenuts was delicious, and a little spicier than I expected, on a creamy bed of Babaganoush. The eponymous Pahli Hill spicy beef seekh kebab with cucumber, coriander, mint, pinenuts and horseradish had a decent kick to it. Tenderstem broccoli were cooked slightly under (appropriately so) with a satisfying Bengali mustard.
Onto larger plates, biryani is of course a staple. This one pot wonder, originating from Persia before settling in South Asia, is difficult to get right and I’ve had mixed experiences. Though I’m no expert on Indian cookery, the best ones ensure that each bite contains rice, marinated meat, spices, caramelised onion, perhaps some nuts and dried fruit too, whilst not sacrificing any moisture. Here, the suffolk lamb biryani came in a pot hotter than the desert planet Arrakis. Saffron raita helped to calm it down and add moisture which was sadly needed as unfortunately the lamb was a little on the dry side. Perhaps retaining some of the fat instead of cutting it so lean might have helped, I don’t know. The sea bass steamed in banana leaf with raw mango was more successful.
The desserts, or “sweet plates”, are minimal. There’s no real love lost there – I don’t normally gravitate towards Indian desserts anyway – but I was intrigued by the carrot halwa. It’s a sort of formless carrot cake with crumbly elements of carrot, toasted nuts, perhaps little backnotes of ginger. On this occasion it was topped with the rather more bland vanilla instead of the advertised cardamom ice cream but, hey ho, I liked it anyway.
The service seemed a little strained with some of the staff coming across as a bit nervous and jittery. Perhaps they’re still settling in to their groove (they have only just opened after all in the toughest possible market). At all times they were polite, helpful and courteous.
Is Pahli Hill ground-breaking? Probably not. But it’s fun, delicious and reasonably priced. In these times that will do nicely.
79-81 Mortimer Street
by J A Smith