The Cinnamon Club was the brain-child of Iqbal Wahhab. Hmmm, that name rings a bell. Yes, my dear musing reader, you are right, Iqbal is the very chap who leapt to celebrity after famously describing Indian waiters in the UK as miserable gits. I am sure he won just as many supporters as he did critics. Indian restaurants in general did not have a good reputation for service. There were notable exceptions but on the whole your welcome at the local curry house would range from muted to nonexistent.
The Old Westminster Library was first opened to the public in 1893 and was carefully converted into The Cinnamon Club in 2001. It should have opened in 2000 and the reasons why it didn’t are a catalogue of building and financial horror. Money trickles too slowly, builders down tools, builders find other work, money arrives, builders are otherwise occupied, and bits of building fall off. A lesser man than entrepreneur Iqbal Wahhab would have thrown in the towel.
The very culinary fabric of the new Cinnamon Club was a catastrophe. The stoves, and they are always handy in a restaurant kitchen, arrived late and when they were installed the kitchen was still minus a couple of vital parts: gas and electricity. Enter one youthful and talented chef from India, Vivek Singh, who saved the day by suggesting that the opening cocktail party could be salvaged if the brand new tandoors could be commissioned.
That first day was a baptism of fire in every sense. Vivek surmounted all odds (including a truly dumb waiter) to present the first of the Cinnamon Club’s many triumphs. That night saw the launch of what was considered by many to be the first “cool” Indian restaurant in London. It has undoubtedly helped to raise the bar on expectations, and on quality of food and service in Indian restaurants.
The Cinnamon Club won the Restaurant of the Year Award at the World Food Awards last November and became a member of Cool (that word again) Brands 2009/10. A collection of everything popular and trendy, Cool Brands has been listing the most fashionable brands of the year since 2001.
Perhaps cool isn’t the word that I would attach to The Cinnamon Club. That smacks of shifting and fickle tastes which often have nothing to do with quality. A step across the threshold of this restaurant will have you convinced that there must be other more fitting superlatives to use. Something appropriately Victorian and solid. ‘Regal’ works well but it does hint at stuffy, and The Cinnamon Club is far from that. Perhaps a melange of ‘stunning’ and ‘welcoming’ would fit the bill.
A soupçon of marble, the shimmer of leaded glass, tan leather and suede, high-backed banquette and dark wood contrive to offer the guest a haven from the rigours of Westminster. Those clients number amongst them the powerful and the posers, the celebrated and the celebrating, and anyone who wants a unique and thoroughly engaging culinary experience. Think fine French dining with an Indian vibrancy. An unbeatable marriage when those two elements are thoughtfully combined.
The restaurant is famed for its game. It’s unlikely that you would have come across much of that in your standard, or even high-end Indian eatery, but Executive Chef Vivek Singh says that “Offering game on the menu gives us a point of difference and immediately sets us apart from other kitchens, and so we started using it on our menus. But the real reason that I like to experiment so much with game in our restaurants is that in India, despite our rich heritage and tradition of cooking with game, we’ve lost all those recipes because of a complete ban on any type of hunting. It’s been like this since 1947.” His emphasis on fresh and seasonal ingredients allows for a frequently changing bill of fare. Every visit will offer you new delights prepared by Vivek and Head Chef Hari Nagaraj.
The venison at the Cinnamon Club is the best you will find in any restaurant of any ethnic persuasion. The meat is tender and the spices are subtle and aromatic. Roast saddle of ‘Oisin’ red deer with pickling spice and Bengali Beetroot Crush could be on the menu and if it is I’d advise you to take advantage.
Rabbit is an often overlooked meat and it’s a pity. It’s a white, free-range meat with a mild but distinctive flavour. Hunter’s Style Rabbit Tikka with dill and mustard and hot garlic chutney could entice you to try bunny for the first time. You won’t be disappointed. Crisp Zucchini (Courgette) Flowers with spiced vegetables and slow-cooked marrow is meltingly light and delicious and the choice of those who would rather not eat meat.
Fish and seafood are here in abundance. Norwegian King Crab and tamarind salad, Char-grilled Monkfish, Char-grilled Halibut with green pea and potato crush and yoghurt ‘Kadhi’, and Tandoori King Prawns with coconut malai curry might find their way to your dinner-plate.
The dessert list is surprisingly long. Puds are not a strong suit at most Indian restaurants and that’s a shame. Indian home cooks prepare wonderfully sweet and perfumed dishes. Buffalo milk ‘Kulfi ’ with green cardamom and pistachio is a classic but the Green Apple Sorbet is remarkable. There are lots to choose from so you might want to save some space and enjoy the Tasting Plate of assorted desserts. It’s a selection for two people and it’s one to linger over.
The Cinnamon Club can boast 27 pages of wines and cocktails. It’s another indication of its pedigree. No, not just the number of wines listed but the quality of the wines. The sommelier here is worth his weight in gold and that thought led me seamlessly to order a cocktail called Fool’s Gold, described as complex and clean: cardamom, Gabriel Boudier saffron gin and a sprinkle of edible gold leaf. This should be the restaurant’s signature cocktail, offering the glitz of a big international city combined with a waft of exotic spice. Perhaps that’s the best analogy of the restaurant itself: a harmonious mix of the best of East and West.
This restaurant has a loyal following of discerning regulars. It has received plaudits and gongs and it would seem impossible to find fault. I am not an expert on Indian food so I can’t suggest that a dish has its origins in a particular far-flung region of the subcontinent. I can’t compare the charms of a recipe here to those of my grandmother’s food in Agra, but I can state that the food here is amongst the best that you’ll find in either Asia or Europe. Your visit is sure to be memorable. Mine was.
The Cinnamon Club has its own cinema. It’s free and seats are available on a first-come first-served basis. Call for ‘forthcoming attractions’.
Breakfast weekdays 7.30am – 9.30am
Lunch Mon – Sat 12.00pm – 2.45pm
Dinner Mon – Sat 6.00pm – 10.45pm
Library Bar weekdays 11.00am – 11.45pm
Cinnamon Club Bar Mon – Sat 6.00pm -11.45pm
The Cinnamon Club
The Old Westminster Library,
30-32 Great Smith Street,
London SW1P 3BU
Phone: 020 7222 2555
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018