One of the very first restaurants I wrote about when I started this blog was The Cinnamon Club, chef Vivek Singh's magnificent haute Indian in Westminster. Since then I've eaten out countless times and that meal still stands out in my mind as being one of the best.
Expectations were understandably high then when I went along to try out Cinnamon Soho, the second, newly-opened casual offshoot of the SW1 original (the first, which I've not been to, is Cinnamon Kitchen in the City). As he'd been my date for that first memorable meal at The Cinnamon Club, best friend Anders was the obvious and only choice to come with me.
Located in a somewhat dark, fairly bland but inoffensive two-floor site on Kingly Street, home to both the estimable Wright Bros and execrable Fornata among others, Cinnamon Soho isn't without competition for the stomachs and wallets of the price- and quality-conscious diners it's aiming to attract. Based on what we ate, Vivek Singh isn't taking the competition lightly, because there's some seriously brilliant food coming out of the kitchen.
Refreshingly at a time when most new openings offer 'small plates' or some other portions 'concept', the menu at Cinnamon Soho offers starters, mains and desserts as well as a section of kichri - biryani-type dishes - and pies. There are also sections headed All Day, comprising lighter snacks and sandwiches, and All Balls! - why the exclamation mark I've no idea! - five varieties of spherical savouries served individually or as a selection.
We ordered the latter to share while deciding what to order but it was so large - two each of five balls, each served with a complementary sauce or relish - that it sufficed as a starter in itself. All but one - slightly pappy beef shammi kebabs - were excellent, particularly light, fragrant crab cakes and clever meat-free Bangla Scotch eggs, a spicy vegetable mix replacing the more usual pork.
Anders' main course - smoked saddle of Cumbrian lamb with a spiced onion sauce - was typical of several items on the menu, British dishes given a modern Indian twist through spicing and saucing (elsewhere on the menu there's curried cullen skink and Roganjosh [sic] shepherd's pie). Prettily plated, sliced and fanned out alongside a timbale of rice, the lamb was beautifully tender and expertly spiced, the subtle smoking of the lamb flattered by the depth of the soubise.
Keralan fish curry is one of my favourite Indian dishes so I was excited to see it reinterpreted here as a seafood pie. The curry - silky, creamy, spicy and tamarind-tangy - was wonderful and the crisp puffed-pastry lid, studded with cumin seeds, served perfectly as an alternative to bread for mopping up the sauce. We also tried a couple of sides, a fairly ordinary potato paratha and some tasty Masala mash.
Indian desserts are known for often being face-pain-inducingly sweet, but Cinnamon Soho's managed to induce only pleasure. Carrot halwa was served as four small slices of neatly-rolled confectionery with a scoop of cinnamon ice-cream, and while certainly sugary it wasn't oppressively so. Lassi panna cotta had a cleansingly off-sour flavour and bouncy texture, tamarind-glazed figs adding zest.
In addition to a couple of very fine cocktails - an elderflower-scented Garden Mojito for Anders and a Manhattan-ish Orange Julep for me - we drank a bottle of light, peppery Tour de Pins Grenache from the mostly Old World list which offers plenty of choice under £30, a restrained approach to pricing which applies equally to the food, with mains peaking at £17.
Service was as polished and professional as one would expect from an offshoot of The Cinnamon Club, but at times verged on the over-formal; Cinnamon Soho is meant to be a more casual, accessible restaurant than its grand sibling and to achieve that, front of house needs to loosen up a bit - perhaps ditching the starchy waistcoat-and-trousers uniform for jeans and t-shirts would be a start.
There's also a bit of an identity crisis in the way food and drink is presented, in that just about every current cliché - cocktails in jam jars, starters on slates, oven-baked dishes brought to table in their own Staub pans - has been picked up, rather than the restaurant finding a direction of its own that's as innovative as the food. These, though, are the gripes of a restaurant train-spotter; most people eating out less often - which let's face it, is most people - would be very unlikely to find these as roll-your-eyes tiresome as I did.
If the restaurant as a whole then is not quite, yet, the sum of its parts, it's at least starting on a very firm footing, getting the two crucial elements of food quality and value-for-money pretty much spot on. If the room and service can be lightened up and at least some of the more hackneyed presentation habits done away with, then Cinnamon Soho could stand to be as good a restaurant, in its own very different way, as The Cinnamon Club itself.
Cinnamon Soho, 5 Kingly Street, London W1B 5PF Tel: 020 7437 1664 http://www.cinnamonsoho.com
I was invited to review Cinnamon Soho
Posted by +Hugh Wright