10 August 2004

It's turning out to be a good year for Indian food. Vineet Bhatia has just opened his new restaurant, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, to rave reviews. A new fine-dining experience from Namita Panjabi's burgeoning empire, Amaya, is anticipated in the coming months. And already open and doing a brisk trade is Deya, the new restaurant from Sir Michael Caine.

Although Caine has a fairly good track record for London restaurants, following his last jaunt with Canteen in Chelsea Harbour and, before that, his involvement in Langan's Brasserie, it's difficult not to feel a little sceptical about actors opening eateries. But if he plays a leading role at Deya in terms of publicity, it is the impressive cast around him who will lend the operation its real weight: business partner Claudio Pulze, the man behind the Cuisine Collection group and previous partner at Canteen; and ex-Zaika chef Sanjay Dwivedi.

There are a couple of uncertainties, however. The Victorian interior slightly undermines the more contemporary design, featuring a dramatic chandelier and bright orange and turquoise chairs. And, on our visit at least, bland music was played on an hourly loop at a fluctuating volume.

That said, the staff are impeccable: well-versed, accommodating and welcoming, without being too pushy. Cocktails taste dreamy - sophisticated in their execution and worthy of more space than the bar area allows - and this is before we even mention the food. Dwivedi says the concept is to provide a menu which is more modern and lighter than the usual Indian fare, and is affordable. There are three very reasonable five-course tasting menus with wine at £33, £35 and £40, while the freshness of ingredients is apparent from the chutneys through to desserts.

"I used to smoke and drink, but now I'm very conscious about my health," says Dwivedi. "Indian food traditionally has a reputation for being unhealthy and full of fat, but what I serve at Deya is designed with both taste and health in mind."

The ghee is gone, with naan bread now simply brushed with oil. Cream is not used, and the best-selling bread is the wheat-free rye naan. Brown rice has even made an uncharacteristically popular appearance. "We're not trying to be different just for the sake of it," Dwivedi asserts. "You could say it isn't Indian, but it's just about giving the food a more contemporary twist and allowing other influences in."

Dishes on the menu are also restrained in their use of spices. Dwivedi insists that no more than six spices should be used in any one dish - and even fewer with fish. A snapper masala (£12.50) is coyly addressed with only ginger, cumin, a dash of chilli and some carom seeds. These are not tastes that stay with you to the following morning, adds Dwivedi. "It's full of flavour but it doesn't linger," he says.

Despite the offering of traditional north Indian favourites, such as butter chicken (£9.50) and rogan josh (£10.50), these are not the stars of the show. Far better (as part of the meat and fish tasting menu) was a delicate morsel of chicken marinated in masala cheese and fresh herbs. Also impressive was a creative vegetarian tasting menu (£22/£32 with/without wine), strongly influenced by the southern regions of India such as Goa. This opens with a rich and comforting cauliflower soup accompanied by an intensely flavourful cauliflower pakora.

Desserts, including the non-traditional rose water panna cotta (£4), are light on the tongue and allow Dwivedi's European training to shine through. "Deya is about accessibility," says Dwivedi. "You can come for a five-course tasting menu or you can pop in for chicken bread [naan bread topped with chicken tikka, £4.50] for lunch. It's Indian food for every day."

Deya, 34 Portman Square, London W1H 7BY.
Tel: 020 7224 0028

What's on the menu - Basmati rice cooked in home-made pickling spices, finished with crab meat, served with crab and sweetcorn samosa, £7

  • Scallops poached in coconut milk, lime leaf and kokum sauce, served with chilli and garlic mashed potatoes, £8.50
  • Curry leaf and mustard seed marinated prawns steeped in yoghurt and spices, cooked in the tandoor oven, served with pepper, coriander and shrimp rice pancake, £7.50/£15
  • Duck leg cooked gently in spices, served with a rich black lentil sauce, "perval bhunna" and masala mashed potatoes tempered with "urad dal", £11.50
  • Pine kernel, cashew and pistachio nut "chakki", with a silky chocolate mousse served with pistachio and mint ice-cream, £4
  • Pineapple in a pomegranate and ginger jelly, served with sweet yoghurt, £4

Chef's cheat Marinate lamb in papaya for one to two days. The fruit contains an enzyme that breaks down fat and makes the meat more tender.

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