The last time I reviewed Gandhi was in 2015. Back then they were tucked away in a basement overlooking Austurvöllur and I wrote about what a lost opportunity it was that they weren’t tapping into their potential by focussing on the strength of the kitchen — Kerala cuisine, instead of the trap of crowd pleasers.
For a small city, Reykjavik boasts of quite a selection of world cuisines, with cuisines from Asia, particularly South and South-East Asia being most popular. One could say that given the healthy competition, restaurants would be scrambling to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Especially given that Icelanders aren’t strangers to Indian cuisine — the oldest Indian restaurant turns 30 years old next year; it is particularly vexing that menus don’t go beyond clichés like butter chicken.
When many restaurants were closing around the pandemic, places like Gandhi with a stronger local clientele survived. Beyond that, Gandhi made a sound decision to move into a more visible, spacious location at Bergstaðastræti, with an expanded bar programme.
Popular restaurant interior designers HAF Studio were roped in for the overhaul and the result is a warm, semi-industrial space, with plush curtains, tan booths and a beautifully designed bar. The conscious choices to steer away from stereotypical notions of “Indian” restaurant design works mostly successfully – for a country with a rich heritage of handicraft, fabrics, and both traditional and modern art work, the cheap generic printed paisley mounted on the walls feels out of place. Overall however, the new location is efficiently geared towards gatherings big and small, with multiple seating choices; the lower level with its street glazed corner is especially suited for raucous group gatherings with a good dose of people-watching.
The restaurant has also expanded its moniker to Gandhi – Indian Restaurant and Bar. And they put that bar to good use. On a recent occasion, encouraged by our enthusiastic server, I enjoyed a rose scented, floral number, poetically named “Mahal Maharani” or palace queen. At just 2490 ISK (yes just, as you’d be hard pressed to find a cocktail in this city under 3000 ISK), you are handed a deep fuschia hued potion, with floating dried rose petals, their heady scent making their presence known, even before you’ve taken a sip. Sweetened with lychee and spritzed with rose flower extract, this made for a delightful prelude to our meal.
For teetotallers, the small selection runs beyond the usual suspects, and one can also request specific drinks. Growing up in India, it was commonplace to get a sweet or salty lime soda at restaurants, a sparkling, refreshing drink made with fresh lime juice, sweetened with sugar, taken over to the savory edge with a wee bit of salt and topped with bubbly soda. Gandhi’s version with roasted cumin Jeera Nimbu Paani (1290 ISK) is as enjoyable as the ones I grew up with.
For a brief moment last year, Gandhi offered what was at the time, the only Indian brunch, and a bottomless version at that. Sadly, it was a short-lived affair and from their marketing pictures, the food looked like it was striving for a menu with dishes rarely seen outside India — masala papad with cashew nuts, proper Punjabi looking samosas and biryani.
So it was with great expectation that I visited and revisited their new outpost since their opening. A precursory read over the menu reveals a North Indian menu studded with formulaic restaurant offerings like Paneer Tikka Masala, Butter Chicken, with a Goan dish here (Kombdi Xacuti) and a Kerala dish there (Alleppey Chemmeen Curry). The restaurant has also shared videos of dosas being prepared, but they are nowhere to be found on the menu. Instead, breads are limited to naan and tandoori roti.
The Tandoori section has also grown since 2015, and now boasts of several chicken and meat dishes. Mutton Barrah Kebab is a popular grilled lamb kebab, originating somewhere along the Grand Trunk Road. Steeped with history, this particular kebab is usually considered a sign of an experienced kebabchi who understands the delicate dance between the robust spicing of the marinade, to the selection of the meat and the piece-de resistance, the actual controlled cooking of the lamb chop.
The Barrah Chaamp (5490 ISK) at Gandhi, is a somewhat pale imitation of the original. The plating itself is a mishmash of India by way of Iceland, with completely unnecessary boiled potatoes tossed in a masala, nestling beside a chopped salad traced with a sweet-chilliesque sauce.
Perhaps this is intended for people to eat this dish as they would Icelandic-style lamb – meat, potatoes, sauce and a salad. But kebabs are either had as a centerpiece of the meal with flatbreads and thinly sliced onions and lime to be squeezed over, or as an appetizer. The meat itself is of a good quality and is cooked well, but the characteristic smoky char of a tandoori oven is amiss, as is the robust spicing, often redolent with pungent mustard oil. Grated raw papaya is almost always added as a tenderiser, helping cook the otherwise tough cut of meat. In lieu of tender lamb here, it is understandable if the kitchen excludes it, but the tinge of sweetness in the marinade while not off-putting, is certainly not traditional.
The rub with Gandhi lies in exactly that sticky spot where dishes are described as one, but arrive as something else altogether. The Old Delhi Butter Chicken (4490 ISK) refers to a very specific preparation of murgh makhani, pointing to the OG rendition of this much maligned, much misrepresented but hopelessly popular dish. Puran delhi style murgh makhani relies on the sweet and tart tomatoes doing the heavy lifting. Delicately spiced with maybe some cardamom and in utterly decadent versions, perhaps a strand of saffron, this dish is meant to be kissed with smoke thanks to the tandoori chicken. Buttery notes should come not just from the generous use of butter, but from crushed kasoori methi (crumbled, dried, fenugreek leaves) that are a signature taste of the dish. Here it arrives as a red looking “curry” with none of the nuance, delicacy or providence of the dish it claims to be.
Go regional, please
Things turn around with the Kerala dishes. The Alleppey Chemmeen Curry (4590 ISK) is true to its origins. Hailing from the picturesque backwaters of Alleppey from Kerala, a South Indian state often called “Country of the Gods.” This is a celebratory dish of land and sea. Cubes of raw mango (here slightly ripened, but hey, we are in Iceland) are cooked alongside hefty tiger prawns, in a ginger-garlic-shallot-tomato based sauce, lightened with coconut milk. Despite the missing curry leaves – essential really – it is a comforting dish, especially when eaten with plain steamed rice.
The Alu Paneer Koftha (4190 ISK) is another steadfast dish. Kofthas made with boiled potatoes, stuffed with crumbled paneer and spices, are gently fried, then tossed into a cashew nut based gravy. It’s one of those dishes that time and again prove the popularity of Indian food. Creamy, rich, indulgent, this is ideally mopped up with a butter naan. Other dishes like the Palak Paneer (4190 ISK) are faithful renditions, as is the starter of Kanda Bhajiya (1990 ISK).
Gandhi boasts of chefs from India and experts at regional cuisine. My feelings from 2015 are borne out yet again. This time however, Gandhi doesn’t need to look far and needs to catch up to the ambition and nowness of its own interiors, while listening, perhaps, to the strength of its kitchen, which lies in regional fare. Iceland has long been ready for it.
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