David Ellis reviews Colonel Saab: Cup-a-Soup chicken and frisbee rotis… this is a curry catastrophe

·4-min read
Grub’s up: Diners at this new Holborn restaurant sit under a canopy of chandeliers  (Matt Writtle)
Grub’s up: Diners at this new Holborn restaurant sit under a canopy of chandeliers (Matt Writtle)

People who’ve any interest in this reviewing malarkey tend to fall into two camps: small-talk sorts who ask about the best place I’ve ever eaten, and the waggish types wondering which was the worst. Often a tricky question to answer with any erudition, hats off to Colonel Saab for handily throwing their hat into the ring: I can’t remember a meal worse than this one, even accounting for the occasional instance of food poisoning.

Apparently the chap behind it, Roop Partap Choudhary, is so successful he’s investing some £15 million in London’s hospitality scene — good on him. I look forward to seeing where any of it ends up; not much can have made it here. The fourth restaurant in five years on this cursed Holborn site, the decor is mostly make-up slapped on the bones of previous incumbent Gezellig. Granted, there are new touches: we sit under a canopy of chandeliers, maybe 20 crammed in where there’s space for four (“Job lot, you reckon?” my pal wonders). There is admittedly one particularly beautiful artwork in the centre of the room, shimmering with gold, although the pleasure we took from it was somewhat muted after we apparently insulted the manager by enquiring after its age. “1790,” said he. “Wow,” said we. “Why, do you want something even OLDER?” he spat back, directing us to a 500-year-old door so cherished that they’ve plonked it on the staircase down to the loos.

What else? An atmosphere might have been fashioned from the few tables filling up, including one of steadily boozing businessmen, but the music put paid to any hope of hearing chatter and laughter: the powers that be have elected to pipe morse code through a flugelhorn. The Berlin remix.

‘Less-ish’: Cauliflower 65 (Matt Writtle)
‘Less-ish’: Cauliflower 65 (Matt Writtle)

At least Saab is consistent: food and service kept pace with the rest. After swapping my menu for a slightly more correct one — the prices were still wrong, but at least this time round there were starters — we looked to order. As a rule, I adore Indian food. It is all personality and so rarely short on flavour. Often it can be vividly inventive. “What’s the thing to have? What’s interesting?” we wondered. “Do you like chicken?” came the reply. Inspired. In the spirit of giving this spot a chance, we thought the signatures might help. Cauliflower 65 kicked things off; the 65 referring to the number of spices chef uses for batter. Or at least in theory: “I think they actually use about five,” came the admission. This I quite liked and fans of Korean Fried Chicken might too. The Landlord with me not so much: “You know when something is moreish?” he glared at me, visibly resentful I’d brought him here, “Well, this is less-ish.”

With chicken recommended again, we succumbed: we perhaps should have cottoned on from the unsettling name that Memsaab’s Chicken Curry would be a toothless thing. Indian food often speaks with thrilling precision to its geographical home; this spoke to Batchelors Cup-a-Soup. Not even chicken — cream of mushroom.

Toothless: Memsaab’s Chicken Curry (Matt Writtle)
Toothless: Memsaab’s Chicken Curry (Matt Writtle)

Wine was another recommendation — “one of the worst I’ve ever tasted,” said Landlord — so perhaps our waitress tasted the list while suffering from Covid. Or hated us. Lamb shank, our choice and special enough to be named after the restaurant, had — like the Cup-a-Chicken — good meat. Unlike the Cuppa, this sauce was both balanced and nuanced, a note of something like dates in there, but perhaps it was tamarind. Whatever it was, it was promise, the faintest note of hope. More of that, please. We flat-out rejected the basket of rotis beside it, though, having no particular desire to play frisbee.

None of this was cheap. London is not suffering for new, high-end Indians: Chet Sharma’s Bibi in Mayfair is an innovative, astonishingly good spot. Rohit Ghai has been getting top notices for Manthan. Atul Kochhar has two new spots. The competition is too fierce for a place like this, where it feels as though a lack of attention to detail may almost be a point of pride. The word? Inept, and even that doesn’t even cover it.

193-197 High Holborn, WC1V 7BD. Meal for two including drinks and service, around £150. Open Monday-Saturday, noon-3pm and 6-10pm; colonelsaab.co.uk

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