Punjab Restaurant in Covent Garden is the kind of favorite local place that everyone should have on their contact list. It's comfortable, it's in the right part of town and, best of all, the food is terrific.
Punjab has occupied the same corner, at the Shaftsbury Avenue end of Neal Street, for more than 60 years. It's the UK's oldest Northern Indian restaurant.
The Maan family have run it since they first opened in Aldgate in 1946 to serve punjabi home cooking to Lascar sailors from the nearby East London docks. That was before most Brits had even tried Indian food. Though it soon moved to Covent Garden (convenient for sightseeing, theater going and West End shopping), the owners have stayed true to their roots, building a loyal following with good, unpretentious and authentic food.
Serendipity on a Rainy Afternoon
I wandered into Punjab and tried its scrumptiously old fashioned North Indian food almost by accident. I'd probably been walking past it for years without taking much notice. Then a cancelled appointment, found me right outside it just as the weather turned ugly.
The Punjabi gods must have been watching because as I passed Punjab, a steady drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. I took shelter under the restaurant's wide blue awning and peeked in at diners in the warm, glowing interior. Next thing you know, I found myself seated inside, menu in hand.
Old Fashioned But Not Stuffy
Old fashioned familiarity with contemporary touches - drawings and prints on deep mauve or textured mustard yellow walls - combine for a comfortable ambiance. Large picture windows open onto a view of one of this area's livelier intersectons - the corner of Neal Street, Shaftbury Avenue and Monmouth Street - offering entertaining views of passing tourists, office workers, local characters and street theater. The restaurant spreads over several rooms in a 300 year old building.
Tables are a bit close together which made the noisy party of men behind me a bit of a pain, but with Covent Garden real estate at a premium, it's a small quibble.
Fans of North Indian cooking will find the Punjab menu equally familiar. The array of chicken, lamb, fish, prawn and vegetarian dishes includes a Tandoori selection for those who like their Indian food explosive. But most of the variations - Korma, Madras, Jalfrezi, - are warmly complex, spicy without being unnecessarily fiery.
I chose Butter Chicken, a classic Punjabi dish of chicken, marinated in spiced yogurt and then simmered on the bone in a sauce of tomatoes, butter and cream, seasoned with cumin and coriander seeds, cayenne pepper and crushed cardamom. The dish was rich and satisfying, just right for a grim, rainy day. And the portion, with two plump chicken portions, was easily enough for two. The sauce was too good to leave on the plate so I scooped it up with naan bread.
Punjab has posted a recipe for Butter Chicken on its website - definitely worth trying.
And the Go-Withs
Accompanying the chicken, I tried Gobi Aloo, a beautifully balanced combination of potatoes and cauliflower. This simple, vegetarian dish was a good example of the way Indian chefs combine many different spices - garlic, cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika, garam masala and coriander - to create distinctive and inimitable flavors. And again, a generous portion, sufficient for two.
Nicely cooked, plain basmati rice, an indulgent butter naan and a Coke completed my lunch (and my dinner with the leftovers packed to take home). With a 10% service charge, it came to about £25 - not bad in London's West End when you consider I could have shared it.
I'm looking forward to returning to try some of the other house specialties including Acharri Gosht, popular with Punjabi diners, and Grandad's Kali Dall, a black dall recipe created by the grandfather of the current owner. And if all that is Greek to you, don't worry. The thorough menu explanations of every dish are reassuring.
Most main courses are about £10 (seafood dishes cost a bit more), with accompaniments in about the £5 to £7 range. Condiments (raitas and salads) and breads from a wide selection (naan, paratha, roti and chapati, filled and plain, sweet and savory) are from £2 to £3.50. (Prices accurate in 2016)