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 in London, for nearly 70 years. It's the UK's oldest Northern Indian restaurant.
The Maan family runs it as they have since first opening in Aldgate in 1946. The family set out 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 the restaurant 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.
Punjab - a Surprise Discovery on a Rainy Afternoon
We wandered into Punjab and tried its scrumptiously old fashioned North Indian food almost by accident. Like a lot of people working in the area and tourists heading for the center of Covent Garden, we'd probably been walking past Punjab for years without taking much notice. Then a canceled appointment, found us right outside it just as the weather turned ugly.
The Punjabi gods must have been watching because as we passed Punjab, a steady drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. We sheltered under the restaurant's wide blue awning and peeked in at diners in the warm, glowing interior. Next thing you know, we were 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 intersections - the corner of Neal Street, Shaftsbury 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 makes the occasional noisy party celebrating office workers a bit annoying but with Covent Garden space at a premium, this is a small price to pay for such good food at such reasonable ( for London) prices.
Fans of North Indian cooking will find the Punjab menu homey and 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.
Their Butter Chicken is a popular standout, winning kudos from print and online reviewers and, since 2011, annual awards from TripAdvisor readers. It's 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 is rich and satisfying, just right for a grim, rainy day. The serving, with two plump chicken portions, is easily enough for two (so a bargain at about thirteen pounds). The sauce is too good to leave on the plate so plan to scoop it up with naan bread. The restaurant used to post a recipe for this dish on its website but the site has had a revamp and the recipes are gone - so you'll just have to visit. It's honestly worth going out of your way for just this dish alone.
And the Go-Withs
Accompanying the chicken, try Gobi Aloo, a beautifully balanced combination of potatoes and cauliflower. This simple vegetarian dish shows off Punjabi chefs' skill at combining 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, indulgent butter naan (a Punjab specialty) and a Coke completed our lunch (a comprehensive wine list, plus beers and spirits, are also available). With a 12.5% service charge, it came to about 33 pounds - not bad in London's West End when you consider two adults could have shared this meal.
Keeping up with the times: A lot of Indian and Punjabi dishes are naturally Vegan, being meat and dairy-free. But just to make people on a plant-only diet more comfortable, the menu ( in 2019) now has a Vegan section with plenty of choice.
We're 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.
Prices at Punjab
Most main courses are between 12 and 15 pounds, with seafood dishes costing the most. Vegetable dishes are in the seven to eight pound range. Condiments (raitas and salads) and breads from a wide selection (naan, paratha, roti, and chapati, filled and plain, sweet and savory) are from from about two to four pounds. (Prices accurate in 2019)