The Curry Emporium
By Gum, your intrepid curry research team struck gold last night, and how. If going out to see an art exhibition and then nipping off for some tasty scran is your thing, then you could do an awful lot worse than to get up the central line to Gants Hill.
Gants Hill station is part tube station, and part arts festival. This is no accident, as it is the final station on the network to be designed by the great Charles Holden, who pretty much singlehandedly devised the modernist formula which so characterises the outlying suburban fringes of the network. Holden and his boss at the Underground, Frank Pick worked on the assumption that a really good way for everyone to have a drop of art about to brighten things up was not to shut it away in galleries, but to stitch it into the very fabric of life. By the time Charlie boy got round to GH, he’d become so adept at this stitching that it becomes difficult to see where function ends and art begins. Take a look at this-
Surely, the logical way of doing this would have been to have each letter centrally on the middle of a tile. But look- the first L in hill is split across two, and then you notice that the other letters are irregularly spaced. He’d obviously decided that the rhythm of the design needed this, and once again, art won out over accountancy. It this kind of detail wherein the magic lies, and I don’t reckon I’m the only one who has to fight back a tear or two in wonder that a public body was allowed by the form-fillers and bean counters to allow such subtlety to flourish. In between the station titles, at intervals, you get these-
There’s no apparent reason to have these, as you know you’re on a tube station, and in any case the wall carries big versions of the symbol bearing the station name, but the rhythmic repetition of the brand symbol on the neat biscuit tiling as you walk down the platform makes you feel that there is a larger organisation working benignly on your behalf. When they glued these tiles in, there was. A bright spark at the underground was the first railway system to realise that branding like this was essential for people to be attracted to use the service. Whenever you see that logo, you know that you can get home. A particularly iconic use of it occurs on the platform clock. This is real classic design just shoved out in the open for everyone to like, which had a secondary corporate purpose. I think it’s a piece of genius-
Upon leaving the platform, you are greeted by this-
In the mid 1930’s Holden was off in Moscow, helping Stalin with the Moscow Metro. He was lucky to get back, by the way, as Uncle Joe decided that some of the English tunnelling engineers in his party now knew too much about the underground workings of the Motherland’s capital and had them shipped off to do some different underground workings involving salt, somewhere near Omsk. In his final fling for London Underground, Holden gave Gants Hill a sense of Muscovite grandeur with this uplit barrel vaulted ceiling. He kept the decor muted and modern, rather than festooned with chandeliers and coats of arms, though, to keep the functionality of the system to the fore, and to keep homogeneity with his other designs. This space is one of the best things on the whole tube, making grandeur out of functionality. Notice how the spacing of the segments on the ceiling resonate with that of the floor tiles- similar, but not identical, to lead the eye right down the length of the atrium.
As you come up the escalators, there are further treats- just look at these lights!
Gants Hill boasts an interesting history aside from being Holden’s last design for the underground, and symbolically the easternmost subterranean station on the network. It forms part of a spur of the Central Line built in the late 1930’s to link Leytonstone with pre-existing surface lines and stations from Fairlop via Hainault and back to Leytonstone, forming the famous central line loop. However, in 1939 the German Government’s expansionist plans rather eclipsed those of London Underground, and although the tunnels had been dug, it turned out that the stations would not open until after the war. During the war, the tunnels were requisitioned and used to make electrical components for bombers, leading to the tunnel being christened the longest, narrowest factory in the world. Here’s a nice contemporary graphic, showing the war effort beavering on as the blitz rages overhead-
From the ticket concourse, we enter the subway out to street level and in so doing get an insight into the harsh world of 1970’s design, its scant regard for heritage, and misguided “Improvements”. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after the Olympic-standard art of the lower levels that the pedestrian footways under the complex road junction which forms the hub of Gants Hill itself would have carried on with the pleasant orange bordered biscuit coloured tiling. You’d be wrong. As garish and 70’s as Tom Baker’s Dr. Who scarf, someone in an office paid for this-
Holden has the last shot, however. Always convinced of the artistic power of correct illumination, he has these little beauties on each of the many subway entrances, demonstrating once again the timeless quality of great design. In 100 years from now, these will still look innovative and modern.
In order to get to the Curry Emporium, you will need to take the Cranbrook Road North exit out of the station. You will find it about 150 yards up the road on the left, and currently, if its name on its signage is to be believed, it is actually called the Rry Emporium.
When we arrived, the place was absolutely empty. We were greeted by a very friendly chap who turned out to be the nephew of the chef, who in turn is the son of the feller who opened the place back in 1965. This is a family joint, and has remained pretty much unchanged since its opening. It turns out that the owners now know the value of this and, as such, their restaurant has now become something of a desirable rarity and they are keen to keep it that way. It helps that this place has some history, being the first curry house to open in Essex, and upon entry you are very much greeted by the old-school curry smell. All was boding well, aided and abetted by the virtually instantaneous deployment of lager and poppadoms. Examining the up-market 1960’s/1970’s chic, you get fabulous original louvred wooden panels interleaved with some very groovy mirrored designs, some geometric and some pictorial, including, of course, a Bengal tiger and this rather charming grouse-
Your intrepid curry team was joined on this occasion by Drummer Pite, who is a near resident in glamorous Leytonstone. Drummer Pite and I had been antagonising queues of students all day with jolly Dixieland jazz at a nearby university’s graduation ceremony, and the beers went down in a very free and welcome fashion. Initially, I was a bit concerned about the food, as the chutneys with the poppadoms were all on the sweet and bland side, but all worry evaporated when the starters appeared. I had tandoori lamb chops. These were huge, tasty and nicely charred. Callum went for an incredibly tasty chicken tikka on puree thing, and drummer Pite has tandoori salmon. This was all completely first rate, and tasted exactly like the curries I learnt on back in 1973, as you’d expect from a chef who learnt from a first-generation exponent of the art. The lamb chops were so good, Drummer Pite, fervid with greed and envy, but in a good way, then ordered his own portion.
This is the main course. In the front row, we have the vegetable chilli pillau rice, my empty plate and the special Emporium Nan, which is a garlic nan covered with melted paneer cheese. It is, in effect, a tandoori pizza and is about as far out as clean fun can go. Behind it is a keema nan, with Drummer Pite’s Drumming hands losing all restraint and tucking in before the photoshoot was completed. On its left is a tarka dhall of near perfect consistency and flavour, the garlic, chilli, lentil, oil and salt being wonderfully harmonised. Next to that is my own dinner, which I have to say was the finest chicken vindaloo I think I’ve ever had. Hot and salty, with patches of the colour of Airfix gold paint, this was the curry of dreams. Unusually for a vindaloo, it had sliced green chilli in it. While not strictly authentic, as the heat should come from the blended sauce, these lended the whole thing a savoury fragrance which cane as a very pleasant surprise. Next to the vindaloo was Callum’s main dish, a Lamb Rezala, which really is a fine example of one of the hardest things of all to find in an Indian restaurant- a really good savoury tasty old-school brown curry. This sounds strange, but all too often, a brown curry can taste like stew with some extra herbs thrown in. It will come as no surprise that this dish exceeded all expectations, as we were beginning to understand that the chap working the kitchen is an absolute master curry alchemist. When we’d finished, we needed to taste some more of his art, and so we ordered the Emoprium Mixed Grill. If you are at all hungry, look away-
This was really an extension of the tikka work we had for starters- it was absolutely beautiful. All the chicken elements were tender on the inside, and like all the grub on offer, shot right through with the deep curry flavour only a master can produce. So often, it only gets to taste like curry on the outside.
As the meal was winding down, our friendly waiter plied us with quite a bit of free brandy. Not cash and carry cheap stuff either- this was vintage Remy. I had occasion to need the lav at this point, as there had been a fair amount of Cobra consumed, so as to help sharpen the analytical skills, you see. I was greeted with a fanfare of immaculate 1970’s tiling and an original tan-coloured bog straight out of the Habitat catalogue 1971. Even if the meal had been so-so, I could have recommended the place on the strength of this alone.I will add also at this point that despite being, er, vintage, the toilet facilities, like the rest of the place, were spotlessly clean. This is a family restaurant with pride. Anyway, here she is-
Prices are keen too- we had some of the best Indian food available, I’d say four or five pints each and the bill came out at £45 per head. Unbeatable value and taste, and with the visit to the Tube station thrown in, a fairly comprehensive run-down of British 20th century interior design.
Stop whatever it is you’re doing and get over there now. I’m going back tonight too!
The Curry Emporium
597 Cranbrook Road
Phone number020 8550 7429
No website-good on them!