31 Catherine Street
We’re a nation of curry lovers. “Going for an Indian” is as part of our national vernacular as afternoon tea, and we indulge in naan more often than cucumber sandwiches. But just because tikka masala is now as British as a bacon sarnie, it doesn’t mean that what we’re offered is always good.
If you venture into Brick Lane anytime between midday and midnight, expect to run the gauntlet of mostly mediocre Indian restaurants, each with waiters outside trying to tempt the unwitting punter in with the offer of free poppadums or a bottle of house wine. Brick Lane is for beginners on the trial of Indian food. Our tastes are more refined now. We’re in Covent Garden for starters.
The waiters are still in force on the pavement and it’s not hard to see why. It’s prime- time on a Saturday night and Sagar is empty apart from a table of four. Worrying. More warning lights soon begin to blink: the interior is bland, the toilets are messy and the waiter, when asked for help deciphering the menu, has no advice to offer.
But, what a delightful menu to read. Sagar is a south Indian vegetarian restaurant; specifically based on the cuisine of Udupi in Karnataka. It specialises in uthappam, a kind of pizza made of lentils that comes either flat or folded - something we’ve never seen in Brick Lane. There are also staples like brinjhal bahji on offer, but it may be wise to ask what’s available; two of the four dishes we ordered were off the menu that night.
Sadly, the starters didn’t live up to our hopes. Sev puri, which promised tamarind, coriander and garlic chutney was overwhelmed by onion, and the rasa vada (savoury doughnuts made of lentils) were tepid, bland and served in a warm tangy rasan that was neither warm nor tangy. Drinks weren’t a highlight either. A glass of Shiraz, one of three reds available by the glass, was a touch acidic and a mango lassi merely passable. Tap water had to be requested, and was warm on arrival.
When a waiter wiped our starter debris away with a blue dish cloth it was almost time to cut our losses and scuttle back east. If we had we would have missed a treat. The uthappam, which we took rolled, was a crispy delight of delicately soft and spiced vegetables, contrastingly delectably with the crisp lentil shell. The chana masala, bursting with plump, juicy chickpeas, made us fall in love with the dish all over again. Even the sag paneer was delicious.
However, the real highlight came from the most unexpected quarter. The bread basket. The batura was fluffy, moist and so deceptively greasy it can’t possibly have been good for us. We could have eaten one each and almost squabbled over what there was. A round of Mysore coffees (a south Indian cappuccino which tastes just like coffee should), was a triumphant trumpeting end to an evening that began with a whimper.
The Covent Garden branch of Sagar is part of a chain of four London restaurants. Skip the starters, order a bottled beer and accept the men on the street as a hazard worth encountering. Despite the shaky start, Sagar’s main offerings could soon earn it a place on Britain’s curry map.
Meal for two with wine and service, will set you back around £50.00
Sagar: 31 Catherine St, London, WC2B 5JS. Tel: 020 7836 6377
Reviewer: Georgina Terry