Pahli Hill – a fine new Indian in London

Alphonso mango cheesecake at Pali Hill

Nick loses his heart to an Alphonso mango cheesecake.

This wretched pandemic has been so cruel in so many ways. In deaths, in the effects of long COVID, in the disruption to our children's education, and in depriving so many of the opportunity to practise their livelihood.

As restaurants begin to reopen, many can begin to realise their dreams once again. But there are long-lasting consequences of this epidemic that still have to be taken into consideration.

Take, for example, the case of the hugely talented chef Avinash Shashidhara. Born in Bangalore he came to the UK in 2005 working at Hibiscus in Ludlow and then for John Hoskins at The Old Bridge Hotel in Huntingdon before he secured a job at the River Café in London in 2008, where he fell under the influence of the late Rose Gray and Ruthie Rogers.

More importantly, Avi noticed a fundamental similarity between the delicate, flavoursome and heartwarming Italian food that the River Café produces and the kind of Indian food that he had grown up with in India. In both instances, the common denominator was that the food was cooked principally by women.

Avi spent 10 years at the River Cafe before leaving in 2018. I had lunch with him and his wife some time after that while he outlined his dreams to launch his own restaurant and then, last September, I heard from him again. He had taken the position of head chef at the newly opened Pahli Hill restaurant in Mortimer Street close to Oxford Circus.

This location brought back very happy memories. For over 50 years it had been the Gaylord restaurant, whose branch in Manchester had been my introduction to Indian cooking and which I reviewed in 2012. Rereading this review reminded me of how much our eating habits have changed over the past decade.

The site has been completely redesigned and is now under the management of Rahul Khanna and Kabir Suri of the Delhi-based Azure Hospitality. What was the Gaylord is now Pahli Hill, named after a popular seafront and promenade area of Mumbai, while the basement has been converted into yet another bar, called Bandra Bhai, and designed with a smuggling theme.

The ground-floor redesign is appealing, modern and successful. There’s an open kitchen (having cooked in the River Café, Avi definitely did not want to be in a basement) with comfortable tables opposite. Straight ahead is a large service bar while downstairs may be fun, but persuading customers to enjoy the space has proved, according to Avi, more difficult than even he had envisaged. I consoled him with the fact that persuading customers to climb even a small flight of stairs or to go downstairs is every restaurateur’s biggest challenge: customers invariably think that by doing so, they are missing out on something.

Avi’s connection to Azure seems highly positive. Their culinary director is a woman, the extremely jolly-looking Janti Duggal, described on their website as ‘charming and nuts’. I am sure that she will have encouraged Avi in his plans to introduce more women into his Indian kitchen.

Pahli Hill first opened in September 2020 in a brief period between lockdowns and he seemed then to have realised his plans. There were three non-Indian female chefs working alongside him as well as the more usual collection of Indian male chefs that have featured in the vast majority of Indian restaurants around the world. ‘Most Indian male chefs have never worked with women’, Avi explained to me, ‘and that is a very sad lacuna not just for them but for my customers too. And yet if you were to ask any leading Indian chef to name the person who either first introduced them to cooking or has had the biggest, long-term effect on their cooking style, they will invariably answer “my mother”.’

In late September, we much enjoyed Pahli Hill and Avi’s distinctive approach to cooking. We not only admired the food but also the highly unusual sight of women working alongside men in an Indian kitchen. Then lockdown struck and when Pahli Hill reopened, the female chefs had vanished. I asked Avi why. His reply was direct.

‘Yes, it’s still something that I strongly believe in, having women in our kitchen. Sadly Posie took up a private cheffing job, Florence is now working at Larry’s as it is a walking distance from her house in Peckham and Emily Dobbs will still be coming in, but only part time as she wants to be an acupuncturist.

‘I am still looking for female chefs to join us and in fact I’m interviewing someone today. I have also taken on a female Bangladeshi apprentice to work four days a week for a few hours as she’s really interested in learning from us. Hopefully we can still keep that ethos alive.’

A second meal, this time a very quiet lunch as many of those working in the nearby offices are still working from home, proved even more impressive than our initial dinner and delighted my old friend who has been a frequent visitor to India. We began with contrasting first courses: several spears of new season’s asparagus that had been grilled and their stems covered in a thick, spicy pahadi bhaang jeera, a hempseed chutney. More exciting still was a Mangalore bun with a crab sukkha, two oval buns traditionally made with bananas, flour and sugar alongside a mound of crab curry highlighted with coconut. It was absolutely delicious.

What distinguished our final three courses was their colour: more intense and vibrant than I had seen anywhere else. A home-style chicken curry was a deep brown, the saag paneer a vibrant, intense green, and both were particularly delicious with pieces of Pahli Hill’s irresistible flatbread.

Three dishes from Pali Hill restaurant

But all of this paled into insignificance compared with the one dessert we shared and I had had my eye on from the moment I was first handed the menu and saw a dish described as ‘Alphonso mango cheesecake’. Not only am I a sucker for cheesecakes (having been brought up on my Auntie Bessie’s as a child) but I have for many years been a huge fan of this delicious type of mango (named after the Portuguese Afonso de Albuquerque, who first introduced grafting into India in the early 16th century). They are even sweeter than most mangoes but note that their season ends very soon. I will never forget the advice of the Indian mother of our son’s schoolfriend who once told us that at home in India they were allowed to eat these luscious mangoes only when they were in the bath.

This piece of cheesecake comprised a base of digestive biscuit, topped with a thick cheesecake mixture that had been combined with the mango so that it was a creamy, light-yellow mixture, and then a topping of thin slices of Alphonso mango. It was an absolute delight. I happily paid my bill of £72 for two without wine or coffee.

Pahli Hill combines a seasonal and particular approach to Indian cooking. It has a good wine list and it deserves to prosper.

Pahli Hill 79–81 Mortimer St, London W1W 7SJ; tel: +44 (0)20 8130 0101