Wednesday June 11 2014.
Most people out in the suburbs associate the tube system with iconic Art Deco architecture, and so it is fitting that the 10-year odyssey of subterranean travel, exotic spice and mild indigestion kicks off with a sojourn down the southern spur of the Northern Line to Tooting Bec. Built in the mid-1920’s, this stretch of the system was the first to be designed by the great Charles Holden, and in this first set of work the pattern for the inspiring balance of art and civic function which is the hallmark of the system, was created, and to this day it is one of the remaining nine things which are still good about life in modern Britain.
Coming off the platform, you are greeted with a very short escalator, which comes as a surprise to users of just the central system. I’d say at Tooting Bec you’re only between two and three storeys below street level. Quite a lot of the Art Deco grandeur is still very much in evidence- you get these nice uplighters on the way up-
And this quite splendid wrought iron chandelier, which must have looked great with its original light bulbs in, before the council stuck in the wiggly energy-saving modern things. Also of note in this picture is the net which has been recently hung to keep the pigeons out. It is therefore a bit of a shame that the casual observer could infer that its primary function would be to suspend a loose tapestry of pigeon poo mere feet above the heads of the passers-by. It will come as no surprise that the friendly Indian man in the kiosk there wasn’t selling that many sandwiches. Anyway, here’s the chandelier in all its glory, sat proud and immobile like the old boy in his demob suit who still has His Seat in the pub despite it having been transformed into a ghastly banging neon cavern with a TV screen on every available inch of wall. An island of old school tranquillity in the thrashing sea of hideous modern intransigence.
-and be looking across the high street at this-
Before you turn left and go down the hill that is the Upper Tooting Road, spare a last look at the architectural virtuosity of Charles Holden, whose understanding of form and function infused with Art shines out like a beacon to this day. Notice how both entrances share the same three-leaved facade, but altered dramatically to fit in with the existing road system, and-my personal favourite-have a quick look at the tops of the pillars which stand either side of the central glass panel. There you will see a three dimensional representation of the Underground logo. What a clever sod.
Clever as it is, the only thing which might conceivably put you in the mood for Indian Food are, funnily enough, the modern energy saving bulbs in the Chandelier, which bear a passing resemblance to iridescent jalebis. However, once around the corner, there is no doubt that you’ve emerged from beneath the ground straight into curry central. This part of London has a sizeable population of southern Indians, and a retail and catering industry to match. Our destination was Chennai Dosa, a mere 150 yards down the road from the Tube. This was Callum’s idea. He has a university pal of southern Indian extraction who dines in here with his family, and Callum had gleaned a good understanding of the menu from many visits in the hols.
We rolled in at about half past two. Aside from us, there were two old Indian couples in, and an Indian mum with her three nippers. More of a cafe than a restaurant, the decor is plain and clean with steel tables and chairs. Steel cutlery, plates and dishes too. A large help yourself section with vats of various substances bubbles enticingly along one wall, but we opted for the menu. I’m glad C knew his way around it, because I’d have been a bit at sea. This was proper south Indian food, rather than bog standard Ruby Murray, and very few of the words I knew about curry were on the menu. It felt a bit like my first day at Big School. We had three starters between us. Chilli Prawns, which were as you might guess, prawns in chilli came out first and tasted beautifully and plainly of, well, prawns and chilli. Chilli Paneer was next, and looked a bit like Chinese sweet and sour tofu. It couldn’t have tasted more different, with an unusually flavoursome paneer marinated a magnificent collation of spice. South Indian food is known for being mostly vegetarian, but there was some meat on, so we ordered the Mutton Chukka, which was amazing. Beautifully cooked and spiced, the cubes of mutton had a wonderful robust texture and were garnished with extremely hot fried dry chillies. Which I ate.
As magnificent as all that was, it really was the next item which stole the show. We’d ordered a Chana Batura, which had all the appearance of the airbag from the Volvo with a side helping of watery baked beans. Here’s a photo-
The airbag turned out to be made from an incredibly light bread, and was in fact mainly full of air. The watery beans were chickpeas suspended in a thin sauce which was so full of flavour that I found myself jittering with glee. Despite being over a foot across, the airbag took no time at all to eat, and had an even flavour which perfectly balanced the fiery jollity of the dip. After this marvellous display of chilli and physics fusion, the rest of the dishes came in rather a welter. We had a paper Masala roast, which was a large A3 sized thing of wafer thin fried rice dough served with curried spuds and a selection of dips. Onion Rava Masala dosa was one of the signature dishes of the house, consisting of a Dosa, or southern Indian pancake but cooked with onion and a bit of chilli and encasing a delicious stew of mixed root veg. It sounds like we had tons, but in reality these pancakes are so thin that a chap can happily munch through two or three and not feel even a bit airy, if you get my drift. Advertised around the place is this-
Before our nosh came, I thought that this was some publicity stunt, in a sort of Bollywood V Food sort of way, but I see now that it is, in fact a perfectly reasonable suggestion for the backbone of a family meal.
I always think that a restaurant is really great if you are thinking about an aspect or two of the meal for the next couple of days. On this front Chennai Dosa hit the ball right out of the stadium- as and when you go there, make sure you order a parotta or two. Made from five or six smallish round pancakes held together with layers of ghee and then shallow fried, the parotta represents a taste and texture sensation which represents several of the finest aspects of life on earth. Callum googled the calorific intake. It turns out that each one weighs in at 1000 calories. This is even better, as you can feel nice and guilty after the event too.
Chennai Dosa are a chain. You can have a look at them here- http://www.chennaidosa.com/
The smart and polite staff will remind you that they are a no-booze establishment- they don’t sell it, and you can’t bring in your own stuff. It’s no great matter- they have a fine range of Lassi, and those parottas should serve to quell the desires of even the most ardent followers of vice!
The whole lot, mutton, airbag, ghee-related porn, came in at just under £20 each.
33 Upper Tooting Road
Tooting Bec, SW17 7TR
T: +44 (0)208 672 7977