Woodlands - Hampstead (also at Marylebone Lane, Panton St and more)

Scores out of 5: Veggie friendly : 5/5; Value for money: 3/5, Quality of cooking : 3.5/5; Ambience : 4/5; Service: 4/5 ;Atmosphere: 3.5/5

It's Monday evening. It's been a very busy day at work and now I'm heading to Hampstead with my  best friend, my sister, my flat-mate, my best friend's husband and the little lady who's top of my priority list at the moment (my cutey-pie 17-month old monster niece)

P (the best-friend's husband) is a South Indian like me and has set my taste buds in motion by reminding me earlier in the day of our favourite South Indian restaurants in Bangalore, Bombay and Madras. He is missing "proper" South Indian food. One can find decent North-Indian food at quite a few restaurants across the U.K. But most Indian restaurants in the West don't do the dosas, uttappas and idlis that we love. He wants to head to Sagar (For further details check out my musings on South Indian food within the review of Sagar, the restaurant in Hammersmith) for some serious grub. But he's tired, cold and also has a two-hour journey home outside of London. So I've hit upon a good half-way house - Woodlands in Hampstead. 

Woodlands is a chain us Bombayites have known since we were kids. Its known for staple, decent meals. Nothing too exciting! Just a very middle-class offering frequented when it was a parent's birthday /anniversary (middle class compared to the more working class origins of the Sagars of the Indian udipi restaurant scene). When I was in my first job in India, the bunch of us young green graduates would head to the local Woodlands, usually after our pay-day for a meal; a sign that we had finally "arrived" and were "grown-up" and could afford a meal at the kind of place our parents would go to. 

In London though, despite being paid in pounds now, I've always found Woodlands to be a bit over-priced for what it offers. Although the ambience is usually decent, I've often found the food quality to be patchy. But I must admit to applying really strict South-Indian standards here. ( I can be really unforgiving when it comes to South Indian food).

We head to Woodlands because I know that P, the flat-mate and the best friend are a lot more forgiving on food-quality than I am. Hell ! The meanies ganged up and spent most of the meal reminding me how un-fussy I used to be ["You'd eat anything", " You're so bl**dy fussy", "You're a real pain in the ...", " Don't you dare complain about the food", and so on to be precise]  and what a food-snob I am now. 

I ignore their jibes and focus on my lovely niece who is un-musically banging on the table with her fork and knife. 

Between the 5 of us we order a thali (which is a lot like a set menu, but is basically a plate with about 8-9 different curries and gravies on it in addition to bread and rice), a plate of idli (the one dish every decent South Indian restaurant worth its salt, must do well), a rava masala dosa (a special lentil pancake filled with spiced potato) and an onion uttapa ( another lentil and rice pancake variation that includes chopped green chillies and onions).

Our thali is fairly good. It's got a good spread of different curries of which the veg kurma (mixed veg in a coconutty-gravy) is definitely the highlight. Our mini-starter of sev puri (a street food from bombay which is made with atleast a dozen different main ingredients) is very good.  The lemon rice , the palak paneer curry (cottage cheese in spinach) and the daal (tempered lentils) are all the right-side of mediocre. The rotis (indian breads) are fresh and wholesome. The food (unlike some of the rubbish served at so-called Indian restaurants) is well-spiced but not so hot that one can't taste any flavours. 

The masala dosa looks good, but hasn't been cooked to my exacting standards. I can still taste the uncooked-ness of the batter and the potato filling, although fresh, lacks depth of flavour. The sambar (lentil dipping sauce) that accompanies it , tastes of having been burnt. The chutney (coconut dip) is not seasoned properly.

The onion utappa is fabulous. Although P originally ordered it, I keep passing my plate over for "just another small piece". He generously shares ; I wouldn't if I were in his shoes, the utappa is yummmy. 

The big decider for P & me is the idli. Idlis are the safest thing you can eat if you are in India (one because its a steamed dish and two, because its hard to mess up). The idlis at Woodlands dont taste authentic at all. They taste of the microwaved idlis I make from the cheap and nastly ready-mix pack. But I have eaten much better Idlis at Woodlands in the past. Perhaps we just got a really bad batch this evening. 

The puddings are poor; we tried the gulab jamun and the sheera (both traditional indian sweets), which to my Indian palate were not properly cooked or "sweet enough".

This evening we were at the restaurant for a  good couple of hours with a chatty 17-month old who luckily didn't thrown a tantrum but wasn't really going to be confined to her seat either. But the staff were attentive and in-obtrusive throughout. They made us feel welcome without being overly pushy or trying to ingratiate themselves. The place was fairly empty on a weekday, but I've generally found the staff to be accommodative of children even at busy times. 

The service was flawless. P is happy. The South Indian in him has been appeased by the utappa despite the sub-standard  idli ; so I'm pleased. We get the bill. It works out to roughly £17 a head including a soft drink each. Not super-expensive but definitely not as cheap and value-for-money as some of the other more authentic South Indian restaurants I have reviewed. That said, it's shaved off a good hour off potential journeys to the more traditional outposts of good South-Indian 'food-meccas"

The meal is over. P has kindly paid; he's being all Indian big-brotherly and generous despite unhesitatingly taking the mick out of me all evening. I get horridly sentimental. I can't believe that after ten years, the best friend has finally moved to the U.K. and I'll get to see my little niece grow up. I feel really glad that we are all here together. 

So Woodlands gets a big thumbs-up despite a few hiccups ! One to visit again if only to relive the memories of happy times. 

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