La Porte des Indes, London W1

Scores out of 5: Veggie friendly : 5/5; Vegan-options available: Yes (please book beforehand); Value for money: 3.5/5, Quality of cooking : 4.5/5; Ambience : 4.5/5; Service: 3/5 ;Atmosphere: 4/5

Ph: 0207 224 0055

It was a scorchingly hot, Monday afternoon when we made our way to La Porte Des Indes, near London's Marble Arch and bustling Oxford St.

Stuck in a little side street opposite a parking lot, the restaurant's simple yet classy facade, doesn't really prepare first-time visitors for the opulence that lies within. It's a fantasy escape from the buzz of a dusty, busy city centre to the French colonies of India (Pondicherry et al) and as you step in, beautiful carved wooden objets d'art, elegantly-swaying tall plants, a lavish dining space that could seat well over 200 people, a water-wall, exquisite Asian art-pieces and exotic flower arrangements set the tone for the wealth of flavours that follow.

When we arrived, we were promptly shown to our table. After the boiling hot sun outside, they certainly got a tick in the box for a pleasant and friendly welcome.

Next , the drinks. I've been here several times over the past ten-odd years and the drinks menu still surprises me with its audacity - ridiculously over-priced and with utter disregard for the term value-for-money, this is chiefly a list meant for its rich, expense-account clientele.

A word of advice - stick with the jugs of tap water and save your pennies for the food. Those unfamiliar with their likes/ dislikes on an extensive Indian menu may find that the a-la-carte menu , particularly at dinner time isn't a good idea. {It could be a real gamble for those who don't know their Naintara Do Pyaaz from their Shingora, because if you don't know what it is, you can't really be sure before you've even ordered and tasted any particular dish that it will even be to your taste and therefore worth forking out the wads of dosh required.}

However, don't let this put you off - even on a fairly tight budget you can have an excellent meal at this restaurant (with some planning, of course). The restaurant currently has several set menu type offers,; the credit crunch menu for example is a very reasonable £9.95. Really good value considering the luxurious ambience and food quality. But the option I really recommend is the jazz brunch on a Sunday, (which is really good value for money for foodies) despite a hefty £25 price-tag, The jazz buffet is extensive, and in addition you can try a few, unusual, authentic Indian dishes (like the South Indian pancake a.k.a. utappam or the Bombay street food a.k.a chaat) which are cooked up on the spot by chefs, right before your very eyes. And while you do this, you can people-watch as all the exquisitely-dressed guest sashay past.

Most importantly, La Porte is serious about vegetarian options. Across the board, what you get certainly aren't the dregs of the menu!! There's a delectable choice of beautifully flavoured and seasoned dishes and in that sense, La Porte des Indes is worth every penny spent. They understand the need to avoid cross-contamination and I have been reliably informed that they take it seriously.

On the day we visited, I tried their version of a vegetarian platter (steeply priced at £30). Before the platter got to us, we received an amuse-bouche (literally translated from French to mean amuse the mouth). I was rather hoping they would serve us their trademark pumpkin soup - which is stupendously good and definitely in a class of its own. Instead we got a cute, thimble-sized portion of the soup of the day , made with cooling yogurt and coconut. My companion gladly guzzled my share, given that I don't particularly fancy cold soup especially if it has yogurt in it.

Next up were the starters: grilled, spiced paneer (an Indian cottage cheese) with good texture that would have been too mild by itself but was redeemed by a date and tamarind dip that accompanied it; a yummy samosa stuffed with curried potatoes and peas; and a crumbly, fresh, dhokla ( a steamed, lentil pancake from the West coast of India). I was absolutely stuffed and I hadn't even tried the mains.

There was a very helpful, brief pause between courses and then, the main meal arrived, looking all majestic in a fancy brass platter. The rather warm, raised platter was decorated with a beautifully hand-carved piece of salad (Gosh, I get annoyed slicing onions; how do some people have the patience and skill to turn a radish into a beautifully carved white rose?).

And despite my protestations about being full, I was soon tucking into a portion of perfectly-cooked saffron rice, okra in a tangy tomato and onion gravy, saag paneer (cottage cheese in a seasoned, spinach sauce), mouth-wateringly-homely and scrumptious, slowly-simmered daal (yellow Toor lentils), a chard pakora (crisp fritter), aloo dum (stuffed potatoes in a creamy tomato sauce) and teardrop-shaped naan breads.

There was so much food on the plate that I had to swallow my pride and ask for a doggy bag (and a yummy evening meal I had too!! ) so that I had a wee bit of room for pudding. Luckily the waiter wasn't snooty about it at all (although he did seem a bit amused that I had asked !)

A delicious, not-cloying, perfectly formed chocolate mousse set in a dried,hand-woven leaf bowl; melting 'semia paayasam' (roasted vermicelli in a creamy milk-based pudding) and a very beautiful looking (but not to my palate at all) saffron yogurt finally delivered the knock-out punch. [Veggies can tuck into the mousse with gusto - I checked if the mousse is suitable for vegetarians and surprisingly it doesn't contain gelatine and it is veggie-friendly.]

We were absolutely stuffed and needed a few minutes before we could even find the strength to waddle out.

My dining companion, who hasn't been to the restaurant before, resolved to bring her best friend for a meal, as a special birthday treat. And that's exactly what La Porte should be! Despite the credit crunch menus, which are a nice touch, it should not be mistaken for an everyday lunch-time restaurant (unless you own a gold mine). It's best visited at periodic intervals as a special treat, so that when you do visit, you really savour the sumptuous experience without feeling too bad about money spent et al. Every guest I have taken there over the years has come away feeling really satisfied by the quality of the food and every single one has wanted to go back there again, for a special occasion. And that's really a ringing and fitting endorsement!!

The meal was certainly one to remember and La Porte Des Indes is certainly a restaurant to remember!

PS. Most of you know my stance on service charges especially at expensive restaurants. Given that it's optional, I'd like to be given the option to make my own judgement on what I want to tip; so, Mr Restaurateur please don't pre-include it on the bill as if it's a fixed cost. La Porte is one of the restaurants that pre-includes the 12.5% supposedly-optional service charge on the bill even on the set menus and self-service buffet. To my mind, this is poor practice and I'd like to see it changed.

32, Bryanston St, London W1H 7EG

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