27 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 82


The latest Harden's London Restaurant Guide plops though my letterbox with a satisfying thud. Now, Harden's must be the best guide to London restaurants, because on the back it says, The best guide to London Restaurants.' (The Spectator)

As you know, The Spectator is a fine publication full of spectacularly talented writers, particularly the further towards the back you get, and it's rarely wrong about anything except, perhaps, the rates it pays its spectacularly talented writers, particularly the triply gifted one who comes just after the chess column. Actually, it's always nice to get my Spectator cheque, because it means that I can go down to the sweetie shop and get a full quarter of sherbet lemons instead of my usual 2 oz. Only kidding. I don't eat sherbet lemons. They cut the roof of your mouth to ribbons. I prefer Black Jacks, Fruit Salads and Sherbet Dib-Dabs rather than Sherbet Fountains, as it's a bugger to get the liquorice to work as a straw. On a Spectator day I can get one of each! Sometimes, though, I do exercise restraint and save my cheques up for a Wagonwheel.

So, Harden's, and here's the deal: Ill close my eyes, open it at a random page, jab with a finger and whichever restaurant that finger finds is where I'm going. This is not a new game in our household. My son, particularly, plays this game with the Argos catalogue. He closes his eyes, jabs his finger and whatever it lands on I get for my birthday. This year I'm getting an electric beard-trimmer. Oh, ha, ha. I have to say that when you get to my age it doesn't seem like such an absurd thing. Give us a few more years, and a spot-the-difference competition between Brian Blessed and me will be immensely tricky. As for my moustache, it wouldn't surprise me if I were soon to be mistaken for Lord Luc,an. 'Lord Lucan, who has disguised himself as a Crouch End housewife all these years, was yesterday spotted in the greengrocer's buying four peaches for £1. "It was the moustache that gave him away," said a fellow shopper. "And the beard's coming along nicely, too."' My finger lands on page 142: Rasa Samudra, Charlotte Street, WI. I call a friend to invite her for lunch there and read out the Harden's description: 'Delicious and authentic cooking wins high praise for this superb Keralan (SW Indian) seafood and vegetarian restaurant, notwithstanding decor that's like a badly furnished front room.' Well,' she says, 'you'll feel at home, then,' Oh, ha, ha. Actually, she has a point. Our latest home un-improvement is a sash window that steadfastly refuses to sash, so to speak, and can be kept closed only by ascending a stepladder and wedging 17 pages from Hello! and four from Heat into the gap at the top. I say 'stepladder', by the way, because, alas, my real ladder left home when I was quite young. I would search for my real ladder, but don't want to hurt my stepladder, as we've always got on terribly well. Steady as a rock, my stepladder.

So, off to Rasa Samudra which, it turns out, has a wonderful shocking-pink exterior and an interior like. . . a badly furnished front room. Yes, indeed, it's even got bits of not-terriblylovely Indian cloth drawing-pinned to the ceiling. However, I have to say that this is OK with me, as I can't be doing with any more minimalist chrome and beech in restaurants, just as I can't be doing with that pebble-andcandles-in-the-fireplace look in homes. That Linda Barker! Don't you want to smack her round the chops? And then shout, 'Wake up, woman. Pebbles-and-candles-in-the-fireplace were very last year even last year, you silly old moo who happens to be inexplicably raking it in.' As for her 'stylish' range of sofas for DFS, well — and don't correct me if I'm wrong, as that would be annoying — I think that even my Hello!-wedged sash looks more stylish than those sofas. While we're about it, I'm thinking of reporting DFS to the trading-standards people. I mean, if their sale ends Sunday every Sunday, does it ever properly end?

Rasa Samudra is now part of a fiverestaurant chain owned and run by Das Shreedharan, who started with Rasa N16 (in Stoke Newington), which quickly won every veggie restaurant award going. The restaurants specialise in the unusual and wonderfully refined dishes of Kerala. a lush green state along the south-west coast of India. Apparently, Mr Shreedharan sends all his chefs for instruction from his mother in Cochin before they can work in any of the restaurants. I, too, would send people for instruction from my mother — particularly in how to navigate Brent Cross — but my stepladder is most protective of her and, yes, I do have to respect that after all she has been through.

We arrive at 1.30 p.m. and find it rather empty, possibly because Indian food is now so much part of our post-pub culture that we don't think of it as a lunchtime thing. Or it could be that Indian is not a good lunchtime thing, as it means spending all afternoon with possible dyspepsia and a fear that you might be smelly. What the hell. For our pre-meal nibble we order a snack tray (£4) with pickles and chutneys (12). The snacks, which include banana chips and something that's like several Hula-Hoops cemented together, aren't that memorable, frankly, but combined with the pickles. . . Oh, what pickles: garlic pickle, lemon pickle, mixed-vegetable pickle, mango pickle, coconut chutney, coriander chutney — so crunchy and fresh and tasty and delicious. Truly, [wish I'd brought my stepladder, as he's so very fond of pickles.

As a starter I order crab thoran (£7.50) which — for those who think of Indian food as something that is brown and comes with an inch of slowly solidifying vivid orange fat on top — is brown and comes with an inch of slowly solidifying vivid orange fat on top. OK. it isn't. A combination of fresh crabmeat stir-fried with coconut, mustard seeds and ginger, it looks like a neat mound of compost but, thankfully, tastes rather better. It tastes brilliant, in fact. The flavours all come together but can also, somehow, be tasted individually. And the individual tastes of crab and coconut meeting at the back of the tongue: a revelation. Next I have Konju Manga Curry (£12.95), which isn't cheap, I know, but then it isn't brown and covered in orange goo. Instead, this dish of king prawns, turmeric, chillis, green mango and coconut is a creamy yellow dotted with gorgeous plump prawns that have retained their bite. Bugger the dyspepsia, I think, scoffing the lot. As accompaniments we try lemon rice (£3.75) and an appam (£2.50), a milk-white rice batter cooked in a bowl-shaped pan so that the dough becomes crisp, brown and lacy round the outside and moist, pale and spongy round the base. It looked like a yarmulke made of pancake, but was wonderful for mopping up juices.

All in all, Rasa is not only a place that serves terrific, unusual, exquisite food; it also appears to do it with a great deal of love and dedication. I might even forgo my Wagonwheels and save up all my cheques so that I can bring my stepladder here. I think that's the least I can do, considering the help he has given me over the years, particularly with sash windows that won't sash, so to speak.

Rasa Sairutdra, 5 Charlotte Street, WI. TeL 020 7637 0222