At Goila Butter Chicken in London, lunch is served with a lavish, side portion of hyperbole. According to chef Saransh Goila, this is not merely butter chicken, but, “quite simply the best butter chicken in the world”. I scrutinized the website for a touch of tongue in cheek, but instead also discovered that Mumbai-based Goila has “single-handedly turned butter chicken into a religion in India”. Similar to Noel Gallagher believing 1997-era Oasis was “bigger than God”, Goila’s butter chicken is now an omnipresent deity. This is massive, if true.
What is definitely true is that Goila is a name on the Mumbai food scene, hosting shows on Indian cookery channel Food Food and appearing on Australian MasterChef. In 2014 he entered the Limca Book of Records for “longest road journey by a chef”, a title unrivalled by Gordon, Fred and Gino’s madlad antics across Mexico. Goila is a smooth operator: his butter chicken is available via meal kit, recently appeared on BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen and there are Goila Butter Chicken cafes across Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru. This is his first opening in London: a strip of 12 seats along a sit-up bar in a busy restaurant thoroughfare near Oxford Street.
With Goila Butter Chicken’s preamble being so verbose, eating there could not fail to be something of a disappointment. This is not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; it’s an anonymous-looking cafe, on the side of a pop-up restaurant space called Carousel. To the unassuming eye, there is nothing of interest. It’s a white, undecorated space with a few friendly folk serving up bowls of butter chicken – which have been cooked elsewhere, not behind the counter – with sides of dal makhani, jeera rice and sourdough naan. Saransh Goila himself was too busy to make an appearance in the opening weeks, although he describes the space as “very, very casual”. This is a fancy way of saying: “You’d be more comfortable at home.”
This space is not ideal to eat butter chicken, unless one is enamored of tall, unforgiving bar stools and not a great deal of elbow room to pick at one’s pickled shallots and coriander chutney. As I ate, takeaway customers loitered for the other offerings such as the GBC fried chicken burger or the cauliflower bites.
Deciding whether Goila’s butter chicken is world-class is another matter because, to my mind, even mediocre butter chicken – murgh makhani – is blissful. Soft chicken, crushed tomato, some sort of cream, or yoghurt or even evaporated milk, with a glut of ghee or butter, plus gentle spices such as garam masala, turmeric and cumin; on any table butter chicken is comfort food in extremis; a sunset-colored, moppable, scoopable vision of joy. It’s the dish least likely at any mixed gathering to become “leftovers”.
At Goila, they claim to elevate the concept by using only good French butter and cooking free-range, slow-grown, herb-fed Yorkshire chickens over eco-friendly charcoal from FSC-certified forests. They use no colorings, no sugar and a tomato-to-dairy ratio of 80:20, which makes for a darker, healthier-feeling, more refined dish, than something British or indeed Indian palates may expect. You may well miss the sugar, ghee, oils and colorings because when all is said and done, they give dishes a certain pizzazz that natural products do not. Goila’s chicken certainly did not leave me as bloated or full-feeling as less-refined versions, but it made little real impact. I wanted to be moved and enlightened by this dish, but instead found it “pleasant”.
More dramatic was the naan: small, floppy, steaming and possibly microwaved. The pickles were delicious, pink and vibrant and the black dal makhani perfectly edible, but not as deep, sating and wowish as the chain restaurant Dishoom’s, which I have eaten by the vat. I can not comment on the coriander chutney, as it did not arrive.
Goila’s butter chicken is not bad. It’s smoky and buttery and rather sparingly portioned – however, I felt no real urge to declare the chef my new spiritual leader. Not over a squidgy naan and a lunch where I balanced my handbag on my knee. Chefs are peculiar animals: some appear on the scene modest and self-effacing, simply hoping that someone will like them; others arrive like a whirlwind, full of hilarious claims, promising earth, wind and fire, delivering very little and not even being there to cook it. The whole thing is really very silly. But then, I put on lipstick and shoes, and rushed to a restaurant, waving cash, because the chef had announced that his butter chicken was a new religion in the planet’s second most populous country. So who is the idiot here? It’s me, isn’t it? Again.
Goila Butter Chicken, 23 Charlotte Street, London W1, 020-3002 0411. Open Tues-Sun, noon-10pm. About £ 25 a head; £ 19.50 set meal for one, or £ 35 for two, all plus drinks and service