In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
We were a little confused by our lunchtime visit to the recently refurbished Marylebone branch of this popular south Indian vegetarian chain — delicious food served cold, pleasant ambience but notably grumpy waitress — so we re-visited Woodlands for dinner, only to be sorely disappointed. Relaunched in March after a complete makeover, the two-room venue — connected by a narrow passageway with a payment counter and dumbwaiter to one side — has a small, informal dining area at the front, and a larger, livelier room at the back. The front is canteen-like with wooden furniture and bare brick walls; and though the green velvet chairs at the back won’t win any design awards, at least they look more comfortable.
Most Londoners now know the basic differences between the long-familiar north Indian and recently-popular south Indian cuisines. That dosa — pancake made from fermented rice and white urid lentil batter — has become one of the capital’s most popular veggie dishes is in no small part due to several different south Indian international chains springing up everywhere, especially in outer London boroughs like Wembley, Harrow and Tooting. Woodlands is different because, unlike its no-frills competitors, its branches have better-looking interiors, and are located centrally or in smart areas. In addition to Marylebone, there are currently restaurants in Leicester Square and Hampstead. Our favourite in Wembley, which had a stunningly good chef from India, closed some years ago, and the Chiswick branch a little more recently.
What makes Woodlands significant is that, opened by entrepreneur Ranjit Sood in 1981, it was one of London’s very first south Indian restaurants. Even in India, it was ground-breaking in its day. The Indian dining out scene, long dominated by Punjabi and north Indian cuisines, was shaken up when the restaurant opened its first branch in Chennai (formerly Madras) in 1938, and eventually across the subcontinent. It gave many Indians outside south India, unfamiliar with dishes other than that of their own region, their first taste of south Indian food, and they were entranced. Rapidly becoming a household name, the chain remained near-iconic for many decades, though recently its popularity has been superseded by its rivals. Broadly the same pattern has followed in London.
South Indian ‘tiffin’ dishes such as dosa, idli (steamed, spongy rice and white urid lentil cakes) and utthappam (thick rice and white urid lentil pancakes with pizza-like vegetable toppings) are usually eaten for breakfast, and in fact this is the best time to eat them in restaurants. This is because in many kitchens the accompanying sambhar (distinctively spiced lentil and vegetable broth) is freshly made in the morning and tastes sprightlier; by the evening, after having been left on a slow simmer for many hours, it acquires a thicker texture and a more ‘stewed’ taste.
As Woodlands isn’t open for breakfast, we visited for a weekend lunch. Onion rava masala dosa — an onion-flecked semolina version of the pancake, stuffed with lightly spiced potatoes — is very crispy, typical of Chennai city; not the softer, fluffier version found elsewhere. Dotted with pin-prick holes from the fermented batter, it’s stuffed with delicious coarsely mashed, mildly spiced potatoes. Tangy, slightly sweet sambhar with feisty spicing, tomatoes, tamarind, onions, curry leaves and slit green chillies, and mellow, soothing pale green coconut chutney are perfect accompaniments. However, the dishes are completely lukewarm and the service is slow and half-hearted. Upon arriving, we waited a long time to be given the menu and when we asked if we could have it, the waitress responded with an indifferent “if you want.” We were somewhat placated by Mysore coffee topped with cappuccino-like foam: it’s made by continuously pouring the milky liquid between two containers from a great height, and has a latte-like consistency.
Our second visit was for dinner, and we opted for the ‘royal London thali’ (£18.50) so we could try a variety of items. Although the dosa and sambhar were just as good as the first time, other dishes were a let down. Vegetable idli studded with carrots, green beans and coriander leaves is fine, but not as soft as it could be; and utthappam, though soft in the middle, is too hard and crusty around the edges and the toppings are too burnt to be identifiable. (Yes, these tiffin dishes are served for dinner, but in smaller portions).
Other items are more run-of-the-mill. Spinach curry, though tasty, is spiced with north Indian masala that’s far too hot and fiery. Attractive deep orange-hued carrot, pea and green bean korma is bland rather than subtle, and lacks the richness of flavour associated with this dish. Its tomato and cashew sauce is far too thin and runny; as is the cucumber raita. Ghee-rich pilau is the third dish on the plate containing carrots and peas (have they run out of other vegetables?), but is aromatic and tastes fine. We like the light, soft, pale golden pillow of own-made rasmalai, studded with pistachio nibs and saffron strands. On the whole though, many dishes are cold, the spicing is out of balance, and the flavours seem simplified for non-south Indian customers.
Staff don’t help matters either. One or two were friendly, but most just stood around staring at customers, looking as if they were at a loose end; and the grumpy waitress was present on our second visit, too. Fresh coconut chutney — an important part of a south Indian meal — was missing on our second visit, to be replaced by something that resembled thick coconut cream paste with mustard seeds. Upon enquiring, we were told that 'fresh coconut is banned from restaurants for health and safety reasons, and that they have a coconut grating machine, but can’t use it.' What? Really? We looked into this afterwards, but couldn’t find any evidence so we phoned several of London’s south Indian restaurants to check. They all said they use fresh coconut, and have never heard of a ban. Finally, when we phoned Woodlands to ask how the décor has changed after the refurb, a staff member replied tetchily: “you don’t believe me? Give me your email address and I’ll send you lots of photos so that you can see.” Those pictures never arrived.
Perhaps the decline of Woodlands London began when they introduced their new all-things-to-all people menus. Apparently because of ‘customer demand’, they now offer a large selection of north Indian dishes and street food, and fewer south Indian specialities — an ill-advised move, out of touch with Londoners who want to discover more speciality items when dining at a regional restaurant, not generic mish-mash. It is still worth popping into this centrally located venue for a well-priced dosa; and there are a few commendable aspects such as own-made yoghurt and chutneys, and the careful sourcing of vegetarian wines.
On the whole though, it’s sad to see that this once-revered brand, which has done so much to put south Indian vegetarian food on the global map, has lost its sense of identity, purpose and direction.
Woodlands Marylebone, 77 Marylebone Lane, W1U 2PS. Tel: 020 7486 3862.
We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drinks and service.