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A voyage of discovery aboard Atma's versatile ark

PUBLISHED: 15:43 22 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010

VICTORIA PREVER finds a family-run hidden gem offering Indian food with a European twist Atma, 106c Finchley Road, NW3. Telephone: 020-7431 9487. www.atmarestaurants.com. Food: four stars Service: four stars Opening hours: Sunday to Friday noon-2.30pm

VICTORIA PREVER finds a family-run hidden gem offering Indian food with a European twist

Atma, 106c Finchley Road, NW3.

Telephone: 020-7431 9487.

www.atmarestaurants.com.

Food: four stars

Service: four stars

Opening hours: Sunday to Friday noon-2.30pm and 6pm-11.30pm; Saturday 6pm-11pm.

Cost: One course with bread and soft drinks £20. Tasting menu - six courses £24.50 or £26. 75 with a glass of wine.

I'D LIKE to claim this week's restaurant as my own discovery - but I can't. I sail up and down the Finchley Road without a glance left

or right and was ignorant of a worthy newcomer.

Lucky for all of us, then, that one restaurant critic is on the ball. Had I not read about it in Fay Maschler's column, I may not have spotted Atma - which has opened at the foot of Trinity Walk and almost opposite the tube station.

A hard woman to please - Maschler raved about it. And

as she's not one to hand out plaudits willy-nilly, I thought it worth a visit.

It seems not everyone had read the review, as for much of our meal, my companion - one of this newspaper's sub-editors - and I were the only diners. This may have been down to it being lunchtime on the Thursday of the world-stopping snow and only their sixth week of trade.

Feeling conspicuous, we sat at a table close to the window, facing out, so we could admire the enchanting vista of Snappy Snaps and Robert Dyas.

The charming front-of-house manager is Biju, whose brother, Binu is the chef and owner of the restaurant. They have a sister called Bindu - who is sadly not employed there. All hail from Kerala in Southern India, where Binu learnt to cook.

Biju told us that Binu (if you're already confused think how their parents must feel) has somewhat of a culinary pedigree. He worked for an Indian hotel group before coming to London in 1998. His first restaurants, in Wimbledon, opened in 2002 and in 2003, and he was London's representative in the National Curry Chef awards.

As is true of all restaurants, a lot of love has gone into this venture. Their promotional leaflet says: "Atma is a different concept in Indian dining and the result of (Binu's) passion, earnest effort and dream."

The terracotta walls follow the earthy colour theme of the exterior. Leather high-backed chairs and thick white cloths on the tables give the place a high-class, more evening than lunchtime feel. I felt marginally underdressed in my warm, snow-protecting clothing.

Biju - who I shall refer to as "the manager" to avoid unnecessary confusion - brought us menus and complimentary espresso cups of extremely, good thick seafood soup. The colour of a soupe des poissons, it was more interestingly spiced with large lumps of crab and lime leaves. Delicious.

The list of dishes on the menu is - unusually for an Indian restaurant - brief. But then Atma isn't your average Indian. Despite the short list, the menu itself was lengthy. Working on the ethos of "why use one word when you can use many", each dish was described by several sentences.

Fenugreek - a herb ubiquitous in Indian cooking - is listed in several dishes. The sub-editor informed me that it has health-giving and cleansing properties. Applied topically, it can relieve aches and pains. If you eat it, it can help regulate blood sugar, reduce cholesterol and (in large enough quantities) is an effective laxative. A wondrous herb indeed.

The sub-editor chose lamb cooked with tomato, asafoetida, yoghurt and "an abundance of coriander leaves". It was accompanied with potatoes cooked with fenugreek and lemon rice. I knew you'd ask, so I've looked it up - "asafoetida" is a dried gum resin from the roots of the Ferula plant. Ferula is a sort of giant fennel used widely in India, Afghanistan and Iran. When cooked it smells oniony. Never let it be said that I don't educate you.

The lamb arrived on a plate divided into four sections. Two contained generous piles of the lamb - in smallish pieces, stewed to melting tenderness and coated with a reddish brown sauce. It was pronounced excellent. The remaining sections contained a neat, dome-shaped pile of bright yellow lemon rice and a pile of potatoes, stewed with fenugreek. It was all well received.

My choice was described as salmon coated with honey, dill, paprika, spice smoked overnight and char grilled. The accompaniments were the same potatoes, a sprout raitha and a mushroom risotto. I hate to pull Binu up on this, but the rice was not, in fact risotto, but a neat dome-shaped pile of mushroom flavoured rice. Mushroomy? Yes. Risotto? Not a hope.

The salmon was very slightly overcooked (for my taste), but good. Four generous pieces

coated in a sweet glaze, each sitting in its own dollop of raitha with a mound of potatoes in the middle. The sprouts in the raitha were fortunately not of the Brussels variety. The potatoes were excellent - comfortingly mushy, well seasoned and combined with sweet, caramelised red onion and green pepper.

The generous portions meant we really didn't need the basket of breads I ordered - but they were all interesting. My least favourite, the mushroom naan, was only mildly mushroomy. The rice pancake was sweetly spongey - like a thin, sweet, soft, squidgy crumpet. The paratha was perfectly cooked - without a trace of grease. We demolished the whole basket.

All the "happy endings" sounded great but were not for us that day - we were already sufficiently content. The joyful finales, which included rose-petal ice-cream paired with fig and ginger ice-cream (all homemade) or caramelised semolina and mango kesari with sweet and sour fruits with ice cream, will have to wait until my return visit.

Atma is far from a standard Indian restaurant. Binu uses ingredients like dill and descriptions like risotto - neither commonplace on an Indian menu. It's Indian food cooked with a European twist or - to use a now hackneyed term - fusion cooking, which, on the whole, works.

Our food was excellent. Apparently Binu is a perfectionist and will remake a dish several times until he is happy with it. Perhaps that's why our food took more than half an hour to arrive and why mine was a little on the cool side - which would be my only gripe.

It isn't cheap for an Indian restaurant - but the generous portions meant that our main course was sufficient to fill both of us up.

Seek it out, it's definitely worth a visit. I'll be returning to try the "Voyage through Atma's ark" - or tasting menu as it's known in less verbose establishments - and am already looking forward to it.


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