I don’t often regret having given up smoking.
Usually it take a great deal of red wine to make me yearn for a puff, but after five minutes in the Banjaara restaurant I was itching for a Camel and a box of matches. I have the architect to thank. You see, whoever laid out the restaurant complied with South African law by providing a wholly enclosed space in which smokers can light up. In a brilliant piece of topsy-turvy planning, the architect decided that the smoking area should occupy the area alongside the only external windows, so that in order to enjoy the view across south-eastern Johannesburg, you must sit in the smoking section. Clearly Bobby Singh, the owner of the restaurant, enjoys a ciggy now and then—or perhaps he simply has a perverse and mischievous sense of humour.
The Bedford Centre has changed from the squat, concrete mall where my cousins and I used to go to the cinema as teenagers (which reminds me: the movie director Penny Marshall still owes me for the 1½ hours I wasted there watching her film Jumpin’ Jack Flash in 1986). It is still squat and concrete, but now has covered parking—filled with slightly stoned fourteen-year-old boys trying not to fall off skateboards under the amused, avuncular eyes of the security guards.
Inside, a recent redevelopment has seen the Centre relined with Carrera marble and treated to glass lifts and new, shiny escalators—and with its red silk walls and gilded fittings, Banjaara continues this vaguely decadent theme. The menu, however, is admirably businesslike, focusing on chicken, lamb and vegetables. In fact, Banjaara offers a comprehensive and imaginative vegetarian selection including unusual dishes such as paneer (Indian curd cheese) with cashew nuts and cream, and dal maknie: a fragrant, buttery dish of spiced black lentils cooked with kidney beans. I had a wonderful fish curry, freshly made and suffused with typical African-Indian flavours of aniseed, curry leaves and red chilli. My companions shared a selection of mild curries, of which the typically South African lamb keema masala (spiced mince with peas) met with particular approval.
An outstanding aspect of Banjaara’s cuisine is its breads: naan was light and sweet, with an appetising crunch where its crust had been seared in the tandoor. The huge, flat romali roti (flat griddle bread) was hot, dry and perfectly cooked, while the aloo paratha (flatbread stuffed with spiced potato) was rich with ginger, chilli, mint and coriander. Our friendly (if occasionally slightly distracted) waiter seemed disappointed that we were unable to finish all the food he had put before us: on reflection, three main dishes between four of us, plus plenty of rice, would have been ample.
Indian food in southern Africa is not always the cut-price bargain that it is in the United Kingdom. However, it was a pleasant surprise when the bill for four of us, including beers all round, came to just R402 plus tip. At that sort of price I could almost afford to start smoking again.
The Bedford Centre
Telephone: +27 (0)11 615 1513