London’s top restaurateurs vie to give their venues the wow factor. They enlist six-figure designers, find premium locations, team up with top hotels and covet panoramic views.
Few can compare with Shayona. Set within the magnificent Neasden Temple – the largest Hindu temple outside of India – it is somewhere that elicits a genuine intake of breath. As the complex rises from an otherwise drab warren of residential streets, it’s nigh on impossible not to be struck silent.
Once inside the temple grounds, a walk across the car park, through a cash and carry and via a takeaway sweets counter to reach the restaurant is a less awe-inspiring journey, but an appetite-whetting one.
What awaits is a plush dining hall which combines boisterous canteen commotion with neat tables and smart servers.
The rich and silky mango lassi or a tall glass of vaghareli chaas – a spiced buttermilk that’s best described as a creamy version of chai tea – are enough to make you forget the fact that there’s no alcohol served here.
The food here adheres to Hindu Sattvic principles, which means it’s not only vegetarian but also free from “pungent foods” such as onion and garlic. This is a fascinating point of difference with the Indian food we’re more familiar with in this country.
Nevertheless, the menu spans the sub-continent from the thalis of Rajasthan, the curries of North India and the Punjab to the street food of Mumbai and the dosas of South India.
The restaurant is dominated by large families and groups ordering even larger selections of small dishes to share, and indeed you’ll want to try as wide a range as possible so a visit en masse is recommended, to ensure the chance to sample the widest selection possible.
Try crispy okra fries which put their potato cousins to shame; addictively crunchy kachori, lentil-stuffed dumplings; and bajri rotla, an earthy millet bread typically consumed on fast days but good dipped into a curry or dhal anytime.
There’s a dish of just about any vegetable you can imagine, dressed with oils and spices and blessed with slow cooking so as to remain virtuous in health but become full of flavour.
Dishes such as “cooked aubergine” are more exciting than the menu might seem to indicate. But, if by the end of it you’re still craving something less health-minded, be sure to try the sweets before you leave. Among the wide selection are fudge-like bharfi in original and chocolate varieties; honeycomb-esque mehsoor kaju; and rose-flavoured, syrup-drenched gulab jamun dumplings.
Whether or not the temple puts you in contact with a higher place, you’re going to leave on some kind of high. The stunning setting, strong sense of community and wholesomely good food at very low prices should be enough to do it.
Otherwise, there’s always the sugar in the desserts.