Neasden’s spectacular Swaminarayan Temple (open until 6.30pm) is reason enough to visit London’s north-western territories, but across the road from this important centre of Hindu worship there’s a more temporal attraction. Run on behalf of the temple by a well-established catering firm (which also owns sweet shops in Harrow and Wembley), Shayona inhabits a structure that resembles a warehouse cash-and-carry outlet in the temple’s car park. Head inside and you’re not initially disabused of the notion: straight ahead is a large shop full of vegetarian foodstuffs; to the right is a takeaway Indian sweets counter. Facing the confectionery, however, is the entrance to a restaurant that’s more upmarket than its exterior suggests – and notably smarter than the average temple canteen you’d find in India.
The brown and cream colour scheme of the large main dining room (to the rear is a lounge) is offset by vibrant wall paintings, a healthy sprouting of artificial foliage and graceful chandeliers. Friends, families and couples – both young and old – from the local Hindu community fill the tables, even midweek. The draw is a menu that, while vegetarian and sattvic (a diet based on ‘pure’ food that excludes pungent-smelling ingredients – so, no onions or garlic) includes dishes from across the subcontinent, as well as Asian-African hybrids (sweetcorn, cassava chips). Hence, Gujarati appetisers such as kachoris (fried balls of dough with spicy fillings) share space with Mumbai beach snacks (bhel pooris, a bit like rice crispy snacks) and Punjabi samosas on the starter list.
Sample a selection with the good-value Shayona platter – we relished the crisp samosa, the uncommonly light bateta wada (a ball of spiced mashed potato in deep-fried batter) and the spongy methi gota (fenugreek dumpling) – served with four chutneys. To follow, there’s a choice of South Indian ‘light meals’, including dosas and idlis (ours tended towards the indelicate) and a list of curries that again roams through India.
Luxuriously buttery dahl makhani needed the foil of cumin rice; rich too were the Shayona shahi paneer (the dense cheese in a creamy, saffron sauce) and the delectable stuffed aubergine (made somewhat mundane by its tikka masala-esque sauce). The term ‘Shahi’ means ‘royal’, a reference to the Indo-Persian court, so it’s hardly suprising these dishes were all very rich.
There’s no alcohol – drink fresh juices or lassi (we can vouch for the refreshing vaghareli chaas, a salted spiced-up buttermilk – ‘vaghar’ means seasoned with spices, ‘chaas’ is the buttermilk drink). In all an uplifting, if not a religious, experience.