Dipna Anand Kitchen & Bar, Milton Keynes: ‘Thoughtful cooking that is determined to incapacitate you’ – restaurant review

<span>Dipna Anand, Milton Keynes: ‘The exterior may look like Tomorrow’s World, but inside it feels more like Santa Monica.’</span><span>Photograph: Jonathan West/The Guardian</span>
Dipna Anand, Milton Keynes: ‘The exterior may look like Tomorrow’s World, but inside it feels more like Santa Monica.’Photograph: Jonathan West/The Guardian

Dipna Anand, a talented Indian chef, has opened a bright 90-seater restaurant in Milton Keynes. For so long, merely the phrase “Milton Keynes” was a punchline; this “new town’, established in 1967, was inhabited only by the spiritually adrift, depressed newlyweds and some cows made of concrete. Those days of mega-LOLs about the mighty MK may have passed, but there’s still something oddly futuristic about Unity Place, a new “destination for dining, work and leisure” just two minutes across a pedestrianised square from Milton Keynes station, and where Anand has set up shop selling her delicious Punjabi and south Indian menu with a smattering of modern British-Indian favourites. Yes, there are curries, biryani, thalis and small plates; yes, there’s black dal, Delhi wala makhani chicken, pillowy deep-fried bhatura bread, and gajar halwa – caramelised carrots – for pudding; but there are also dynamite wings, masala fries and chocolate brownies, if that’s your thing.

But what exactly is Unity Place? Well, having spent two hours there, then a further two hours reading its marketing bumf, I don’t know. Anand’s restaurant is certainly an elegant, welcoming space, but within a block that looks like The Office’s Wernham Hogg building. Then inside, things flip again: Unity Place’s main reception area is a gargantuan space reminiscent of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, except it’s not an art gallery. Then there are some lecture hall areas, a café by Santander the bank and, rather incongruously, a barbershop. This building is, apparently, an “accessible hub … seamlessly integrating sustainability and connectivity into its core”, while also “embodying a planet-first approach and fostering an environment of unity”. Perhaps this confusing definition is why I was alone as I wandered around Unity Place looking for my Sunday lunch, feeling like Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later. The “urban food market” sounded fun, but that’s closed at weekends.

Yet Anand’s place, once you find it, is absolutely charming. The exterior may belong in an episode of Tomorrow’s World, but inside it feels more like Santa Monica: pale floors, sage chairs, floral banquettes, greenery, delightful staff, and best of all the wafts of Punjabi food as you walk through the door. Get seated and order a round of vada pav – on behalf of my brethren in the north of England, I’d like to thank the Indian state of Maharashtra for nurturing this dish of deep-fried potato dumpling and chutney inside a fluffy dinner roll. For too long the chip butty held my affection as the pinnacle of carb-on-carb, then I discovered its spicy sister from India. Dipna Anand’s version sings with mustard and curry leaves and arrives with a rich, sweet tamarind sauce in a little silver bowl, helping me to retain some elegance while I hoover them up like a Henry vacuum cleaner.

There’s a cocktail list, including a sassy lassi with rum and the Mohabbat martini with cardamom, if you’re boozing, plus peach spiced tea if you’re not. You won’t leave here feeling short-changed: for £16 the vegetarian thali is a complete platter of joy. Served on a tray, there’s a delicate, silky paneer matar curry, a decadent dal makhani rich with cream, then a pond-like saag aloo for you to assault with a fresh, rather slender, but still fit-for-purpose buttered naan. The thali comes with a pile of lightly fragrant peas pulao, a further pile of poppadoms, some chutney, and an outrageous secret-recipe raita that the chefs claim to be merely greek yoghurt with cucumber and salt, but which I don’t believe. This is light, thoughtful cooking that determinedly sets out to incapacitate you, with lovely, kind service.

Unity Place is not a great draw and this restaurant is the best thing happening in it. Come for Papa Ji’s fish curry and the tadka coconut greens, stay for a bowl of gulab jamun – plump, deep-fried cardamom-scented dumplings paddling in rose and saffron syrup. Staff were concerned they might be “too sweet for me”, so they brought me a scoop of very good vanilla ice-cream to eat with them to make the dumplings “less sweet”. I wholly support this type of sugarspun logic.

Unity Place’s purpose, I’ve read, is to “make a lasting, future-proof contribution to the city’s landscape, both physically and figuratively”. I’m not sure about that, but if I lived closer to Anand’s restaurant, the physical change in me would be absolutely real.

Dipna Anand Kitchen & Bar, Unity Place, 200 Grafton Gate, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 01908 018595. Open Weds-Fri 4-11pm, Sat 11am-11pm, Sun 11am-5pm. From about £30 a head, plus drinks and service

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