You might not know it by looking at me, but I originally hail from the Midlands – the land of the thick accent, the balti and poorly-designed city centres. If you cut me open, there’d be Indian spices running through my veins, such is the fervour and passion that Brummies feel about their favourite dish. For me curry is always good: I even love a bad curry, because it’s a curry and my taste buds crave the earthy aroma of cumin, the sourness of turmeric, the spike of a chilli, the zing of coriander, and the sweet warmth of the steam that rises from a naan bread that’s been cooked and blistered on a tandoor.
Since moving to London, a very long time ago, I’ve made it my mission to seek out the best spices in the capital. Apart from the very occasional great curry – hats off to Tooting and Southall – my forays into Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani food in the capital have been, at best, mediocre. At worst? Sugary, thick, gloopy gravies tainted with food colouring and floating indescribable cuts of meat and the odd vegetable in them. So sad. For some reason, owners and chefs in Chinese, Indian (and when I say Indian, you must realise that I understand that more often than not, they’re not Indian) and even Thai restaurants feel the need to cut down on the hot spices, add extra sugar, a splash of cream and a rainbow of food colouring to tailor dishes for the British palate.
Covent Garden isn’t an area in which I normally eat in London. To taste the newest fads in food I head to Soho and its kingdom of small plate restaurants, to Mayfair for high-end, starry dishes, or to the East for pop-ups and maverick rule-breaking chefs. But not Covent Garden, where, as you exit the tube you are greeted by an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse (albeit one that’s undergone a refurb’) and platters of flabby-looking pizza, imprisoned behind glass that proprietors kindly warm in a microwave for you to eat on the hoof. Ack.
However, since the opening of St Martin’s Courtyard and the arrival of Bill’s and Jamie’s eponymous eateries, the area has been attracting more and more visitors who are looking for steady, good value food. Just around the corner from the Courtyard’s residents, and next door to Stringfellows, is Dishoom. A Bombay-style eatery that sits over two floors. Despite being housed in a brand-new box build, there’s a draw and vibe to the place – helped along nicely by the friendly doorman who beckons you in with a smile. And while its interiors do seem a little formulaic – you can see that the money has been sunk into this first venture with a view to rolling out the concept across the city – they do, at least, evoke a sense of time and place. Old family photographs adorn the walls (giving that same clever sense of belonging that Leon’s old family snapshots do), and there’s a real warmth to the service. The open-plan kitchen means you can watch the chef with the hottest job in London slapping freshly-made dough onto the wall of the furnace-like oven, fishing it out with a hook of metal and sending it out speedily to tables, charred and puffed up from the extreme heat.
And so to the food. Dishoom has, like a contestant on X Factor, what Simon Cowell would call the “likability factor”. I wanted to love it. The staff are lovely, the interior clever and fun, and the menu is great: lots of small plates, a couple of “Ruby Murrays”, breads, their house dish of biryani, some grilled meats. It looked wonderful and the place had an aroma about it that got the gastric juices flowing before even the first dish had arrived.
I may as well say it now: I loved the food. So did my companion, who’s nowhere near as hardcore as I am when it comes to curries. The fact that it catered to us both shows there’s a deft handling of spices and flavours here; a freshness and quality to the ingredients, as well as a delicate handling of the “new Indian fusion” concept; and there’s a clear idea and understanding of what they want to achieve.
First up was the calamari, which was excellent. Faultless, in fact: tender, melting and covered in well-seasoned Panko-style breadcrumbs with the requisite sweet dipping sauce – which tasted housemade rather than bought-in. We squeezed some lime over it to add a touch of sharpness. Fantastic. Then grilled prawns, which had been, perhaps, a little over-charred, but their fragrant lemongrassy dressing and their charcoal-y outer only served to remind us of holidays in far flung lands. The samosas, again, were made in-house, and their pastry was wafer-thin, filled with a poky, juicy minced lamb and mandatory peas. These came with a sweet, slightly sour date and tamarind chutney.
Next up was the chicken ruby murray – one of only two curries on the menu. It appeared on our table alongside black daal, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Both were rich, deeply flavoured and unctuous in two very distinctive ways – which, if you’re a fan of curries, you know is always a good sign. They certainly do not make one sauce to fit all here. The curry had earthy notes, and just a touch of sweetness (probably derived from the addition of tamarind – one of my favourite ingredients) – in fact its texture was almost sticky, thanks to the slow-cooking, with the meat including a tender breast and slow-cooked brown meat. The daal, meanwhile, was almost pudding-like in its texture: intense and creamy, but never cloying. It felt nourishing – as if every mouthful was doing me good – and tasted pure and peppery. Divine. We ordered more naan to mop clean the brass dish in which it arrived.
I never normally do pudding at a curry house – to save myself from the sight of a photographic menu showcasing such delights as scooped out orange and lemon skins filled with sugary, lemon “flavour” sorbets; or plastic toys (“perfect for the kids”) filled with ice cream that has never been introduced to vanilla. Or cream. Not here, however. My pineapple and black pepper crumble was warming and homely – with a clever kick of pepper, which brought out the sweetness of the fruit. We would have had kulfi (Indian ice cream, that they serve on a stick), had it not been feeling so chilly outside. As a new convert to all things Chai (a warming, milky, soothing drink softly spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and pepper), I was drawn to the Cognac Chai – the house-made Chai mixed with Hennessey VS. A wonderful end to a fine meal.
Dishoom is not just what the West End has been crying out for – it’s what the whole of Central London has needed for a long time: a great curry restaurant using fresh ingredients and serving excellent value food within a well thought out concept. The sign, for me, of a great restaurant is that I have been reliving various dishes (the calamari, black dal and chicken curry) since my visit, that I’ve been planning what I’ll be eating on my next visit, and that I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen to visit.
12 Upper St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2