While in Delhi in January, we ate at Sodabottleopenerwala, a restaurant that packages Bombay’s Irani cafe kitsch and Parsi food to (largely) non-Parsis. I was somewhat bemused by the experience and not particularly enthused by the food. What I failed to mention in my description of that restaurant’s maximalist aesthetic—what I called “Irani restaurant as theme park—is that it represents not merely a simulacrum of Bombay’s fading Irani cafes but also the return to India of a template that had already become a huge success abroad. There was a time in India when the diaspora was culturally and politically suspect. Now, of course, it is both culturally and politically a source of ideas (and money). The location of this particular set of new ideas, perhaps predictably, is London, and the restaurant that is the source material is Dishoom.
Dishoom opened in 2010 in Covent Garden and has since expanded to a number of other locations in London and also to Edinburgh. Its approach to the presentation of Indian food, or more accurately, to the setting in which Indian food is served, has gone further—not just back to Delhi (and then Bombay), but also to New York, where kitschy-cosmopolitan restaurants such as Babuji are now all the rage. After the Sodabottleopenerwala experience in January, I was interested to see what Dishoom was like, and so when the friends I was staying with at the end of my London trip in August proposed eating there, I jumped at it. Herewith my experience at the Covent Garden mothership.
One of the first things you will likely hear/read when you look into the possibility of eating at Dishoom is that you will have to wait around for hours. They do not take reservations and the queue outside can apparently be horrendous. However, on a Sunday in late August we did not encounter a horrendous queue at lunch. Which is not to say that we didn’t have to wait. There was a line and standing in it was rendered more fraught by the fact that it began to rain quite heavily—the staff kindly brought out umbrellas for those that needed them and small glasses of masala tea for everyone that wanted them. We had our own umbrellas but happily took the tea—it was quite good. The line itself moved quite briskly and we were inside in less than 20 minutes.
We were not, however, seated in the dining room right away. Instead we were directed to the basement bar and were told we’d be called when our table was ready. I took the opportunity to walk around the restaurant and photograph the decor: see my pictures of Sodabottleopenerwala and imagine that scene turned up to 11. Oddly, amongst all the kitsch are scattered what appear to be photographs of various families. It’s possible these are pictures from the owners’ family archives but I had this weird sensation that I might at any moment happen upon a photograph of my grandparents. While I was taking pictures and thinking strange thoughts my friends were ordering drinks at the bar; but before the drinks arrived we were summoned to our table. En route to our table we noted that there were in fact quite a lot of empty tables, and this remained true throughout our meal: clearly having long lines outside is very important to the restaurant’s branding.
And now the food: while Dishoom trades even more heavily in Irani/Parsi kitsch in its aesthetic than does Sodabottleopenerwala, its menu is far less Parsi/Irani focused. Yes, there are a number of classic Parsi dishes on the menu but so are there a number of other dishes from Bombay as well as your regulation kababs, matar-paneer, dal makhani, butter chicken and so on. Which goes to show that even in London restaurants trying very hard not to be curry houses can’t quite leave curry house fare behind. Authenticity is the wrong tree to bark up here though—you might, for example, consider that they serve what they call “bhang lassi”, in their words, “the traditional Holi drink”, and they call it that even though they leave out the actual bhang (hemp seeds): it’s the story they’re selling, not the real thing. I’m happy to say though that the food, on the whole, was, nontheless, far superior to that served in most Indian restaurants in the US—that’s not to say though that everything was good.
What we ate:
- Dishoom Chicken Tikka: I quite liked the look of the tandoor action I’d seen while walking around the restaurant and was very pleased with the quality of the chicken tikkas. Nice bit of char, no artificial colouring, not overly laden with marinade.
- Roomali Roti: I’d likewise liked the look of the rumali rotis I’d seen being made and I’m happy to report that the one we got to eat the kababs with was very good indeed.
- Gunpowder Potatoes: Also from the grill, these spicy, lightly smashed potatoes were also excellent.
- Prawns Koliwada: Presumably on the menu because it’s a quintessential Bombay dish. These were just okay, not spicy or crunchy enough.
- Okra Fries: No complaints, however, about the okra, sliced lengthwise, lightly battered, and fried to a proper crisp. One of the best things we ate.
- Spicy Lamb Chops: Another dish from the grill, these lamb chops were without a doubt the best thing we ate. Very nicely marinated—tender but not mushy at all—and very well spiced.
- Chicken Berry Britannia: This is a tribute to the iconic dish at perhaps the most iconic of Bombay’s Irani restaurants, Britannia; it’s too bad that this is such an inadequate approximation of that dish. In fact, if they really cared about Irani restaurants they’d stop serving this or at least give it another name. It was basically a desultory biryani with some cranberries thrown in.
- Black House Dal: Dal makhani by any other name would taste as creamy.
- Cinnamon Ice Cream: Our server insisted we try this; it was unremarkable.
- Kulfi on a Stick: The kulfi was better but also nothing worth getting excited about.
For pictures of the restaurant and the food, click below to launch a slideshow with bigger images.
We had a couple of cocktails and bottles of Kingfisher with all of this and the total came to £88 with tip. The food is quite reasonably priced by London standards—the lamb chops, at just under £12, were the most expensive thing we ate. Service was affable, if not always present, but this is really a casual restaurant.
Quite good, on the whole, but I have to say that I preferred the food at both Trishna (which is more expensive, of course) and at Hoppers (which is not). I will say that it was better than the curry house in St. Katharine Docks I ate at earlier in the week (though that was also far superior to its analogues in the US). I’m not sure that I’ll come back with the family when we’re in London for an extended stay in the spring. This should not be seen as a slam on the restaurant—as you can tell from my comments, most things we ate were very good; it’s just that there’s so much good Indian food in London and I’d rather try more of it.
This concludes my series of meal reports from my London trip in August. I’ll have a lot more from the city in the coming year. Now I have to catch up with my Montreal and Twin Cities reports!