My review of the The Chilli Pickle in Brighton, posted two weeks ago, included a critique of certain developments in Indian restaurant culture in the West in recent years, having to do with both food and interior design. Here now is a review of a place that continues to ignore all culinary trends and has no interest in decor of any kind: the venerable Lahore Kebab House in Whitechapel.
Before I get to the review let me deal with the objection that this is not an Indian restaurant per se, and that this is signaled in the very name of the place. This is, of course, true and it is not my intention to enact a campaign of culinary colonialism. It’s also true, however, that Lahore is only about 30 miles from Amritsar and passports aside there’s nothing separating the cuisine of Lahore Kebab House from that of the average north Indian curry house. So while it is of course correctly described as a Pakistani restaurant, at least from a culinary perspective we can refuse to go along with partition. Or we could just ignore national markers and call it Punjabi cuisine, which it is.
You may recall that Punjab in Seven Dials bills itself as the oldest north Indian and the oldest Punjabi restaurant in the United Kingdom. Lahore Kebab House does not challenge this claim. Like the other venerable Whitechapel curry house, Tayyabs, it was established in 1972. I’m not sure if it was as large then as it is now, or if not, when the expansions happened, but now it is spread over two or three large floors and can seat hundreds of diners at once. And on the weekends and at dinner it apparently packs them in with long lines snaking down the street outside (though it’s far from crammed at weekday lunch). This it also has in common with Tayyabs. Tayyabs is probably more famous outside London—it’s the name that foodies are more apt to recognize—but, for what it’s worth, my friends and cousins in London all recommend Lahore Kebab House over it. (I’ll be eating at Tayyabs today and will put this comparison to the test but my suspicion is that adherence to the cult of one or the other has only incidentally to do with the respective merits of their kitchens.)
As I said, trends in Indian/South Asian restaurant culture have left no mark on Lahore Kebab House and no Michelin inspector has probably ever darkened its doors. There is no exotica of any kind on the walls. In fact, I don’t think there was anything at all on the walls of the large ground floor dining room we were seated in. The feel is of a large industrial canteen and while the servers (all male) are friendly enough they will not constantly ask you if you’re enjoying your food. Similarly, you will not find chaat or dosas or chicken 65 on the menu. There is nothing with coconut milk in it, no gobi Manchurian. If you want these things you should fuck off somewhere else. What they offer is old-school Punjabi food and if you don’t like it you can lump it.
But you would have to be dead not to like it. I ate there a few days after eating at a branch of a well-regarded Punjabi chain in Delhi and liked most of the food at Lahore Kebab House better. Indeed, I would say that Lahore Kebab House could survive as a dhaba in Delhi. While not everything was great—despite their name, the kababs were not consistent and the naans and tandoori rotis and biryani were pedestrian—most things tasted exactly as they should and the food was not awash in cream and nut paste as it would be at any restaurant serving this kind of food in the US. What did we eat? We were a large’ish group and so ordered a lot to share:
- Mutton Tikka: Really very good. The meat was properly tenderized, which is to say it still had some pleasant chew to it, and it was nicely charred from the coals (I’m not sure if they’re grilled in a tandoor per se).
- Chicken Tikka: The chicken tikka’s flavours were also good but the pieces were too large, which probably led to them being overcooked.
- Chicken Leg: This is as much description as this gets on the menu. What you get is a marinated and griddle cooked leg and thigh of chicken. Not tandoori chicken but better than most tandoori chicken.
- Daal Tarka: I don’t believe there’s even any dal makhani on the menu (which is not terribly Punjabi, I must say) but this daal tarka is rather good—it tasted exactly as it would in the home of a very good Punjabi cook.
- Karahi Chicken: This was a compromise dish in our order—there was some interest in the group in chicken tikka masalas and I drew the line here. It was good but the least of the meat dishes we ate.
- Dry Lamb: This is one of a few dishes that for some reason are only available Wednesday to Sunday. It was very good. It’s not really a dry dish per se: it’s just that the gravy/sauce is much more reduced. A very nice curry indeed.
- Saag Gosht: But this from the daily menu was the pick of the lot. The perfect ratio of pureed greens to tender lamb, no cream to cloud the flavours, and the whole cooked just right with the slightly bitter and astringent greens melding with the spices and the meat.
- Meat Biryani: This biryani, somewhat predictably, was rather ordinary. This is biryani in the rice and meat curry cooked together style.
- Naans and Tandoori Rotis: The breads were better than those served in most restaurants in the US but nothing to write home about.
In addition we got some plain rice (though it’s not very plain) and a large pitcher of mango lassi. We were too full for dessert.
For pictures of the food (with a few more comments) and the restaurant launch the slideshow below.
We were too full for dessert. All of the above—and keep in mind that we got multiples of most things—came to £120 for eight people. This would be very good value for food of this quality in the US but in London it’s an absolute steal. There is no ambience to speak of and nothing revelatory on the menu but if I lived in London I would stop by on the regular. I certainly wish I could go back on this trip to try their nihari (another of their Wed-Sun specials) but, alas, there will probably not be time. By the way, there’s now a satellite branch in south west London as well—I’m not sure how it compares.
Well, I’m very interested to see how lunch at Tayyabs today will compare. I will probably not report on that meal next week—we’ll make a detour instead for Malaysian food and then more dim sum before coming back to South Asian/Indian food.