A few weeks ago in a review of the Chilli Pickle in Brighton, I smuggled in a critique of the new forms of kitsch deployed in the design of hip new Indian restaurants in the West. I noted there that it’s by no means necessary to deploy (new kinds of) exotica to be successful as an Indian restaurant and cited as proof the extremely successful Gunpowder in Spitalfields in London. Here now is my review of my lunch there about a month ago. Despite being in one of my least favourite dining formats—small plates eaten in crowded spaces after standing in line—this may have been my favourite Indian meal so far on this trip.
Yes, Gunpowder does not take reservations—except seemingly for parties of 6+ at dinner. Based on the crowds at weekday lunch, I can tell you that it must be a pain to try and get in for dinner. There were two of us and when we arrived a little after 1 the small space was jammed and there were about 10 people standing outside. Some gave up and left and so we didn’t have to wait terribly long—about 15 minutes (I’d guess it would have been quite a bit longer had there been more than two of us). By 2 the restaurant had mostly cleared out. Our server told us that 1 pm is the busiest time at lunch as right before then is when people from the financial district arrive. He recommended coming either exactly at noon or at 2 to be seated comfortably (they’re open till 3 for lunch).
It’s a tight space even when not jammed—a narrow room with small tables along the longest wall extending from the entrance to the kitchen and benches and a couple of tall benches with stools alongside the entrance. The seating is none too comfortable either—you are very close to the tables on either side of you and your bottom is placed on a hard wooden stool. The tables are small, which becomes a bit of a problem if you order the 3 small plates per person that they recommend. The food, however, is worth all of this hassle. And what is this food like? Read on.
If the restaurant eschews the kitschy decor of a place like Dishoom, its menu is in a similar vein. It’s a much smaller menu than Dishoom’s but it similarly bounces all over the Indian map and has at least one dish in common with it (spoiler alert: I thought Gunpowder’s rendition was superior). The inevitable nods to street food are here as are the hedging of bets with more familiar fare (saag paneer, tandoori chicken). In between are a number of dishes with more creative flourishes (pulled venison with a mini uthappam folded around it, sticky and spicy pork ribs, grilled whole broccoli with mustard sauce, something they call a venison and vermicelli doughnut). Not all of it entirely worked for me but everything was at least tasty and the hits were very good. The abbreviated menu serves them well here.
What we ate:
- Gunpowder Potato Chaat: I am always suspicious of chaat served in hip or expensive surroundings but this was very good indeed. The flavours and textures were just right. (£6)
- Spicy Venison and Vermicelli Doughnut: We were very curious to see what this would turn out to be and it turned out to be a cross between a Scotch egg and what in Bengal we would call a keema chop. The vermicelli was all in the crust. An arresting presentation but nothing particularly interesting past that. (£5)
- Porzhi Okra Fries: This is the dish that was very close to one on Dishoom’s menu: okra sliced lengthwise, lightly battered, fried to a delicate crisp and tossed with a tangy chaat masala (or similar). Why did I like Gunpowder’s version more? Perhaps because they sliced the okra thinner (almost in long shreds) and so got it crispier. (£6)
- Chettinad Pulled Duck served w. Homemade Oothappam: The spicy pulled duck was very tasty but I’m afraid the uthappam wrap around it was a bit of a non-sequitur. It would have been perfect served in a soft paratha or, if they wanted to keep it South Indian, in an appam. (£5)
- Karwari Soft Shell Crab: No complaints, however, about the soft shell crab which, like the okra and the “doughnut”, was fried perfectly. And the tangy chutney slathered under and over it set it off perfectly. I could have had two of these myself. (£9)
- Nagaland House Crispy Pork Ribs w. Tamarind Kachumber: The ribs were likewise excellent, if rather messy with a sweet and sticky sauce kicked up with the use of Naga chillies (I’m guessing). It’s true that pork is a staple meat in Nagaland but the presentation of this dish has more to do, I suspect, with cosmopolitan fascination with American barbecue. It’s also true that it works quite well. (£9)
For pictures of the restaurant and the food launch the slideshow below. Please forgive the quality of the pictures—my camera’s white balance had trouble with the yellow light above the tables and the bit of natural light coming in from the front. Scroll down for comments on service etc.
Service was friendly. Despite the crush our server never got too frazzled and was able to describe the dishes well.
All of this food plus a couple of beers and service charge came to a little below £60. Leave out the beer and at least one dish (we ate it all but it was a lot of food) and you could make it out of here at £20/head which is pretty damned cheap for what you get. If it weren’t a bit out of the way for us I’d try to get there again before the end of our sojourn (which is now in sight). I’ll certainly stop by the next time I’m in London. In the meantime, I do recommend it highly to anyone visiting London and looking for quality Indian food.