Dishoom is the name adopted by a new Bombay Cafe in central London. Situated on Upper St Martin’s lane, it is best placed to serve busy Londoners wanting a cafe, restaurant, bistro experience all rolled into one. On my recent visit, I had the pleasure of speaking to one of its founders, Amar Radia about its conception and why it’s quite different from your regular Indian.
As I waited for my friend Christine to join me, the windows gleamed and I could see the evening crowd fast gathering. Once inside, we were joined by Amar, and over some interesting cocktails, discussed how this all came to be. The drinks were, in their own right, fantastic twists on established cocktails – thoroughly infused flavours, with names like – Chaijito and BollyBellini – I’m sure you can imagine.
As the restaurant’s claim goes, ‘the original Bombay Cafes have almost disappeared’, they certainly don’t seem to hold the same rustic charm as they would have done throughout the twentieth century. Here, the owners have not just wanted to create an Indian restaurant – but an experience that emulates the grand cafe culture of the original Bombay cafes – which itself took inspiration from the European cafes, Persian immigrants and other colonial references. To this extent, looking around Dishoom, the attempt to recreate the same degree of elegance is certainly noticeable – Amar points out the Bentwood chairs for example and I can’t help but notice the slow turning fan-blades. I am, for a short moment, in a vintage film. It’s almost like a punchier, spicier version of The Wolseley. However, as the focus of these cafes was to be all embracing, so is Dishoom – open for business to all types of customer – whether dropping in for breakfast, or lounging around for lunch. The pictures on the walls and on the menu are all personal and varied, which is quite refreshing particularly in contrast to chain restaurants of an Italian fashion, where images of Frank Sinatra are found in abundance.
The owners collectively worked together to find a central London location where they could build-upon the cuisine and ambience of places like Cafe Leopold in Bombay for example. They were anxious to recreate a culinary experience that matched their recollection of cuisine back at such venues. In London, going out to the far extremes of the east or west of the city to only find ‘traditional’ Indian restaurants didn’t quite match this. Therefore they’ve trialled and brought in the best chefs from abroad to recreate specific dishes.
As such, we started with Chilli Cheese Toast, Desi Fish Fingers, Dishoom Calamari and Pau Bhaji to name a few dishes (all to share of course). Quite honestly, I could say that I hadn’t seen dishes described or listed like this on other restaurant menus, not only was it an infusion of flavours, but also of words. The highlight for both of us was the Pau Bhaji (mashed vegetables with hot-buttered bread, Chowpatty Beach Style). I’ve had mashed veg before, but there was such a light consistency to this Pau Bhaji which meant it was gone within seconds, the bread was soft and delicate – so that we could still prepare ourselves for the feast that lay ahead.
Rather than a conventional listing of Daals and Baltis – the main menu at Dishoom is largely comprised of Grills, Biryanis and Small Plates, making for a more collaborative dining experience. A little unexpected surprise was the cheese and herb infused Naan Bread, which took eating Daal to a completely different level. On top of this, we shared some smaller plates such as the grilled prawns and lamb. The grilled taste, for those of you who are familiar with it, is enough to take you back to the experiences you’ve had in India – evocative and memory inducing. The Desi Fish Fingers – for instance, took me back to my holidays instantly. I recall when I was younger, we’d drive out to our local river – in Punjab – there are five, so it wasn’t too difficult to get it. The locals would fish out the fresh fish, and within minutes it was immersed in a secret signature batter, fried and served . I didn’t think it was possible to get anything fresher – yet the taste of these fish fingers was almost identical.
Of course, we were quite ambitious in our attempts to sample almost two thirds of the menu, but I felt we’d taken the best part of it. However, I’m anxious to get back to check out everything I’ve missed. Though just as we thought we couldn’t manage any more, we tried the Chocolate Fondant and Gola Ice. The latter was of course a burst of freshness after the meal, but the Chocolate Fondant, as I recall Christine describing, was positively ‘orgasmic’ – we shared one – though I noticed our competitive sides surfacing.
Ultimately, Dishoom succeeds in planting a very unique dining experience in the heart of London. It’s thoroughly worth a visit, purely for its versatility as a venue, but also its efforts in authenticity. For us, this was epitomised in our post dinner drinks. Christine had the spiced espresso – making espresso drinking a sweeter and tolerable experience, rather than bitter. I had the Chai, which as you would expect was leagues better than the ‘Chai Latte’ offerings at coffee shops – and ‘garma-garm’ just as it should be, in a traditional little glass. Visit Dishoom's website here for more information.