Saturday, September 28, 2013

A piece of Bombay heritage in Covent Garden

The old Persian-run cafés of nineteenth century Bombay were hubs of the sprawling Indian city, where rich lawyers and brooding writers could find themselves sipping chai next to rickshaw wallahs and noisy families.

There were around four hundred of these cafés in Bombay at their peak. Now, sadly, less than thirty remain. Café Coffee Day (the Indian equivalent of Starbucks) is the ubiquitous meeting place of choice, with identical modern air-conditioned outlets on every street corner.

Dishoom have captured this fading moment of Indian heritage and have shared it with Londoners, firstly in Covent Garden and now also in Shoreditch. In a nostalgic homage to the original Bombay institutions, no detail has been overlooked. Creaky ceiling fans waft the scent of sandalwood and cardamom around the room. Sepia photographs and ageing mirrors adorn the walls, and scratchy jazz plays in the background.

So how better to bid farewell to our own fleeting Indian summer than visiting Dishoom for an al-fresco dinner? We head there straight from work, arriving at 6:45pm on a Thursday in late September, to be greeted by a sizable queue (bookings for under six people aren't accepted after 6pm). However, somehow we are sat down almost straight away as we're happy to dine at the tables outside.

The skies are darkening and a cool autumn breeze blows through the streets surrounding Covent Garden. Dishoom looks warm and cosy inside the lit windows, I think enviously as I warm my hands on my masala chai, served in an authentic Indian glass. Then I look at the snaking queue making its way down St Martin's Lane - that doesn't look cosy. We made the right choice.

I start the evening with a Dishoom cocktail named the Bollybellini - an unashamedly girly concoction of raspberries, lychees, rose and cardamom sparkling with first-class Prosecco. At £7.50, it's roughly the same price as most of the main dishes on the menu (which are almost shockingly good value), but I've paid far more in London for bog-standard cocktails so I'm pleasantly surprised.

For snacks, we order what appear to the naked eye to be multi-coloured Wotsits, but in fact are named 'Far Far' (£2.20) served with a range of Indian chutneys - they're unusual, halfway between a crisp and a cracker, but curiously tasty.

The menu itself is refreshingly creative and affordable, about as far removed from a typical Indian restaurant as you can get but with roughly similar prices. Our waiter explains that chefs from Mumbai are sponsored to come and work in the Dishoom family, and the result is a menu packed with all the authenticity and flavour you could hope for, but modernised and refreshed to capture the imagination of even the most jaded London diner.

Choosing just a handful of items from the menu was torture, as I eyed up dishes like paneer and mango salad, gunpowder potatoes, chilli cheese toast and pistachio kulfi. But somehow we manage to make a shortlist and opt to share a range of dishes. Lucky we did, because the portions aren't massive like typical takeway fare - these are satisfying but fairly small plates, designed to be shared and swapped around the table so you can get stuck into a bit of everything.

I'm delighted to see paneer tikka on the menu (£6.90) - when I was working at a newspaper in Bangalore a few years ago, I became a little bit obsessed with this Indian cheese. Many of the cafés were entirely vegetarian but if paneer was on the menu (and it always was), it was hard to notice, let alone care, that there was no meat on offer.

But these days I'm very much back on the meat, so we order the lamb boti kebab (£8.50), tender pieces of lamb marinated in ginger, chilli and garlic, and the chicken ruby curry (£7.90) - oh my. Packed with flavour, this classic curry envelopes perfectly cooked chicken in a rich silky and ruby-red makhani sauce, which we mop up with thin, crispy garlic naan straight out of the tandoor oven.

Lamb Boti Kebab, Dishoom, from
I forego dessert in favour of the best cup of masala chai I've had since the roadside shacks in the foothills of the Himalayas or from the chai wallahs on the train to Delhi. Dishoom's chai is creamy, warming and spicy, with a hearty kick that prevents it from tasting too sickly sweet for our British palates. My friend orders the chocolate chai - which is everything you could hope for on a chilly Autumn night.

Helen's swearing at me...
After all that, we ask for the bill and are amazed to find it only comes to £25 each - including service charge. I now want to tell everyone and anyone about Dishoom, but it seems I am a bit late to the party - it's already built a loyal following in the city for bringing the best of Bombay to London's food scene. Like India itself, Dishoom is full of contrasts - rich and bold food at unpretentious prices, a nostalgic heritage with a fresh, modern attitude.

But again, like India, you need to go more than once to fully experience Dishoom in its many forms. I want to go to the Shoreditch outpost for a Bombay breakfast on the indoor-outdoor veranda, swing by in the afternoon for a chai and a snack, or come back late at night for a few more Bollybellinis and rainbow Wotsits. But now the weather's turning, I'm not sure I fancy sitting outside again - I'll just have to rally 6+ friends and book a table. Who's in?


  1. Great article Emily!! Hope to see you again, Chai on me!


    1. Aw, thanks Rico, I'll hold you to that chai! ps - would be great if you guys could retweet the link! :)

  2. I'll work on that retweet, but will cost you a chai!! :) Come see us SOON!!

    1. Hey Rico, I'm (finally) coming back to Dishoom on Tuesday night for my birthday dinner, bringing my mum along! Can't wait to return. Come say hello if you're working! :)