Facing a 22-hour layover in London, The Family agrees on one thing. We. Must. Eat. Indian.
As a dear friend from Indore once told me, the best Indian food outside of India is in London. And we know that from past experience. Only this time, instead of stopping at one of the interchangeable curry houses we passed every 15 feet, we headed for lunch at Dishoom.
The hip, all-day eatery is a modern spin on the old-school Bombay cafés, that once served a cross-section of Bombayites food and drink from morning until night.
And although the comprehensive menu features café staples such as akuri (spicy scrambled eggs on toast) and chilli [sic] cheese toast, it also steps outside of the cafés into the streets and houses of the city.
“Bombay is the melting pot of India. Our food is more representative of all of Bombay,” says Dishoom co-founder Kavi Thakrar. “We bring it all together in one place.”
Dishoom serves a plethora of reasonably priced (even for Americans) breakfast items, “rolls,” salads, small plates, grilled dishes, curries, breads and side dishes. And whether one orders a humble hot buttered bun and a cup of steaming chai or a full meal, the café emphasizes authenticity, quality and simplicity, Thakrar says.
The eatery, for example, grinds its own spices daily, uses fresh fruits, “vegs,” and free-range chickens — and is concerned with issues such as sustainability.
“Our food is the food of the people,” Thakrar says. “It’s fresh ingredients — it’s ginger, garlic and spices. It’s not the food of emperors.”
(Emperors’ fare — which one often finds in stereotypical Indian restaurants — is rich, heavy and loaded with cream, nuts and saffron, Thakrar explains.)
Our hungry group was quite content to eat more like Mumbai commoners than kings.
From the first plate to hit the table to the last (mostly small) plate to be cleared, heads were down and forks were flying.
Pau bhaji (₤3.90), was prepared (apparently) the way vendors on Mumbai’s famed Chowpatty Beach make it. This smooth blend of tomato-y mashed vegs came accompanied by hot buttered bread and a terrific mouth-fanning afterburn.
“You dip your hands into it, and eat it and share it,” Thakrar says. “People love it.”
Fresh ginger-laced veggie samosas (₤3.20) were encased in a light phyllo-like shell, and proved a nice change of pace from the heavy potato and pea dumplings we get in the States.
Hot-off-the-grill Dishoom chicken tikka (₤6.70) was brushed with a terrific seasoned paste where each spice (ginger, green and red chiles) clearly sung out.
The dish “is really fresh, light, tangy and spicy,” Thakrar says. “You really get the depth of flavor.”
I quickly learned that Dishoom’s menu descriptions were spot-on. “We don’t promise anything we’re not going to deliver,” Thakrar says.
The minced lamb sheek kabab (₤7.20) was indeed “juicy” and spicy and flavored with cumin and tangy lime. And it was extra smashing dipped in a side of cooling cucumber, mint and yogurt raita (₤1.90). Matter paneer did feature “fluffy” house-made Indian cheese and peas in a tomato-clarified butter-curry sauce that was perfect for mopping with freshly-baked naan (₤1.70/₤1.90). (We sampled plain and coriander-laced garlic.)
I called seconds on gunpowder potatoes (₤5.50), which were grilled, smashed and doused with spicy dry masala powder. And I was quite fond of Dishoom’s signature house black daal. The creamy, mild and smoky lentil stew (₤4.70), which is slow-cooked for 16 hours, provided a nice break from all the Mumbai heat.
Last, but certainly not least, was clay pot-cooked vegetable biryani (₤6.90). A bit of dough is used to seal the pot’s rim and helps create a steamy, puffy rice bed for hefty bites of tender carrots, green beans and peas. (The cooked pastry strip was an added treat.)
Desserts — Dishoom offers four — were a given for this crowd. In retrospect, I’m now sorry we skipped the eatery’s house-made takes on two beloved Bombay frozen treats (flavored Gola ice and kulfi ice cream on a stick). But our choices did not disappoint.
Chocolate fondant with cinnamon ice cream and pistachio brittle (₤5.20) was a most worthy rendition of what we Yanks call molten chocolate cake. But the real crowd-pleaser was pineapple and black pepper crumble (₤5.20). Here, sizeable chunks of fresh-baked pineapple were topped with an accurately described “nutty seed crumble,” and served with a creamy scoop of spicy chai ice cream.
My middle son, The Connoisseur, wanted to keep the party going and order more Dishoom delights.
He even graciously offered to pay for any extra dishes consumed.
But our 22-hour layover was almost up and there were Tubes to traverse and planes to catch.
Whenever I leave a faraway place without experiencing all there is to experience, I say “that gives me a reason to come back.”
And there are plenty of reasons — including Gola ice and kulfi on a stick — to return to Dishoom.
12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane
London, WC2H 9FB, England