“Chai is Bombay. You can’t think of Bombay without chai. It’s really important to us,” says Kavi Thakrar.
Thakrar is the co-founder of Dishoom, an open-all-day London eatery that celebrates the vintage “Bombay cafés” that once populated India’s most populous city. (In the 1960s there were an estimated 400; today, fewer than 30 still exist.)
And if you can’t think of Bombay (now Mumbai) without chai, you certainly can’t think of Dishoom without it, either. From morning to night, the eatery serves perhaps the best version of this milky, sweet and exotically spiced black tea I’ve ever sipped. And I’ve sipped a lot. Only my friend Vijaya — who prepares hers in a specially designated chai pot — makes a version anywhere near as good.
Commonly made with fresh cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, peppercorns and enough sugar to enhance the spice flavors, Dishoom uses “secret ingredients,” Thakrar says. He did confess that the restaurant brews its chai (₤2.20) for 45 minutes.
“There’s a lot of love and care that goes into our chai,” he says.
The café also serves a truly decadent chocolate version (₤2.20), which is best described as a super-rich and creamy Indian-style hot chocolate. (My notes read “double yum!” on this one.)
But chai isn’t the only Bombay-beloved beverage the restaurant promotes. There are also a variety of lassis — cooling Indian yogurt drinks that come in sweet or salty versions.
“It’s a thirst-quenching drink in the heat,” and an excellent source of dairy for Mumbaiites, Thakrar says.
Dishoom’s lassis “are about fresh flavors and great ingredients,” he adds. The restaurant takes several steps to enhance its lassis.
The mango and fennel combination (₤3.50) not only features fresh yogurt and mango, but mixes in whole roasted fennel rather than the standard dried fennel powder.
We also sampled the bhang lassi ((₤3.50), which traditionally includes, well, cannabis in it. Instead, Dishoom uses fresh ginger, mint, Bombay spices and coconut milk to give this complexly flavored drink its bang. And those looking for a buzz are encouraged to order it with rum (₤6.50).
In true Bombay café fashion, the eatery offers a wide array of beverages that can be partaken at different times of day or evening and suit the mood of each guest, Thakrar says. There’s everything from fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee — made from monsoon-aged Indian coffee beans — to wine, cocktails, Champagne and beer.
Big on nostalgia, the restaurant also serves classic Bombay soft drinks (₤2.70 to ₤2.90). There’s Thums Up cola, Fever-Tree ginger beer and Limca — a sour, fizzy lemon soda.
“They’re iconic drinks,” says Thakrar of the trio. “Their flavors are so distinct and transporting.
“It’s like we’re taking [our guests] to another time and place.”
12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane
London, WC2H 9FB, England