Vegetarian London: Dishoom King's Cross Restaurant Review
In this series, we review restaurants from an entirely vegetarian angle. While some restaurants will be specifically vegetarian, others will be mainstream. We’ll be tasting everything from veggie burgers, to posh meat-free menus. Along the way, we’ll try to find out, as far as possible, whether chicken stock, cheese made from animal rennet, gelatine, fish sauce and so on are not lurking in the supposedly vegetarian dishes.
Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆
Dishoom burst into Londoners’ consciousness around five years ago like a… well, dishoom. The word means ‘pow!’ in Bollywood-speak, the sound effect made when heroes and villains throw punches at each other. So ‘dishoom-dishoom’ films are action movies beloved of everyone from excitable kids to elderly unclejis (and in London, trendy film studies students). What an old movie genre that’s a throwback to the 1970s has in common with a completely unrelated restaurant concept, we don’t know — except that the first four letters of the word are found in both.
The much-loved Dishoom brand (it was voted Yelp’s ‘UK’s best restaurant’ earlier this year) is a widely-publicised homage to the ‘Irani cafés' set up by Zoroastrian Iranian immigrants in the early 20th century in what was then called Bombay. (Dishoom is all about the pre-Independence Bombay; not modern-day Mumbai). Hugely popular between the 1920s and 1960s, these quaint all-day brasseries were clean, affordable places that welcomed all regardless of caste, class, wealth or religious beliefs. So students, taxi drivers, servants and beggars could be found eating alongside upcoming writers, struggling film stars and wealthy memsahibs — highly unusual in India at the time. They were furnished with colonial-style bentwood chairs and marble-top tables with glass cabinets displaying freshly made cakes and desserts, and glass jars filled with colourful confectionery and biscuits baked on site.
Then at the start of this century, Indian media began to lament their dwindling numbers, from around 400 in their heyday to currently less than 25. Second and third generation Iranis were getting a good education and moving abroad, the cafés were facing stiff competition from fast-food outlets and more glamorous venues, they were finding it tough to keep the prices low as per their original democratic spirit, and there was in-fighting between the owners. Some were beginning to transform and lose their identity, offering pizza and Chinese food to attract younger customers.
Owned by cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar, Dishoom captures this fascinating period in Indian history: it’s a romanticised nostalgia-fest of design, concept and, to some extent, the food — viewed through a 21th century London lens. Interestingly, its success has triggered a renewed interest in Irani cafés among the foodies of Mumbai. In reality, however, these eateries were little more than the equivalent of greasy spoons, mostly known for their cakes, biscuits and toast (highly exotic in early 20th century India). Their most notable role was in shielding coy courting couples from prying eyes and gossipy auntyjis by providing secluded dining areas.
Dishoom King’s Cross, located beside the new Granary Square development, is the newest branch that opened around four months ago (after the original in Covent Garden in 2010 and Shoreditch in 2012). Much is made of the location, with parallels drawn between the similar Gothic style of St Pancras station and Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus. It’s housed inside a restored Victorian building, a former railway transit shed dating back to 1850. In Indian-speak, it’s a ‘godown’, a warehouse where a large-number of goods once passed between Britain and the Empire, significantly between London and Bombay. In further myth-making for the restaurant, some of Bombay’s Irani cafés had once started out in similar transit sheds.
Sprawled over four floors, the exceptionally buzzy venue is impressively large, with a reception and a bar on the ground floor (the only brightly-lit area in the building), a dim basement bar, a first floor dining room with curved banquettes overlooking a private dining area, and a chef’s table and kitchen on the second floor where you can see the cooking in action. The early 20th century transit shed aesthetic includes ornate floor tiles, wicker chairs, ceiling fans, an over-sized railway clock, and photos, posters, signage and replicas of advertisements from colonial India. It’s sexy and moodily lit like something out of a movie or an epic novel; and the attention to detail — down to the tiniest fixtures and fittings, including taps in the loos — is staggering.
We started our evening in the basement Permit Room bar, which alludes to the 1949 Bombay Prohibition Act that allowed the sale of alcohol only to those with medical permits. (Many original Irani cafés did house such permit rooms). It’s very dark and you can barely read the menu — but there are exquisite, beautifully-presented cocktails from pre-Independence era Bombay, including flips, gimlets, sours, old-fashioneds, paanches and juleps (many of them whisky-based – whisky being the most popular alcoholic drink in India). They’re served Indian-style in small (100 ml) or large (200 ml) ‘pegs’.
The restaurant menu, written with a touch of of ‘Bombay English’, is a seemingly random mish-mash of small and large plates, street food items, meaty grills, roti wraps, salads, vegetable dishes, rice and bread. Now ubiquitous, this particular Modern Indian menu style was first introduced to London in 2006 by Imli (relaunched by the Tamarind group as Imli Street). There are a number of Irani café staples here like samosas, pau bhaji and biryani – but many, such as brun maska (lavishly buttered buns), spicy omelettes and Parsi-style scrambled eggs are to be found only on their wonderful breakfast menu. Dishoom was among the first to popularise the much-loved Indian sodas Thums Up and Limca (an idea subsequently copied by other restaurants).
Pau bhaji — spicy mashed mixed vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and carrots — have pronounced cinnamon and clove notes, and come with bread rolls glossy from being cooked in butter. We like the robustly flavoured version here more than in other Dishoom branches. Bhel — a colourful mix of puffed rice, sev (chickpea flour vermicelli), a type of Bombay mix, onions, tomatoes, and tamarind and coriander-mint chutneys — is punctuated by ruby-like pomegranate seeds. It’s light and crunchy, and not as soggy as in some other restaurants. Tiny extra portions of the two tasty chutneys are brought separately, which you’ll need to add to achieve the correct ‘slightly damp’ texture.
Paneer tikka features char-grilled, own-made paneer slices skewered with red and green peppers; and although the cheese is impressively soft, the marinade is disappointingly sparse, resulting in a dish that’s not as punchy as it could be. The signature black dahl, a rich special-occasion dish made from whole black urid lentils, is smooth, buttery and creamy with a depth of flavour and a velvety mouthfeel that comes from genuinely being slow-simmered overnight (many Indian restaurants only claim to do so). ‘Gunpowder’ potatoes are something of a trend right now: here, the nutty, slightly smoky halved grilled baby potatoes are sautéed in a South Indian spice and legume mix with fresh coriander and spring onions. Roomali roti — literally ‘handkerchief flatbread’ — is freshly made to order. It’s soft, warm and lovely, but not as super-thin as it should be.
Spicy ‘Guju’ dark chocolate mousse — a reference to its pairing with Gujarati shrikhand (labneh-like yoghurt cheese) — is fine in its own right, but its savoury notes of chilli and salt flakes sit awkwardly with the rich, creamy, indulgent curd cheese. It would be better to serve both separately. We’re discouraged from ordering kala khatta gola “as nobody finishes it”: an ice slushie-like snack-dessert, here lavender-pink with kokum (a fruit of the mangosteen family) syrup, blueberries, red chilli powder, lime, white salt and distinctively pungent black salt. It’s at once tangy, sweet and salty, confusing and challenging the palate with an umami hit. It’s definitely an acquired taste. We love it.
We paid around £30-£35 each including a couple of glasses of wine (plus around £20 for the bar drinks) — very reasonable pricing that’s in keeping with the spirit of the old Irani cafés. Staff are friendly and mega-efficient — but service can be too swift and a little too ‘corporate’. We weren’t allowed to order the starters before the mains, Indian-style, resulting in many of the dishes arriving at once, leaving us little time to relax and linger.
Dishoom is a super-slick business that’s run like a well-oiled machine. In the end, what prevents the ‘concept’ overwhelming the food is that it’s not a cynical exercise but a knowing, loving, obsessive fan letter to a slice of rapidly-vanishing Indian history written with wit and flair. It’s a Bombay café that Bombay would surely be envious of.
Dishoom King's Cross, 5 Stable Street, N1C 4AB. Tel: 020 7420 9321. We review strictly anonymously, and pay for all the food, drink and service. Images kindly supplied by the restaurant.
Previously in this series
Last Updated 03 March 2015