Manisha Khemka reviews Dishoom: An elixir of youth, when time is not of the essence
We live in a democracy. If a few, or the many, like queueing up to eat, who are we to diss them, or Dishoom them even?
The restaurant’s name is not entirely apt in today’s social environment — Dishoom means a loud bang, an explosion, a whack, a punch-up. But with seven locations and queues longer than those at Madame Tussaud’s, the expanding chain must be getting something right. Is it the power of a ‘standardised concept’ or a reality game they put you through — an obstacle race to overcome hurdles before you are allowed to sit and order, under very dim lighting, which adds successfully to the challenge factor?
Whether it’s all a marketing gimmick, a plot to get you to buy a drink at the bar first (from a booklet titled The Permit Room, A Guide to the Available Tipples) or simply a scheme to employ loads of charged-up, smiley, happy-in-themselves young adults (Dishoom featured on the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies list for 2018/2019), the food delivers. It is the one thing that is no-frills, no-fuss and non-gimmicky in the whole set-up.
The all-rounder menu features a variety of authentic home-style cooking and some dishes from long-established and conventional Parsi cafes of Mumbai: keema pau, masala scrambled eggs, chicken berry biryani are testimony to an old vibrant Parsi culture. The vintage has been well transferred to London; Dishoom cooks up fare not available in other Indian restaurants in Britain — no mean feat given our long association with Indian food.
Some crowd pleasers are on offer as well, including chicken tikka. Though commonplace, it’s actually a painstaking dish to get right. Many factors come into play: spice level, marinade, cooking time, and of course the quality of the meat itself. The tikka at Dishoom was boldly and evenly spiced, and the meat was tender and perfectly skewered, with the right amounts of charring. We asked for some green coriander chutney to accompany the tikka. It was provided without any fuss. Why keep the gorgeous stuff in the kitchen?
The chole puri and the pau bhaji — both vegetarian delights — were authentic, robust preparations, confident but gentle in their warm earthy spices. The chole, or curried chickpeas were boiled with tea bags, which adds authentic colour and taste. The carrot pickle, tempered with mustard seeds, provided a fantastic kick. However, I missed the umami-rich sprinkling of chopped onions and dollop of butter that typically comes with pau bhaji.
The roomali roti, a soft handkerchief-like bread, was the best I have eaten anywhere. It was an utter delight to scoop up some tantalising smooth black daal with the sublime roti bits. On another occasion, I had tried prawn koliwada, lamb sheekh kabab and lamb boti kabab — all delicious and exciting Bollywood thrillers.
The drinks list, as extensive as the food menu, offers a range of the normal wines, beers and ciders but also fanciful cocktails, exotic fruit-based drinks, lassis and sodas. Teas include a chocolate chai and a naughty chocolate chai with bourbon. My Bollybellini, an attractive pink combo of raspberries, lychee, rose and cardamom, topped with Prosecco, was on the sweet side but enjoyably soothing with the spicy food.
If you are curried out by rich, thick masala gravy on the high street, fusioned out with provenancelacking ‘neither-here, neither-there’ fare or simply hurting from the last OTT bill in Mayfair’s highend Indian extravaganzas, then Dishoom is a fantastic way to add some adventure — reality game, youthfulness, masala chai and all.
Despite the standardisation and packaged roll out, no two Dishoom locations look alike. And perhaps that is the new mantra of ‘chain’ success: keeping the menu and service constant while changing the decor of every outlet makes diners want to check out and play across venues — remember the reality game! And that is exactly what I did when I trudged across to the Kensington Dishoom, in the art deco Barkers Building, and found a large dining room resplendent with original period furniture and other elegant art deco fixtures, a contrast to the Indian kitsch at the first-opened Covent Garden location and the grey-walled, industrial-looking food factory in Kings Cross.
That evening, while pondering the delights of my punchy, dishoomy lunch, I rummaged through some cheese-and-bread options for a scant dinner. I was reminded of Mumbai’s chilli cheese toast, a personal favourite. Dishoom does an indulgent, very cheesy version. That’s when it dawned on me why Dishoom doesn’t fix its long queues: to stop me running back there for every meal.
From the menu:
Pau Bhaji £4.90
Chole Puri £10.50
Dishoom Chicken Tikka £8.90
Black Daal £6.50
Roomali Roti £3.20
East India Gimlet £8.50
Total for two £56.70 (including 12.5% service charge).
Address: Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2H 9FB