Heading to the soft-launch of Dishoom in Kensington, I was past hoping for a quick walk-in and instead came well prepared to wait awhile in the afternoon nip. I’d put on a few layers, but the wind was fortunately a lot weaker between the buildings on Derry street than it was walking down the main street from the tube. If you decide to eat at any of the Dishoom branches in London, especially in the evenings, be prepared to queue up outside. These restaurants are incredibly popular.
There aren’t many convenient ways around the queuing I’m afraid; Dishoom does not accept reservations. A lot of restaurant critics take exception to this, which I suppose is because waiting for a table is essentially time wasted on a restaurant that may not be one they necessarily want to review. One of the pitfalls to the dream job.
I, on the other hand, despite my having to delve into my savings every time I go out, do have the freedom to choose where and when I decide to go. Soft-launches are great opportunities for me to spend less and contribute constructive criticism. Dishoom, Kensington is close to where I live and boasted highly acclaimed Indian food that I hadn’t had in a while, so it seemed the obvious choice.
I was made to wait for about twenty minutes outside and around ten inside, thirty minutes in total which is not all that bad. We were given numbered pagers, were placed by the shiny new bar at the entrance and were told to wait for the buzz. This section of the restaurant’s relatively low ceiling, and the concentration of bodies in its particularly narrow area make you feel either extremely tight and uncomfortable or cosy and warm, depending on who you are. You could argue that the experience adds to the authenticity of its Bombay-ness, for I don’t know anyone who has visited Bombay and not at some point had their personal space invaded.
I did like the look of the place. For me, it was a welcome change from all the wood I’d been encountering lately, a positive transition towards a look more thematically suitable rather than culturally popular. Dishoom markets itself as a Bombay Jazz bar and restaurant, decorated very much like a high-ceilings for high-rollers American speakeasy with the odd bit of Hindi painted on the walls to remind us that it was an Indian restaurant. Framed pictures, of who I assume were Bombay jazz icons, celebrities and someone’s family members, were placed in clusters around the walls, and lit with sheltered warm tube lights which participated in the bronze-copper earthy colouring of the general interior. My sense of dislocation was exacerbated by the fact that there were not any Indian staff in sight. It is an odd thing to note, something that I’d never experienced before, for to me, lack-lustre Indian hospitality and the delicious sub-continental cuisine seemed to have always gone hand in hand.
But Dishoom, of course, is aimed for the high street: a deliberate attempt to elevate Indian food from the mundane popularity it has garnered in British society as a takeaway option to a more sophisticated and socially commendable status. I think they’ve achieved this in some regard. The kind of people that were seated around me seemed ubiquitously well-dressed and ready for the occasion. Though eased slightly by the spice-redolent aromatics, the scent of a domestic cuisine that lulls you into relaxation, they were still straight backed, and mauling their parathas with cutlery rather than ripping them with their hands.
I was seated between two large tables, in an open vestibule between the bar and the main dining area. Initially, I sat with my back facing the rest of the room, partly because plates and cutlery were left for me on that side, and also because I preferred the chair rather than the cushioned wall seating. But when my server – unmistakably Eastern European with her accent – came to my table, I was told to switch. No reasoning given, just assertively told to move as she walked past to another table, and I obeyed like a good guest, shrugging off the inconvenience. Little did I know that being told what to do and how to do it would be a consistent theme.
For the most part, the staff worked like a well-oiled machine despite the shakiness that comes with soft-launches. You wait in line, you wait again by the bar, you are soon seated, your food arrives quickly and in no particular order, you eat, pay and then leave – everything timely, like clockwork. With how busy they were, it was impressive.
Since I had enough time to go over the menu outside, I knew exactly what I wanted to order. While waiting for the waitress to take it, I had glanced over at other tables to check portion sizes (they were frugal, and that is me being kind) so I knew how many dishes I would require for fulfilment. But my readiness, however, did not stop the waitress from carrying on about how many dishes she thought I should have, and which ones she recommended. I interrupted her politely, stating my familiarity with the cuisine, and proceeded to order double the number of dishes she suggested. She shook her head ostentatiously and tutted at me, actually tutted, evidently disappointed by my choices, especially my avoidance of the lamb masala fry special. Apparently, it would be a wasted trip if I left without trying it, so I altered my order to her specifications, forgoing the chops. In addition, she strongly suggested, in the way that a mother tells her cranky child that they did not need a fidget spinner, that I would not require any naans because my special would come with a ‘flakey bread’, which I assume was her interpretation of a paratha. Once again, I did as I was told.
The Gujarati filo samosa pastries were crispy and did not exude any their frying oil upon being prodded. The filling was disappointing: a sparse incorporation of minced lamb with chilli and onions, lacking the depth of flavour that is traditionally associated with a Bombay hawker’s heavily spiced version. I enjoyed the prawn koliwada immensely. Some might complain that the crunchy gram flour batter did not cling to the prawns, that the brittle shells lay unattractively strewn within the serving bowl. But I’ve tried the dish several times before and seldom have I ever received perfectly coated prawns. What mattered to me was the sweet spicy burst of chaat masala introduced to the conventional (ginger, garlic, yoghurt, lemon and Kashmiri chilli) marinade, the overall taste of the batter and seafood that was properly seasoned.
The dishoom calamari was definitely an attempt at fusion gone awry. Texturally speaking the dish was spot on: squid breaded to perfection, and tossed with the correct amount of sweetened tamarind-soured drizzle to avoid sog. The taste, however, did not cohere and was too decadent. It was too sweet by far, and the squid bites were not seasoned well enough to be had on their own. It is a dish that’s got potential – I mean who doesn’t like some well-executed calamari – but with better sauce and seasoning ratios.
The lamb special, dark and aromatic with its fried masala, exquisitely reduced into a thick sauce, was accompanied by a tiny, inadequate disk of paratha on a banana leaf. The masala was deliciously vibrant and perfumed, but the lamb was sadly overcooked. I ended up just mopping the sauce up with the flatbread and pushing the meat to the side. Rather than slicing the lamb, I would suggest cooking the meat in thicker cubes. Yes, it elongates the cooking time, but it does make for tender meat with more margin for error.
I ordered the murgh malai just to see whether it justified its place on the menu. It is a dish of simply marinated chicken thighs with hints of coriander, ginger and garlic, that is often included in menus for those sad individuals who cannot stand chilli heat. Under normal circumstances, it would be a waste of space, easily replaced by other dishes more deserving, but in my particular scenario, after dunking pieces into the lamb masala and then wrapping them in the hot garlic naans I had to order in excess, they were pretty darn good.
Much to the waitress’s surprise, all my dishes were empty bar the squid when she arrived. My asking for pudding in addition seemed to add to her befuddlement. She simply nodded at me as she cleared the table and then shook her head to herself as she walked away. She had been rather loquacious until that point, sporadically coming to my table to ask how things were, even presumptuously pointing out that if the food was too much that she could arrange a carry bag for me. Nice of her but ultimately unnecessary. The fact was that I was only just satisfied, even after ordering five plates of food for one person, so it is fair to say her predictive skills were lacking. Nothing to worry about; something easily remedied by more experience.
I ordered two desserts: a malai kulfi and the tongue twisting kala khatta gola ice. The first was smooth, milky and refreshing, hard to mess up in all frankness. The second, a dessert constituted by ice flakes and flavoured by an absurd sounding collection of flavours from the weird sweetness of kokum syrup to the inclusions of chilli and black salt that proved in the end too much for me to handle. To be fair to them they do warn you in the sub text. It is the kind of ridiculous concoction I think my dad would love, but I definitely would give it a hard pass.
The food at Dishoom, it pains me to say, is passable at best. There was nothing I ate there that was irreconcilably terrible, but then again there is nothing on the menu I would actually recommend. It is a nice venue with a lively ambience that establishes a change from the ennui soaked, orientalist dens where Indian food is traditional purveyed. But for me, having eaten at numerous Indian restaurants, in Mumbai significantly, and in other Maharashtran eateries around the world, I have honestly had much better meals. Did my experience at Dishoom demonstrate enough potential for me to visit again once officially launched? Probably not. But I do think people should make the trip, especially those who’ve only ever gorged on Indian takeaway. The package offered at Dishoom is unique albeit synthetic, with food that could quite possibly be to your taste.
I did leave smiling though. Lorna coming onto the soundtrack with her famous Fotkiro Mog (False Love) as I left, filled me with Goan nostalgia and reminded me of my nanna’s food awaiting me on the Christmas dining table.
4 Derry St, Kensington, London W8 5SE
Small Plates £2.50-£6.20; Grills £7.90-£11.90; Biryani £8.90-£10.50; Ruby Murray £8.90-£9.50; Veg. sides £2.90-£3.90; Bread and Rice £2.70-£3.50; Puddings £3.50-£6.90