Gunpowder is a delicious name for a restaurant. It encapsulates, I assume, everything that the owners envisioned the place to represent when first setting out: the flavour of their food, their ambience and the impact they wished to have on the scene. The name is clever and memorable because, beyond its obvious chemical explosive insinuations, the word gunpowder itself uses syllables that express to be strong and powerful just by the way you say them. I mean, ‘pow!’, a literal comic book sound effect, lies bang in the middle of it.
And in London too, a city that most jubilantly celebrates a day dedicated to what is so affectionately called Guy Fawkes night or Bonfire night, commemorating an event in history where a single man almost destroyed the houses of parliament and everyone in them by exploding barrels of gunpowder. Yes, the name of the restaurant is good indeed, and clings to all sorts of sensibilities, before one even thinks to think about the spice of India.
I went to the Gunpowder at Spitalfields because I had written down, on my list of restaurants, that this place did home-style food. It caught my eye because I found it intriguing how a relatively new and impressively styled Indian restaurant would find it a pertinent part of their credo to suggest their food is inspired by those cooked at home. Was there something unique being done here? Or was it, once again, a PR pitch that seeks to ease in the new with promises of the familiar? I would soon find out.
I had also been travelling all over the world: from Belfast to London, then to Dubai, and finally back to London on my way to Norwich, so the sound of Indian home cooking, a luxurious domestic cuisine first before anything else, was supremely tantalising.
The issue with using words like ‘home’ is that people think of different things when they hear it in relation to food. Of different cuisines, portion sizes and atmospheres, of subjective experiences had that are so memorable they inspire a fervent desire for replication. Someone else’s home-style may not be your home-style, but there are a few constants that make everyone happy: a meal that is delectable and wholesome, one that is various and satisfying on the palate and leaves you fulfilled by the end. Gunpowder ticks some boxes but not others.
I arrived at their busy restaurant, small, dim and intimate much like a small bar or coffee shop, and was sat on a stool at a high table by the entrance looking into its dark yet shallow depths. Gunpowder lacked the kind of character I anticipated. Brick walls, wooden furniture, hanging dim bulbs off the ceiling, same old, same old. Nothing particularly indicative of an Indian restaurant. Tomorrow they could change the signage and immediately turn it into something hipster and antipodean and it would do just as well for décor. The only memorable features were some of the lights that are decorated by shining tin cups welded together. Cups that reminded me of ones ubiquitously used in India and Indian households for anything from washing fingers after a meal to holding curries, pickles and chutneys.
But the restaurant was busy and lively; I sat overlooking men and women on lunch break sitting at adjoined tables, with sleeves rolled up, with fingers and mouths smeared with masala, laughing and chattering loudly to their own humour. It was a raucous and tightly squeezed atmosphere, and though it conveyed to me that the place was well loved, that it evidently catered to the Liverpool Street business crowd, it did not adhere particularly to what I was looking for at that moment in time.
I ordered my food and asked them to send things in as soon as they were ready, except for the rice, which I wanted to come together with the chicken dish I had asked for. This last, however, must have been lost in transmission.
Chettinad pulled duck comes loosely held in a skewered oothappam (a south Indian soft savoury pancake). The duck could have been any other meat for all I could tell, because it was more blitzed than pulled, a sloppy pulp of spiced sludge in a tepid flavourless pancake. I’d have liked to find out from whose kitchen that dish originated just so I could dodge their invitation.
The organic baby chicken chargrilled in tandoori spices was less a mouthful than its name. It was my fault because I had asked for a half portion when I definitely required a full one. In any case, there was very little meat on the bones and I supposed it was the price I paid for the chicken being organic. It came with a forgettable salad and a mediocre masala to pour over. I will concede that from what I did manage to extricate, slim pickings off deeply charred drumsticks, the chicken was flavourful and moist despite it being cumbersomely retrieved.
Only after I had eaten the chicken did I remember about the rice. And since I saw no sign of it coming, and the staff looked a little frazzled under the pressure of the lunchtime rush, I let it be. I did alright without it and I am not quite accustomed to eating rice on its own.
The karwari soft shell crab came next. Most of the crustacean’s crispiness was lost under the sweet amber sauce; a simple sauce, it must be said, that I did enjoy. Gently spicy with a positive sweetness, a touch of sourness from the lime. The rice eventually did come, so in a flight of childhood mischief I chopped up my crab into little pieces and mixed it in with the rice – sauce et al. Me doing so brought back memories of me as a boy experimenting with flavours on the dinner table, mixing different portions of food together under my mum’s notice, perhaps the only sense of home I’d felt all afternoon. Hot softshell crab with effulgent rice, a delightful textural mess, made for the kind of climax I was looking for.
I think much of my disappointment with Gunpowder stems from my own expectations.
For what it is, Gunpowder is a decent restaurant with relevant and tasty food, that people generally find more accessible and ‘less of a faff’ than most other Indian dining rooms. Much less homely to be sure, and ostensibly more styled for a stripped-back and crepuscular meal out. Gunpowder works because its owners understand what people want and are giving it to them.
I am quite sure the food their menu is inspired by is cooked, served and situated in settings much in contrast with what I experienced at Spitalfields. This does not matter much to me because I am not a purest pedant prosecuting misappropriation. The food at Gunpowder is good for the most part and seems invested in a concept that is making diners happy and allowing them to grow – which is more than I can say for many restaurants struggling in London. Power to them. But I think, if it were up to me (and it usually is), I’ll be going elsewhere for my home-style Indian khana.
Location: 11 White’s Row, Spitalfields, London E1 7NF