The Dishoom PR deluge started innocently enough – a small blurb at the bottom of a Daily Candy email. But within 48 hours of my seeing that email, Dishoom was mentioned seemingly everywhere (try googling Dishoom + London).
While I was tempted to dismiss all the hype and ignore Dishoom for a while, my friend J, who grew up in south India, was immediately drawn to Dishoom’s concept of a vintage Mumbai cafe. This enthusiasm arose even before any generally-positive reviews like this one in TimeOut had been published.
For starters, there’s the name: Dishoom! is an onomatopoeia for gun shooting in old Bollywood movies and shows, and anyone who longs for old Batman TV episodes (packed with Ka-Pow!’s and Bam!’s) can understand the nostalgia and fun promised by a place so named.
Happily, Dishoom lives up to the hype. For now, the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, but when Jon and I arrived on Saturday night with our party of five, we waited only ten minutes for a comfy booth to open up. And while waiting, we were each served a glass of warm, spicy chai. The little things go a long way.
Jon and I were slackers and let our friends from India, J & N, order everything for the table: keema pau, pau bhaji, chilli cheese toast, desi fish fingers, Dishoom roomali rolls to start, and a lot of grill items, black dal and biryani for our mains.
I think the risk for restaurants selling nostalgia is that if the food isn’t served exactly the way someone grew up eating it, you’re sunk. For example, Jon and I really enjoyed the keema pau (a spicy minced lamb topping accompanied by rounds of buttered toast) and pau bhaji (mashed veg stew with the same rounds of toast). Both dishes were deliciously spicy and fragrant, but N didn’t like the pau bhaji because she preferred the veg to come in bigger chunks instead of mashed.
Chilli cheese toast was more interesting than tasty. The layer of cheese was thick and a tad congealed, and overall it tasted dry. But I loved the thought of all these kids in India growing up on, effectively, spicy grilled cheese. Ditto on the desi fish fingers, which were just, you know, fish fingers, the term ‘desi’ notwithstanding. I guess it’s the tamarind sauce that distinguishes it from regular fish fingers.
My favorite of the starters was the “Dishoom chicken roomali roll,” which had a great mix of textures and flavors: moist chicken, crunchy nuts, cool crisp greens and a sweet-tangy sauce. Minor quibble was that the roti tasted pretty dry, especially at the ends where the roti bunched up, but if Mooli’s sold kathi rolls like these, I’d be there every day.
Spicy lamb chops “rubbed with crushed black pepper and chillies” were fantastic. I love that the kitchen didn’t hold back on the spice rub, and the chops were thick and juicy. Our table devoured two orders of these. Murgh malai (£6.50), a mild grilled chicken dish, was also a hit. The beauty of chicken thigh marinated in cream before grilling is not to be underestimated.
Black dal (aka dal makhani) is always a treat to see on a restaurant menu because the number of hours it takes to cook up a good one is something beyond most home cooks’ schedules. Dishoom’s dal makhani was wonderfully smoky and rich. Try not to think about all the cream and ghee in there, of course. We ordered two of these, as well.
I’m the only one at our table who enjoyed the chicken berry biryani. I hate when biryanis are too wet and weighed down by fillings, so that would explain why I enjoyed Dishoom’s version, which was comprised of fluffy, fragrant basmati with just a sprinkle of oil and spices. It’s true there weren’t many berries or chicken pieces in it, but for me the joy of biryani comes from the crunchy bits of rice off the bottom of the pan, of which there were plenty in our serving.
The dining room was lively and ready-to-be-franchised attractive. Our servers were attentive and fast, and prices were low, especially given the touristy theatreland neighborhood. Assorted extras like raita, roti and naan were all priced under 2 quid, and most of the wine list options were less than 30. Unlike other bloggers whose reviews I’ve seen so far, I was perfectly happy to pay £1 for large bottles of filtered water, and the fact that 20p of each bottle goes to charity was icing on the cake.
Our table of five ordered two bottles of wine for £60, so the cost of our dinner per person was £29. Great value for the food, service and location. I’ll be back. The lamb chops and black dal are already calling to me as I type, and if Dishoom becomes as ubiquitous as the Cheesecake Factory, I won’t hold it against them. They’ll have earned their popularity.
Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martins Lane, WC2H 9FB; 020 7420 9320; closest Tube stations: Covent Garden and Leicester Square