Given my known distaste for chains and themed restaurants with mawkish paint-it-on-by-the-yard decor, you’d think I would hate the Kings Cross branch of Dishoom, but not so. The concept is defined on their website:
THE OLD IRANI CAFÉS of Bombay have almost all disappeared. Their faded elegance welcomed all: rich businessmen, sweaty taxi-wallas and courting couples. Fans turned slowly. Bentwood chairs were reflected in stained mirrors, next to sepia family portraits. Students had breakfast. Families dined. Lawyers read briefs. Writers found their characters. Opened early last century by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, there were almost four hundred cafés at their peak in the 1960s. Now, fewer than thirty remain. Their loss is much mourned by Bombayites.
Thus Dishoom aims to corner the Indian brasserie-style dining sector of the market and in the process recapture the spirit of Irani Cafes of Bombay. It could have been a disaster, and we can all imagine twee restaurants set up to look like something they’re not. Truth be told, Dishoom reminded me a lot of being in India, even if I have never visited Bombay/Mumbai.
Parts of India do retain a certain vintage charm, a faded colonial gentility that sits well with the nostalgia for a British vision of India – even if other parts and the history books tell a different story. So it is here – the restaurant design, decor and trappings all tap into that nostalgia and do it better than we have a right to expect. It’s all there – the railway clock (“in which a young Irani opens a cafe in a godown behind Victoria terminus c1928” – see here), the metal staircase, the ceiling fans, the sepia photographs, the exotic plants, the bric-a-brac, the flooring, the gloom, the exposed pipes, the cane chairs, the signs in Hindi…)
Underneath the designer-shabby-chic Indian veneer is a slick operation comprising bar and restaurant, charming staff and a breakfast menu (for that was when we arrived) evoking the best of Colonial Indian cuisine melded with modern British sensibilities about the best possible ingredients (eg. bacon from Ginger Pig and “award winning Shropshire sausages” from Maynard’s Farms, Burford Brown eggs and single estate “Monsooned Malabar coffee.”)
The mixture works remarkably well; perhaps it is surprising not to see some variant of kedgeree on the menu, though every dish has the Irani slant – but thankfully not the “our world famous” cliches. A few examples:
Two fried eggs on chilli cheese toast. A favourite of the well-to-do Willingdon Club, the first such Bombay institution to admit natives; the dish is reputedly named for the member who kept asking for it. (Not to be confused with Arvind Kejriwal, leader of India’s Aam Aadmi — common man’s — political party.) (V) 5.50
A crazy-paving three-egg omelette of chopped tomato, onion, coriander and green chilli. Served with grilled tomato and Fire Toast. (V) 6.90
An Irani café staple. Three eggs, spiced, scrambled and piled up richly alongside plump pau buns and served with grilled tomato. (V) (S) 6.90
KEEMA PER EEDU
A Parsi power breakfast: spicy chicken keema studded with delicate morsels of chicken liver, topped with two runny-yolked fried eggs and sali crisp-chips. Served with pau. (S) 8.50
In point of fact, we had none of these dishes, but they sounded inviting breakfast fare in the same way that huevos rancheros is a great and just slightly exotic way to eat your eggs. But success is not measured in having novel dishes to admire; it is the product of great cooking with fine ingredients. Between us we ate:
- HOUSE GRANOLA: A Dishoom recipe, handmade with oats, seeds, cashews, almonds, pistachios and cinnamon, toasted in butter and honey. Served with fresh fruits, Kerala-vanilla yoghurt and Buckinghamshire honey.
- BACON & EGG NAAN ROLL and also a SAUSAGE NAAN ROLL: Award-winning Shropshire pork sausages, warmly spiced with cracked black pepper. Each sausage is made by hand in the old-fashioned way
- MASALA BEANS, plus tomatoes
- Coffee, as mentioned.
- Watermelon and apple juice.
Starting with the last item, the fresh juice was truly majestic. Not watery but packed with the glorious flavour of watermelon. At £5.50 for a glass it was also pricy but given that it must have contained a good portion of watermelon and could nary be improved, my life is much the richer for having tried it. Coffee too was wonderful, rich, deep and earthy – as it should be. Get coffee wrong and brunch is struggling to deliver.
I’ve often written about the importance of attention to detail, and I haven’t been proven wrong yet. It’s great to note then that each component of a meal is spot on. My mother’s granola was studded with summer fruits and looked – and tasted – a total picture. My naan roll started with a freshly made and crispy naan bread, added crispy bacon and finished off with quite the best egg I’ve eaten in a restaurant for some while. The yolk was properly deep yellow, runny and utterly delicious. I could not have been happier with the dish if a waiter had fed it to me by hand!
Best of all, Dishoom passed the critical test: I definitely want to go back and sample more delights from the menu, revel in the charming and slightly old-fashioned service, and soak up more of the colonial Indian atmosphere. I know – I fell for a packaged branding and I should be suitably ashamed of myself, though I would happily have done away with all the ephemera just to enjoy decent and carefully prepared food and drink, served with warmth and appreciation. More than that you can never ask.