Monday, 26 November 2012
Two and a bit years ago, when the first Dishoom opened on St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden was a very different place. In the dark days before Hawksmoor 7 Dials, Opera Tavern and Polpo, long before the likes of Mishkin's and the Delaunay and 10 Cases landed, it was a miserable restaurant wasteland populated by naive tourists preyed upon by MSG-fueled all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets and grotty Italian trattorias. Actually, the £5 buffets and grotty Italians are still there, but at least now they have some decent competition, and pre-theatre dining is no longer simply a case of dashing to and from Soho before the house lights go down.
Crucial to the rehabilitation of Covent Garden as an area of London to head to for dinner, rather than one to actively avoid, is the opening in summer 2010 (it's astonishing the relatively tiny timescales we're working at; such is the change of pace in the city) of Dishoom, a sort of Bombay-inspired all-day cafe serving lamb chops and dhal alongside certain less traditional fusion items like Breakfast Bacon Naan. It was popular from the word go, partly because it stood head and shoulders above anywhere else nearby, but also because the food was fresh, cooked to order and never anything less than tasty. And it proved that not everywhere in a touristy area of town had to be a cynical, lowest-common-denominator rip-off.
Although reactions to Dishoom Covent Garden were generally positive (including my own), it attracted quite a bit of flak at the time for being an "obvious" proto-chain, a "concept" ripe for "roll-out" and a somewhat soulless, Disney-fied version of an Indian restaurant. People forgave them, of course, because the food was so nice, but only while muttering things like "Indian Café Rouge" under their breath and moaning about the queues.
It's surprising, then, that since everyone was so sure Dishoom was obviously a proto-chain and that rapid rollout was inevitable, nothing at all happened for two years. But now there is Dishoom Shoreditch, a glamorous, sprawling new operation on Shoreditch High Street which for a proto-chain has a commendably idiosyncratic design - smart wood panelling and comfy leather booths juxtaposed with bare breeze-block walls and bare pipework, sort of warzone-chic - and if our experience on Wednesday was anything to go by, is destined to be another popular spot.
Even by my own standards the photos of the meal turned out distressingly badly, so you'll have to take my word that this is a bowl of deep-fried skate cheeks, tender and delicate and sharpened with a nice tamarind sauce.
Lamb raan bun was Dishoom's version of a crowd-pleasing house burger, supplied with matchstick fries and a decent slaw. The filling wasn't lamb mince but powerfully-spiced shredded shoulder (I think) and was very decent.
Black Dhal was a house speciality from Covent Garden and was just as good here, buttery and rich and just thick enough to scoop up with the flaky roomali roti. Top winter food.
And my favourite item overall was some chunks of lamb boti, pink and tender and covered in a complex spice mix that if perhaps slightly too salty still had just about enough going for it to be worth the £8.50.
If there's one criticism of Dishoom it's that everything is just that little bit outside good value. And the premium is even more glaring in Shoreditch where (lest we forget) Brick Lane is mere moments away and I'm sure you could find a decent dhal somewhere for under £2.50 never mind the £4.90 they charge for the above. They can get away with these prices in Covent Garden where there's still no good Indian competition today and for a while there was no good competition at all. But in East London in 2012, will people still be happy to pay the best part of £10 for six small chunks of grilled lamb?
But perhaps there's a different way of approaching Dishoom Shoreditch. If you went in just to soak up the admittedly lovely upstairs dining room (downstairs is a bit more... functional), knock back some of the brilliant house IPA (thank you Beavertown) and go easy on the food orders, you will almost certainly have a great time. And though it's bound to be oversubscribed from time to time, come summer, when the pretty outdoor area can be used, it's less likely you'll have to queue. Dishoom are doing enough right, and not too much wrong. And that's to be applauded, wherever in London they decide to set up shop from here on.