Tuesday, 28 February 2017
Dum Biryani, Soho
Foodies have long been used to criticising Japanese restaurants for trying to do too much on one menu. Anywhere attempting to master the art of udon, ramen, tempura and sushi at all one time under one roof is opening themselves for scorn from People Who Know Better (ahem), as (as anyone who Knows Better will tell you) you can't possibly hope to master all these completely different styles of cuisine in one go. It's just Not Done.
As to why we don't hold other cuisines to the same standards, your guess is as good as mine. Seems we're happy to visit "French" restaurants or "Italian" restaurants or "Chinese" (to some extent, although regional Chinese has become more of a thing recently) restaurants that offer dishes from one corner of their vast nations to the other, but not Japanese. You have your favourite ramen place, your favourite sushi place, and so on. Ultra-specialisation, that's the way to go.
But why not ultra-specialisation from other world cuisines? Why not, for example, a specialist Indian biryani joint? And so, here we have Dum Biryani, a refreshingly straightforward rice'n'pastry peddler tucked underneath Wardour Street, which makes sense of the whole specialisation business by doing (more or less) one thing, and doing it very bloody well indeed.
But before the biryani, there's a short selection of "snacks" well worth dipping in to, not least because the biryani themselves are (correctly) cooked to order and take 25 minutes to arrive. The "kodi vepudu" chicken wings had a fantastically complex masala dressing and showcased good, strong chicken, even if the texture of the skin would have benefitted from a bit of char-grilling. It's hardly Dum Biryani's fault they don't have a tandoor, though, so I won't hold that against them.
Having never been to India, I can't tell you exactly how authentic this tray of food is compared to what you'd get in Delhi, but it certainly feels like the real deal. There are no giant poppadums common to the English curry house, no mango chutney or lime pickle, just a smattering of rustic homemade (I assume) papads, a little pot of mirch salan with half a boiled egg, a portion of tomato kachumber, some raita with fried okra, and of course a giant ceramic pot sealed with golden brown pastry.
And the further good news is, the biryani is wonderful. Perhaps, if I'm being brutal, not quite as knockout as the venison version served at Gymkhana (at twice the price), but still a supremely accomplished bit of cooking, the multicoloured folds of fragrant steamed rice hiding giant chunks of moist, flavoursome lamb, and the delicate flaky pastry that sealed it all in is a meal in its own right, buttery and satisfying. It's a biryani made by people who love biryanis, comforting and familiar as a warm embrace.
In short, it's a great little operation. Service was friendly and enthusiastic, even from the start before ex-Trishna and JKS manager Gopi Ketineni spotted the weirdo taking photos and disappeared into the kitchens to brief the staff. In amongst unintelligible Hindi I caught my name and the words "Cheese and Biscuits" and every now and again a head ever-so-slowly peeped around the side of the kitchen door, only to retreat immediately after catching my eye. I only mention it in the interests of full disclosure; I'm certain it would have had no impact on the food.
If this is the first of many Indian ultra-specialisation joints (what's next I wonder? A butter chicken specialist? Masala fish?) then it's a sign of very interesting things to come, as clearly in this case at least the concept is an unqualified success. If not, and nobody else is brave enough to take up the trend, well at least we'll have Dum Biryani, an ideal showcase for one of the truly great Indian dishes.