Monday 26 November 2012

Dishoom, Shoreditch

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.


Dishoom Shoreditch  on Urbanspoon

Friday 16 November 2012

Bone Daddies, Soho

"The amazing thing about London," someone said to me recently, "isn't that there are so many new restaurants. It's that so many of them are so good."

Just think, over the last twelve months we've welcomed into the fold Duck and Waffle, MeatMarket, Tramontana, Zédel, Slider Bar, Bubbledogs, Dirty Burger and Chicken Shop, Rita's, Lima, Dabbous - and so on and etcetera, this only a tiny selection (just scanning over my last dozen or so blog posts) of brand new places, all worth visiting. Sure, there have been a few stinkers, but by and large the trend is overwhelmingly positive, and if anything the pace seems to be increasing. Trends flare up and fizzle out with exhausting speed - first it was burgers, then everywhere seemed to be selling gourmet hot dogs, then it was all about fried chicken. Right now we appear to be in the middle of a ramen renaissance, with the original "proper" ramen shop Ittenbari on Brewer St being joined by Tonkotsu on Dean St, Shoryu on Regent St and, the latest star of Soho, Bone Daddies.

As proved by the miserable Chooks in Muswell Hill, though, simply identifying a trend and attempting to cash in on it is a recipe for disaster. The latest "thing" in London may be ramen, but Bone Daddies is not a lazy rip-off of either Ittenbari or Tonkotsu - its identity is inspired by the Rockabilly gangs of Tokyo's Yoyogi park, and the eclectic (ie. somewhat non-traditional) styles of ramen are complimented by a large selection of comfort food sides, and a pounding rock'n'roll soundtrack.

House pickles, for a bargainous £3, came in seven different varieties and should be the first thing anyone orders at Bone Daddies. I won't bother describing them all (I can't, for one thing) but my favourites were a couple of kimchi-style fermented root vegetables of some kind that were fizzy and pungent and delightfully unexpected.

The fried chicken was a little cup of moist nuggets of good chicken coated in a strange, thin, dry (in a good way, bear with me) batter that went very well dipped in the house chilli oil. I don't think I've had chicken treated like this before - I'm more used to the bubbly, thick coating on the kara-age from Tonkotsu and elsewhere - so it's nice to see somewhere trying something new.

Soft-shelled crab was the best I've ever had in London, perhaps anywhere, so that's another one for the "must-order" list. It was absolutely, perfectly fresh with not a hint of that odd fishiness you sometimes get (I can't criticise places in London for this too much, it must be hard getting hold of them in a country that isn't traditionally their biggest market), expertly fried and came with a bowl of punchy chilli/yoghurt sauce.

That the ramen itself wasn't quite in the same league as Tonkotsu isn't that much of a criticism; they were still great fun. The T22 is a chicken bone broth variety that according to the menu comes with something called "cock scratchings" but I'm at a loss to explain exactly what they were; I couldn't find anything in my bowl to fit that description. Mind you, perhaps that's for the best.

Even more wacky was the Tantamen, which was loaded with so much creamy ground sesame and pork mince I could hardly find any broth to drink at all. Both ramen contained nice bouncy egg noodles, decent but unspectacular, but I think I preferred the slightly more, er, normal arrangement of broth, boiled chicken and noodles in the T22 than the haphazard pile of mince and sesame in the Tantamen which was so piled high with ingredients I hardly needed a spoon at all. The option of a 'fat pipette' was added out of sheer curiosity but I can't say it really added much.

If I was a ramen purist, then, I'd find more to my taste at Tonkotsu, who are aiming for strict authenticity and are edging closer to it every day. Bone Daddies, I assume, aren't pretending to be a slice of Tokyo in London and are just offering as much fun as it's possible to have with bowls of chicken and pork bone stock while also serving a fantastic selection of Japanese-inspired comfort foods into the bargain. I'm yet to explore their sake, wine and beer lists (having visited weekday lunchtimes only so far) but I'm pretty sure that it's the late evenings when the place is destined to really come alive, and once word gets around the hungry fun-loving Soho types will be queuing out the door. Until then, make the most of the fact it's still relatively undiscovered, and welcome Bone Daddies as the latest in a long line of really rather good new restaurants in our fine city.


Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon

Monday 5 November 2012

London Restaurant Map 2012 v2 (now with added Zone 2)

After many requests, and thanks to everyone who gave feedback on version 1, I've managed to find the time to expand to Zone 2. If you click on the image above you can find the large-scale version.

I didn't make too many changes to the Zone 1 section; shifted a couple of bits around and added Draft House to the Tower Hill Gateway stop. I really was concentrating on doing a first full version including Zone 2 and hopefully by V3 I'll be able to make some major revisions to both zones.

I knew the expansion to Zone 2 would be tricky, but blimey I don't envy anyone who lives in the Docklands or near Willesden Junction - there really are slim restaurant pickings round those parts.

Anyway, hope you enjoy, and as before, all feedback welcome for the next version - most likely this time next year...

EDIT 7th February 2013: Yesterday I received an email from Eversheds LLP, lawyers for Transport for London, asking me to take the map down.

So, not having the time or money to fight anyone in court, I've just done as they've asked. Oh well, was fun while it lasted.