Friday, 16 July 2010
Dishoom, Covent Garden
Last night, as I shuffled down St Martins Lane on my way to dinner, I couldn't help casting a glance towards Cantina Laredo. Everything looked the same as my previous visit - the phalanx of superfluous staff huddled around the entrance, the hotel buffet décor, the tourist clientele. A table of middle-aged women were watching in rapt silence as a portion of £7 guacamole was prepared table-side, each with a slowly melting margarita in hand. To be fair, they looked like they were enjoying themselves, and for a second I doubted myself - am I so much of a foodie snob that my own idea of what constitutes a good meal is so far out of step with normality I expect perfection from restaurants that can't be expected to provide it? But then I thought of Mien Tay and Bob Bob Ricard and Rules and Tayyabs and then realised, no, it's not me, it's them. Cantina Laredo are just a bit crap.
Fortunately, a furtive glance through the front windows was as close as I got to Cantina Laredo, as I was on my way to Dishoom, another brand-new restaurant in Covent Garden which had enjoyed a very successful launch campaign. Billing itself as "London's first Bombay Café", it's certainly a lovely room, with high ceilings and art-deco fittings, and even at 6pm there was a great buzz about the place. The staff, too, looked the part in their smart monochrome outfits and were certainly friendly, but were manically over-attentive, which created some bizarre and often hilarious moments throughout the evening. More on that anon.
There's a really interesting drinks menu at Dishoom, including a G&T infused with Indian tea and a mojito involving cardamom and cloves. My pomegranate and sweet chilli martini was delicious, thick with tropical flavours and a perfectly judged chilli hit; I enjoyed it so much I ordered two. The house crisps too were brilliant, sprinkled with a red powder that tasted of citrus and chilli and deftly fried with no unpleasant flavour of cooking oil (take note Gauthier). It all would have made a perfect start to the meal, had I not been interrupted every ten seconds by a barrage of questions -
"Can I get you some more crisps?"
"No thanks I haven't finished these yet."
"Would you like another drink?"
"I haven't finished this one yet."
"Have you decided what you want to eat?"
"I've only just sat down!"
Even more irritating were the tiny thimble-sized glasses of tap water which required a refill every thirty seconds; after half a dozen refills my waitress (understandably perhaps) asked if I would like a jug of water on the table. This sounded like a very sensible option until I realised they wanted paying for it. "It costs a pound, and 20p goes to a water charity in India." "Where does the other 80p go?" I asked, admittedly rather sarcastically. She grinned awkwardly for a few seconds until I put her out of her misery - "I think I'll stick with tap, thanks".
Eventually, if largely just to stem the constant requests, we ordered some food - a couple of starters, a couple of items from the grill, the house black dhal and a small selection of bread. And about a minute later, it all arrived. At once. The speed was simply astonishing; anywhere less salubrious I would assume it would have been hanging around under a hot lamp but no, this was all just cooked very, very quickly to order and arrived piping hot. Impressive stuff, if a little overwhelming.
The calamari were pretty good - interesting sweet spicing, moist tender flesh and - delightfully - including the crispy tentacles as well as the more usual body meat. They were slightly too greasy for my liking but my dinner companion didn't have an issue with them so that's probably just me. The house dahl was delicious, thicker than most dahls perhaps but none the worse for that, and if the worst thing I can say about the chilli cheese toast was that it tasted like a nice bit of cheese on toast then I suppose it can't have been bad. Probably not very Indian though, I don't think.
The grilled items were tasty if not spectacular. Chicken tikka was moist and with lovely crunchy bits of char on the outside, but the spicing was a bit tame and sweet. Similarly, lamb chops were impressively charred and nicely pink and moist inside, but neither the meat or the marinade was particularly flavourful. It's impossible not to compare any South Asian lamb chops with those at Tayyabs, and although these clearly used better meat (I'm sometimes not even sure the lamb chops at Tayyabs are anything you could technically describe as lamb) I would take those scraggy-looking but powerfully spiced offerings over these any day. The bread's better at Tayyabs too, although I did quite like the Dishoom roti.
No word of a lie, by about 6:20, 20 minutes after we'd sat down, 15 minutes after we'd ordered and about 14 minutes after the food arrived, we were done. I can eat pretty quickly at the best of times (years of practice, you see) but here it was a frantic rush to taste as much as you could before it all went cold, which would have been ideal if we were off to see a play (the pre-theatre crowd could do far worse than eat at Dishoom) but as we weren't seemed a bit of a shame. Still, the food was fresh, attractive and very reasonably priced - our bill came to about £50 for two with quite a lot of food and three alcoholic drinks - and in Covent Garden that puts it head and shoulders above most anywhere else.
Cutely, and possibly in a nod to the original Bombay cafés, Dishoom bring the bill to your table in a little metal cup with a bell in the base, with the instruction to "ring the bell when you're ready to pay". I put my credit card in the cup, and looked up. From the other end of the room, a young waitress caught my eye with a terrified, rigid stare. I stared back, assuming eventually the penny would drop and she'd come over and let me pay, but no - she stayed quite still, occasionally casting darting glances around the room to the other staff, as if waiting for permission to move. Eventually, I realised the poor girl had been instructed not to do anything unless the proper procedures were followed, and once I dutifully rung the bell cup, she raced over with an expression somewhere between gratitude and relief.
In the starkest possible contrast to the place a couple of doors down, and despite the bonkers service, I left Dishoom happy. The food wasn't the best thing about my meal, but it's honest, interesting and fresh enough to stand out amongst most of the dross in the area, and is well worth the very reasonable prices they charge. Of course you can get better Indian food elsewhere, but it's still a lot better than it needs to be considering the number of hungry, clueless tourists that will wander over from Leicester Square, and anywhere better than it needs to be is good enough in my book. It's a restaurant with a character and style all of its own, with heart and energy and not a £7 guacamole in sight. I'm sure it will do very well.