Does Dishoom Live Up To The Hype?
The first time I walked by Dishoom, while on holiday in the UK, I was on the fence about the name. Sure it wasn’t as lazily christened as Delhi Darbar or Taste of India, but the name appeared to me as slightly gimmicky. Of course, I had decided to judge a book by its cover. Everyone around me, though, seemed to wax poetic about its ambience, food and service. Despite that, it took me a while to make my way there for a meal because I’m not the sort to crave Indian food while away from home. On a particularly starved day I landed up at the Shoreditch branch (the other outposts are in Covent Garden and King’s Cross) for lunch and saw a snaking queue outside the restaurant. I was told that I would have to wait for at least an hour before a table for three could be considered, so I went across the street and ate a falafel roll, all the while trying not to feel sorry for myself.
Almost a year later I moved to London and realised that Dishoom had been crowned number one on Yelp’s Top 100 places To Eat in the UK survey, beating Heston Blumenthal’s Michelin-starred Dinner By Heston and last year’s winner, the greasy spoon-style Regency Café. This meant that I had to eat there, stat, hour-long wait notwithstanding (they don’t take reservations for less than six people after 6pm). On a sleety Monday night I hopped on a bus and got to Dishoom only to be told that there would be a 45-minute wait. I decided to hang out at the bar till I got my table, and was handed a cell phone-resembling buzzer that would light up and vibrate like a stressed out, anorexic version of R2D2 when my table was ready. When I looked out the window, I saw a massive Thums Up mural staring back at me, which immediately made me bust out a smile. The cocktail menu looked impressive but since it had been about six weeks from the time I had had a Kingfisher pint, I decided to singe my taste buds with a beer that would make me feel like I was back in Bombay. To my surprise, despite the absurd Forex rate, it’s priced somewhat competitively at £3.90.
Looking around, I could see what my friends had been saying about this place. It is a contemporary, stylish version of an old-school Irani café from the bylanes of Bombay – there’s soft lighting, a strict set of house rules on a wall, chipping paint, naked bricks, a railway-station weighing machine in a quiet corner and photographs of elderly family members. It was refreshing in the sense that it wasn’t ostensibly screaming ‘Bombay’, but I could see bits of the city everywhere I looked.
After about 20 minutes the buzzer started to go hysterical. My table was ready way before time. Upon being seated and glancing at the menu I knew exactly what I wanted to order: kheema pao, fried okra, dal makhani, lamb samosas, lamb biryani and kachumbar. The food came surprisingly quickly and not one of the dishes disappointed. The dal makhani felt like it was straight out of a dhaba between Delhi and Chandigarh, the lamb samosas were wrapped in thin, crisp filo pasty, and the chef did not hold back on the spice for the kheema pao.
I asked Shamil Thakrar, one of the partners of Dishoom, about the inspiration behind the restaurant. He told me that although he grew up in London, he used to visit Bombay frequently to spend time with his grandparents. “My grandmother, particularly, used to take me all over – to the markets, the shops, to Chowpatty beach,” said Thakrar, who happened to be in India when we corresponded over email. “In fact, our flat in King’s Circle was right opposite [Irani café] Koolar [& Co.],” he said. “I was also extremely bookish when I was a boy – so she used to take me to bookshops a lot too – and somehow I have a lot of memories of that. In a way, it’s all this heritage and history that we’re expressing in Dishoom.”
Radio broadcaster and DJ Nerm Chauhan lives down the road from the Shoreditch branch and says the food is a great comfort when he’s missing Mumbai. “It’s a romanticised version of Bombay, to be honest, and I always have to add more chillies to truly get that Bombay taste,” said Nerm. “Having said that, I do love the feeling that, as I walk in, I’m transported to another place and time. It feels like an amalgamation of a bunch of places I’ve been to over the years.” Unlike me, a recent immigrant who has yet to try many of London’s Indian restaurants, Nerm has lived in the city for 16 years and has “eaten all over, from now sadly defunct, tiny, family-run cafes on Brick Lane to the more elaborate Mayfair”. According to him, Dishoom scores above other places not only on account of good food and service but also its casual vibe and the owners’ very ‘Bombay’ sense of humour. There’s a gin-based cocktail called the Dhoble, named after the city’s infamous former assistant commissioner of police, who wrecked havoc with a hockey stick on Mumbai’s nightlife scene back in 2012. It’s a joke only a Mumbaikar would get.
Juhi Pande is a writer and has been collecting stories her whole life.