Having arrived in London in July, Dishoom is a self-styled 21st century recreation of Bombay's iconic cafés. Scratch beneath the stylised surface and there's plenty to back this up, says Tom Vaughan.
It may look like the kind of glitzy café you'd expect in London's theatreland, but Dishoom has travelled a long way to arrive in Covent Garden. The brainchild of two brothers and a cousin - Shamil Thakrar, Amar Radia and Adarsh Radia - and a collaboration with consultancy the Gorgeous Group, the new, egalitarian Indian restaurant is designed as an homage to the classic Bombay café.
It's a solid idea. The eateries, and the food they serve, are a dying breed in the city, down from 300 in their heyday of the 1950s, to about 50 now. Started in the 1920s by Iranian immigrants, they were intended to please the country's colonial masters. Marble tables, mirrors and fans featured heavily in the interiors, as an image of Britain's grandeur became the major influence.
The idea was to introduce to London the alternative culinary heritage that stemmed from these cafés. "Indian restaurants in the UK have a very specific tradition that has continued to evolve," says Thakrar. "It's an awesome tradition, but we're not part of it." British interpretation of Indian cuisine has classically been influenced by the culinary legacy of the Mughal Empire, with courtly spices such as saffron and cloves playing heavily in the cooking. "Our food is much more the food of the people," Thakrar adds. "The flavour profile - ginger, lime, cumin, coriander - is what would be used by the common man."
What has arrived in London is a modern recreation of these Bombay cafés. On the one hand, details in the decor are lovingly recreated - the marble tabletops, hanging fans, sepia portraits, even the tongue-in-cheek list of restaurant rules by the entrance. On the other, there's a lot that is very 21st century. The raw-filament hanging bulbs, secluded booths and wooden panelling all - however inadvertently - bring to mind the interiors of last year's trumpeted Soho opening Polpo.
The menu - which runs from 8am to 11pm - is the product of years of research. "We must have sat in all the cafés left in Bombay. It became exhaustive," says Thakrar. The result is dishes that only Bombay café aficionados might recognise for their esotericism.
The sheikh kebab (£6.90) - a spicy bowl of minced lamb served with white buns - is recreated from a small eatery called Badmiya behind the Taj Hotel in Bombay. The spicy lamb chops (£9.70 for three), which arrive charred from their yoghurt marinade but pink and tender inside, are influenced by the same place.
Much of the menu is designed to share. Among the list of small dishes, pau bhaji (£3.90) reflects the dedication to working man's food. Created in Bombay from mashed-up vegetables from the previous day served with bread, it is proper Indian builders' food, says Thakrar. Indian comfort food runs through the menu, from the shorba - spicy bowls of broth (tomato, £3.50; chicken, £3.90) - through to the chilli cheese toast with spring onions (£2.90), which got a kicking from critics for its supposed lack of authenticity but which is what millions of Indians snack on, says Thakrar. Two daily curries, listed as Ruby Murrays (£7.90), appease the balti lovers, while chicken berry biryani (£7.50) is a take on the Britannia café's berry pulao.
For dessert, the likes of chocolate fondant (£4.90) and seasonal crumble (£4.90) satisfy the less adventurous, while items such as gola ice (£1.90) pay their respects to India. Popular in places such as Chowpatty Beach, the dessert constitutes shaved ice with syrup; at Dishoom coming in either passion fruit and ginger, or pomegranate and chilli flavour.
There is also a café-inspired breakfast and lunch. While a Bombay day might be started by toast, a masala omelette (£4.90) and a glass of chai tea (£1.90), the kitchen has supplemented this with the likes of a show-stopping naan bacon roll with chilli jam (£4.90).
"It can be culturally hard to transport a breakfast to Britain," says Thakrar. "At the same time as you want to pay homage you also want to innovate. We tried to think what a Bombay café would serve if it was in London."
Despite all the history and heritage behind the concept, none of it means a thing unless the dining public take to it. And take to it they have; in swathes. The Covent Garden footfall helps but, with prompt, friendly service and an everyman approach to dining, you can't help but get the feeling that this is being prepped for a roll-out.
"It's something to think about in due course," says Thakrar. "But for now we want to concentrate on getting everything right here and communicating what we're about."
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
â- Lamb samosas, £3.90
â- Bombay sausages, £4.20
â- Dishoom calamari, £4.50
â- House black daal, £4.50
â- Dill salmon tikka, £8.50
â- Grilled masala prawns, £8.90
â- Fresh mango and vanilla yoghurt, £4.90
â- Chocolate, mint or pistachio kulfi on a stick, £2.50
http://www.dishoom.com" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Dishoom
12 Upper St Martin's Lane
London WC2H 9FB
Tel: 020 7420 9320