I will always have fond memories of Dishoom, a small cluster of cafés serving a wide range of Bombay-style cooking, from breakfast to dinner to late night drinkies. I ended up going to the soft opening of Dishoom in Shoreditch – that must have been 2012, 2013 or thereabouts – on the invitation of the boss of a friend of a friend. I don’t remember much from that evening because of four fatal words: They. Comped. The. Wine. Nevertheless, I do recall leaving happy and full, with the vague recollection that this wasn’t bog-standard Indian food, and far, far away from what I would call traditional British Indian fayre. Dishoom was a major disruptor in London’s burgeoning restaurant scene of the early 2010s. Not only was the food on a different level, it was one of the pioneers of the ‘small plate revolution’, and also one of the first names that spring to mind when people talked about restaurants not offering reservations.
It was this last sad fact that probably led me not returning to Dishoom for years. Why would I be arsed to wait outside, queuing for a table for an indeterminate amount of time, when there are so many other places to eat in the city? Time flew, and all of a sudden, I was moving to Dubai. When I returned, and The European arrived too, we made rough plans to eat there, especially as by then, their draconian reservation policy had been relaxed. Alas, getting a table with anything less than three weeks’ notice was challenging, and so we kept on booking elsewhere. In the summer of 2019, we finally got our act together, reserved a lunch table and bore the three weeks wait like Spartans. And boy was it worth it.
For me, the highlight of Dishoom is their lamb raan bun, a melt-in-the-mouth stodge job that shows that even lamb can be decent if it’s pulled then served between two soft brioche buns. The European was sold as well; she demanded that we return without delay. Sadly – and once again – the prohibitively busy Dishoom and their three-week lead time meant that The European never did get another bun, then before we knew it, the world locked down.
As we were sitting in Gloria a couple of weeks back, celebrating the return of the hospitality industry, our thoughts did indeed turn once more to Dishoom, so we decided to book online right there and then, as The European was away the following weekend and so by the time she returned, they might have a table available for us. Shoreditch did not (the earliest weekend table I could find was at the beginning of August) but Dishoom Carnaby, on Kingly Street in Soho, did.
On that day of our lunch – yesterday, at the time of writing – we skipped breakfast, donned our face masks and journeyed to Soho. Many streets in the Theatreland locale are now pedestrianised, to allow for bars, cafés and restaurants to increase their occupancy when needing to socially distance indoor tables by opening or expanding outdoor terraces. As we walked to Dishoom, every restaurant we passed was bustling with trade, and many were dealing with a queue. It was heartening to see, and noticeably busier than before. Dishoom was also turning business away, but sadly, due to space, didn’t have a very large terrace. We had hoped to be seated outside on this fabulously hot summer’s day, but alas, no. We were lead inside – thankfully through Dishoom’s darkened main room and bar area – to an anteroom brightened by skylights, scented with incense and adorned with plants and old photos of Irani cafés which were the central inspiration of Dishoom’s founders (for more information about Irani cafés, check out Dishoom’s website)
We ordered a couple of beers (the house pale ale and a cloudy, gorgeous Road Soda New England IPA) and looked through the menu. There was no lamb raan bun. Our hungry hearts sank. The waitress explained that the bun is exclusive to Shoreditch. I got out my phone and reserved a table at Shoreditch for something like mid-August and went back to the menu.
To be honest, even in the absence of the lamb raan, it’s very hard to eat badly at Dishoom. Not only this, but the group boasts one of the strongest vegetarian offering in town. The house black daal – cooked for twenty-four hours – is rich, smoky and pretty much a meal in itself. Mattar paneer – sadly superior to our favourite at Lane Kitchen – is both pungent and sweet, with that perfect level of spice that lingers but doesn’t dominate, the softened paneer absorbing the flavours masterfully. We also ordered a platter of chole puri – puffed puri breads served with a spiced chickpea curry and crumbly, sweet halwa – and quickly realised that all this was going to be too much food. A couple of Dishoom’s wafer-thin naans were used to mop up all the bounteous sauces. Nowhere – NOWHERE – does sauces as well as Dishoom.
Despite all the wonderful meat-free eating going on, the standout dish for both The European and I was a starter of chilli-fried chicken, smothered in a garlic, ginger and soy-based sauce. The dish is a nod to how many Irani cafés – always having catered to the widest range of patrons from students to aristocracy – include far-eastern influences on their menus these days alongside everything else.
Dishoom carries through this Irani ethos – of simplicity, humbleness and accessibility – all the way through every experience I have had in their restaurants, with the exception of being able to simply get through their doors in the first place. All is forgiven upon tasting their food. When we visited the Shoreditch branch last year, all the memories of my first drunken Dishoom visit came flooding back, and our lunch yesterday affirmed that these rough and ready cafés are some of my favourite places to eat in the city, even when you consider the abject nightmare of getting a table. And to be honest, seeing packed restaurants in the Coronavirus Era is reassuringly comforting; like a sign that things are returning to normal. Plenty more reservation nightmares to come!
Dishoom has eight locations all over the U.K. Dishoom Carnaby is located on Kingly Street in Soho. Two rounds of beers, the curry, the daal, the puri, the chicken, the naan breads and some corn came – with service charge included – to just under £eighty.
- Comfort factor: 7/10
- Returnability factor: 9/10
- Taste factor: 10/10
- Lack of screaming kid factor: 7/10
- Wow factor: 8/10