The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 15, 2010


Finally, after all that noise I made about Dishoom, I went to the restaurant. It only opened three weeks ago and has already received good and bad reviews. I wanted to see what an Bombay-Irani-cafe-in-London would be like - not that I have been to a Bombay-Irani-restaurant-in-Bombay, though.

The Iranis are the younger cousins of the Parsis, I think, having arrived in India centuries after the first exodus of the Zoroastrians from Iran in the 10th century. They are as enterprising as their co-religionists, and - one hears - as laconic and dry as well. I would like to put up Nissim Ezekiel's poem, based entirely on admonitions he encountered at an Irani cafe, but it's been done before, and so I can't be asked.

This is what I saw on approach to Dishoom:

Dishoom Irani Restaurant London

It is located not far from the tourist hell-hole that's Leicester Square and Soho, not a place you'd associate with good food. Still, as the genial proprietor informed me after allowing me to sit at a table for three (though I was alone), it helps to be close to the action when people feel a bit peckish after tramping about touristily.

He insisted on an art deco interior, he added, because the Irani cafes in Bombay were established in the 30s. He pointed out the round tables, the brass fittings, the framed pictures of family (his wife's deceased father, his grandmother as a child and as a lovely young lady, and his aunts) and pictures from 1960s Femina and Illustrated Weekly of India. I perked up at the last. Where did he get those? Chor Bazar, he said. He even offered to let me take a few to photocopy, if I promised to return the originals.

Dishoom Interior Dishoom Interior

The nimbupani that arrived (once the proprietor had established that I was not in an alcoholic mood) was fizzy and lemony and altogether refreshing, although possibly expensive at £2.90. Shortly thereafter, I got a bunch of crisps - tangy and wafer-thin - with a selection of chutneys - tamarind, mint, and a strange garlicky concoction. The tamarind was rather good, sharp and soursweet with a crystal-sharp cut, the mint less so, and the strange garlicky concoction was spicy.

I must mention that homesick desis would be very pleased to have the Thums Up (refreshing cola!), which is also available here.

The waiters hustled about smiling broadly. They were a singularly friendly bunch. As I haven't been to an Irani cafe before, I wasn't really sure what to expect of the type of food available. Dishoom is not particularly innovative - everything on offer is available at pretty much any Indian restaurant. You know - kababs and tikka and that. But rumali roti is not widely available (the proprietor pointed out to me, adding that rumali roti (£1.70) and dal (£4.50) is the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers of Indian food), so I was game to try it here.

Dishoom Menu, Rumali Roti, House Dal

It wasn't half bad. The dal (despite the Guardian food critic's criticism) was very good, rich and buttery, lacking neither finesse nor depth. I polished it off in no time, and the proprietor materialised before me again.

We are striving for the 50s and 60s style, he said, including the music. (For some reason, an Atif Aslam song played soon thereafter.) You know, he said, Kabhi-Kabhi and so on. Isn't that a 70s film? I said. You are probably right, he said. What you need, I said, is jitterbug rock-and-roll from the 50s. Asha Bhonsle? he said. And Mohammed Rafi. I love Mohammed Rafi, he added, looking dreamily into the distance.

I followed his stare and realised he was non-verbally communicating with one of his staff, who hurried off to do his non-verbal bidding.

I ordered the sheekh kabab (£6.90) next, and it was very good, very tender, very juicy, and very quick to arrive at the table.

Dishoom Sheekh Kabab

Are you in the business? said the proprietor, just as I finished the last bit of the kabab. Er, I said, I work in finance? Not in the business, then, he said.

We discussed ways and means of the restaurant trade for a while as I pondered my next move.

I didn't feel like having the king prawns, so I wimped out and ordered the Dishoom chicken tikka (£6.50). I was hungry, okay?

Dishoom Chicken Tikka and Raita

While I munched on the tikka, the proprietor stopped by one last time. He said he was leaving, and that it was good to meet me. I mumbled a pleasantry and he skedaddled.

The tikka was decent, and the raita (£1.90) was passable. I think a few more pieces of green chillies in it would have added that extra bit of Dishoom that I like.

I suspect I could have had a dessert, but I was running just a tad out of notches on my belt. So I paid and I split.

If they can keep the quality and cheerfulness up, I think they'll have a good run. I'll certainly be back in the near future.Dishoom on Urbanspoon


km said...

I've spent fair bit of time in Irani cafes in Bombay. But I can't for my life remember if they ever played music. (Kabhi-Kabhi sounds just *so* wrong in that setting.)

Fëanor said...

KM, old chap, you are absolutely right. I'd go so far as to say Kabhi-kabhi in *any* restaurant setting is a no-no.

Space Bar said...

:D no irani chai, though? or samosas?

Fëanor said...

Dash it, perhaps I should have had that chai on offer. Next time!

??! said...

Ok, a few things:

1. It's too bloody clean to be an Irani cafe. Ok fine, the Health guys will be all over it and whatnot, but it's just too darn clean. Minus 50 right there.

2. Music? Music? The only sounds in an Irani cafe should be "table chaar - do kheema pau, ek custard, ek chai", and the owner's radio tuned onto Aakashvani news.

3. Chutneys?? An Irani cafe should have dodgy looking tomato ketchup (Maggi Hot & Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauch if it's an upmarket cafe (because they're different)), and nothing else.

4. There is no maska-pau on the menu dammit! The butter is the must! And the most! On the toast!

I doth protest. This is a mughlai-style cafe, most definitely not an Irani cafe.

Fëanor said...

ha! i knew this would bring out the bombay babus out of their hiding. i suspect for the guajarati dude running the place, the cafe decor is more important than the cuisine. but the general ambience is somewhat undermined by the friendly service, eh?

Rochelle's Roost said...

The very name suggests that Dishoom is catering to a tourist clientele that wants a Bollywood masala-type themed resturant in London--that and the music (Kabhi, Kabhi, for crying out loud!). I can hear "Ina Mina Diga" in my head.That might go better if it is old ombay ambience the proproietor is trying to attain.

The Irani restaurants I remember from my Bombay childhood were called 'Star of Iran' and 'Light of Persia' and 'Khayani' and 'Bastani' and 'Roshan' and 'Shiraz'--good sound Persian names. Dishoom is sacrilegious in that context!

Next the menu: I do not ever recall eating sheekh kebabs in an Irani restaurant. Their standard repertoire was slight--maska-pau, keema-roti (spicy ground lamb served in a 'broone'--the crusty Indian bun with the soft white center), akuri (scramled eggs), armlate (omlette), cakes (especially mava cake), fancy biscuits with English names (Salisbury biscuits, if I recall correctly, sort of like shortbread), chai--if you were very lucky, pudina chai.

But here is the menu that I memorized from my primary school days (scrawled on the blackboard in one of the Irani restaurants. It's a gem:

"Tea, Coffee, Cold Drinks...All Kinds fo Sweet Drinks, Ice-Cream, Cakes, Assorted Biscuits, Hot Khara Biscuits, Samosas, Patties...Always Can be Had Here."

My friend and I played a game--each one of us had to recite the above really fast--the winner was the one who finished first! OK, we were in third grade!

This Irani restaurant was on Clare Road in Byculla. Ashamed to say I forget its name.

??! said...

You're talking about 'New Moon' or 'New Lucky Moon' as it got renamed.

Fëanor said...

right, chaps. the wife has been insisting for years that we should go to mumbai, which for some reason has never interested me much. (sacrilege! blasphemy!) i'm a dilliwalla, you see. but now i'm maha-intrigued by all this irani stuff, so i'll go, by thunder.

Maddy said...

that man, was SHEER coincidence, on 14th i wrote about irani cafes in Bombay and you cover the London angle on 15th!!

??! said...

Unfortunately, half of them have shut down, a quarter have revamped themselves to be shabby chic or upmarket, and the last quarter have gently slid down the road from quaint to grimy.

That said, most of them still make some damn good bread.

Rochelle's Roost said...

Just remembered--those extraordinary biscuits, served and sold by an irani restaurant/bakery in Poona,were called Shrewsbury--ot Salisbury--bscuits.

Anyway...we, kids, felt like a million pounds when we sipped our chai at home and then dunked our Shrewsbury biscuits into our steaming cuppas.

Bombay Boomerang said...

I visited Dishoom on my Trip to London. The owners are not trying to replicate the Irani Cafe; that would be futile. Its an homage to the Irani cafes, Bade miyan, chowpathy and all things good about Bombay, before it turned into the toilet called Mumbai! They have taken pains to replicate some of the Irani Cafe look. The food was a hit and miss. The Kebabs and Biryani were good while the Pav Bhaji and Kulfi were a miss. They are open to suggestions and said that they would tweak the Pav Bhaji which was mashed up too fine. The Omelette at breakfast was tasty and the chai was fine tho milkiere than I like. They have no access to Brun pav, but the slightly burnt toast hit the spot.

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