'Dishoom' is a wonderful onomatopoeic word derived from Bollywood films and meaning the sound made 'when a hero lands a good punch, or when a bullet flies through the air'. It also, more colloquially, can mean 'mojo' or to bring it right up-to-date, 'swagger'. To say that a man has 'dishoom' is high praise indeed; to name your restaurant such displays a certain elevated confidence.
Fortunately for the three brothers behind Dishoom - 'a Bombay café in London' - it's confidence that has paid off, because this is a very good restaurant indeed, not only delivering excellent food and drink, more of which momentarily, but also fantastic decor, great service and that money-can't-buy element, buzz.
Part of the shiny St Martin's Courtyard development that is also home to a Jamie's Italian and the universally-derided 'gourmet Mexican' Cantina Laredo, Dishoom is a beautifully-designed space that aims to be an homage to, rather than a direct recreation of, the Irani cafés of Bombay which once numbered in their hundreds but are now an endangered species. There's an excellent post on Dishoom's blog about both the history of the Irani cafés and the design process, but the look is essentially one of slightly haphazard colonial grandeur combining dark wood panelling, trippy patterned floor tiles, multiple hanging lamps, ceiling fans and myriad photos of the owners' family down the generations and Bombay street scenes.
My guest for dinner was Pete Butler, the genius behind last year's phenomenally successful charity effort The Mince Pie Project. As a man who's spent time working in the kitchens of some pretty serious restaurants Pete knows far more about food and technique than I do - although that's not saying much - which in addition to his abundant charm and flair, not to mention cute dimples, made him the ideal dining companion. We cast a desultory eye over the menu before deciding that the set menu, at £27.50 for seven savoury dishes, a cocktail, dessert and chai was the way to go.
With the cocktail - a punchy chilli chocolate Martini - we enjoyed some paper-thin tangy Café Crisps, then excellent calamari in a zesty, brown-sugar-and-vinegar laced crumb. Bhel, a street food classic incorporating puffed rice and pomegranate, could have been crispier but was tasty nonetheless.
The rest of the food was all brought together to be enjoyed in whatever combination we saw fit. Chicken berry biryani was great, ample chunks of breast combined with aromatic rice and not in the least dry as biryanis can be. Even better was a Malabar Coast prawn curry; not available on the a la carte, it would have been worth ordering the set menu for this rich, sweet dish packed with huge fat prawns alone.
Accompaniments matched the curries for quality. A comforting, creamy house black daal was unrecognisable from the sometimes mealy gloop common to many Indian restaurants, and delicious scooped up with the lavishly buttery garlic naan. Even raita, a simple mix of yoghurt, cucumber and mint, felt expertly done, and delivered a blissful cool contrast to the exhilarating black-pepper-and-chilli heat of an additional order of smoky, spicy lamb chops.
Portions were huge, so we were relieved that desserts were not. Gola ice, shavings from a block of passion fruit and ginger flavoured ice, was a palate-cleansing Indian take on granita, while pistachio kulfi was a super-sweet, if not discernibly pistachioey, posh Mini Milk. The set menu also included a house chai; we upgraded to a couple of boozy variants, the aptly named 'Naughty Chai' with chocolate syrup and bourbon, and a Baileys chai with...well I'm sure you can guess.
The drinks list has as much to appeal as the menu. In addition to chais and a concise well-considered wine list, there's an imaginative, Indian-inspired selection of lassis, coolers and cocktails; purely in the name of research Pete and I worked our way through about half of them including a rum bhang lassi (bhang being an aromatic, aniseedy spice blend), a rose, lychee and raspberry Bollybellini and my favourite, a Bombay Colada featuring herbs and spices in addition to the usual pineapple and coconut. They were all great fun - increasingly so after the third, or was it fourth? - and very good value at around £6.50.
Service was brisk and super-friendly, if perhaps at times a little overly so - "So you're writing about this? So you're getting everything free? So you'll say nice things right?" was perhaps not the best introduction, but was at least well meant and certainly not grounds to not say nice things.
My only complaint about Dishoom, and it's a serious one, is that they insist on charging £1 for filtered water, from which, the menu explains, 20p is donated to Plan India to provide clean water in a Bombay slum. I've absolutely no issue with schemes like this in principle - Pizza Express's comparable 25p levy on its Veneziana pizza has raised millions of pounds over the years - but what annoyed me was the question no-one seemed able to answer, namely: what happens to the other 80p? If this is skimmed off as profit - and I don't care how fancy or expensive the filtration process is, that's still almost pure profit - the company is making four times as much money as it gives to charity, and that sucks. Charge 20p, 50p, hell even £1 if you like, but it only means anything if you're giving away 100%.
That aside, Dishoom is a stylish operation and packs as much punch as the sound effect it takes its name from. For a restaurant that is so far the only one of its kind, Pete and I agreed that the obviously extensive thought that has gone into every part of the package points to this being the template for a chain. Based on our brilliant experience, I couldn't be more pleased if branches of Dishoom were to start cropping up across London like the Irani cafés in Bombay before them.
Dishoom, 12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9FB Tel: 020 7420 9320 http://www.dishoom.com
I was invited to review Dishoom.