Dishoom's intentions are clear.
Having found this place online on Sunday night, I had little idea what it was going to be like as I walked in on Tuesday and having never visited Bombay, I had little idea how authentic their claim to being a Bombay café was. And so, armed with nothing but a taxi fare and vague idea of where Dishoom actually was, I set out of the hotel and did battle with London's night. On arrival, I was immediately reminded that India used to be a British colony: this influence led to the patrons of this particular Indian establishment queuing almost out the door. It was Tuesday night. Surely this had to be good.
The Indian is also renowned as being industrious and hospitable. The front-of-house response to the 15 minute wait was to dispatch us all downstairs to the bar with a pager that would call us up to a clear table. If that's the kind of solution India has to a crisis then they can become a world superpower and I'll back them all the way. However, this solution ignored the very busy bar downstairs, the empty tables that were held for what felt like ages and the curious drinks menu. Mixing ginger, grenadine, 'candied fennel sprinkles' and coconut milk isn't a Bhang Lassi, it's an exercise in lunacy. And, if you order it with rum, a waste of good rum. Too sweet, too milky and although not vile, not worth £3.50. The Nimbu Pani (a salted lemon soda) 'to quench the thirst' and a Kingfisher (my go-to in Indians) saved the bar in my eyes, as did a specially commissioned IPA, dedicated and tempting Chai menu, wines advertised in glass/carafe/bottle form and the description of what we know as a Coke Float. 'A nostalgic and playful drink, for the eternal child: Bombay's cola fizzes with vanilla ice cream.' Not sure how Indian or even Persian that is, but the description is the charming anachronism you get on Dishoom's menu, and dishoom for actually putting something like that on the menu in the first place.
'Food will be dishoomed to your table as it is prepared.' Stated on the menu and sold more by the friendly, engaging and courteous waiter, I wanted much dishooming to go on. Specifically, given the proportion of the menu that really needed trying, now, whether Dishoom delivered. Or even better, rented out booths to sleep in until you had covered the menu in a series of elegant sufficiencies. A chicken (pulled Murgh Malai) and pomegranate salad, Dishoom chicken tikka roti roll, lamb samosas, pau bhaji (Simon Majumdar backing up the statement 'no food is more Bombay' on the menu), a Dishoom slaw featuring cucumber, onion, cabbage and herbs, the chicken Ruby Murray, raita, a few naans both classic and garlicked, both with much butter, and some roti later, I watched the chefs go about naan-ing and roti-ing on the tandoor and tawa. Not quite the spectacle of an Italian throwing pizza crust, but the bravery of plunging a bare arm into a tandoor has to be admired. Nobody was burnt.
The pau bhaji arrived first, a bowl of vegetables garnished with a little diced red onion and accompanied with a large pau bun. Deep, hearty, satisfying, spicy and excellent with mint chutney (with Indian food, one can never miss the chutneys) it set me up perfectly for what was still to come. The salad was moist, well-spiced and from the look of the veg it was either dressed or tossed to order. The chicken was more finely shredded than pulled, but it was warm enough to satisfy without wilting the veg and ate well with a garlic naan. Rotis and raita calmed the palate before the musky, dark lamb samosas arrived. Fine, but no fireworks. There wasn't the tumeric and cumin explosion of the more familiar veg-based samosas, and the filo wasn't quite as crisp as it could've been. Spices were there but muted and the whole thing, weirdly, lacked heat. Not bad, but a bit flat. Others seemed to go for them though, so this could've been me trying and loving the pau bhaji first. The Chicken Ruby was probably going to be more familiar than anything else: it was a dark, tangy, spicy, fragrant beast, indeed one could 'mop it up very nicely with a Roomali Roti' and leave it at that. Chasing the last flecks of sauce around the bowl with a classic naan, this was something new. I'm normally fairly adventurous in curry terms - I take great pride in being the lonkapiaza or methi gosth in a sea of chicken kormas. This Ruby was well up there, equalling the best Indians I've ever had (one is a positively rough-looking takeaway in Plymouth, another a fantastic eat-in place in a small, Middle England market town and the last a big restaurant in Quimper, Brittany. Weird or what?)
Desserts took the form of fresh mint tea and a taxi back to the hotel. So, £70.06 worse off between three of us, a new idea in Indian cuisine of the small plate and a reaffirmed appreciation of where fennel should and should not go, I left Dishoom satisfied. Yes, looking back at it away from the atmosphere it looks like a very good 'creative ideas brotherhood' type group has come up with the menu description, image and feel, but the point was it worked there. It's like those last-minute holidays you book and know next to nothing about, you arrive, have a few drinks and start to like it. Despite the corporate fakery and the pyramid in the kids' water park obviously being made of polystyrene, it makes you happy and gives you memories to come back to. That's Dishoom - corporate and probably contrived, but it doesn't matter. I didn't care much about the history of the Bombay café, the weird drinks or the 17 mirrors in the Gents' when confronted with pau bhaji. It was all about feel, and Dishoom felt, well, pretty dishoom.
One more thing: it was only when we left that we realised getting there could've been a whole lot easier. Just ask your cab to take you to Stringfellow's - it's literally next door.