January 27, 2015
GOING OUT: DISHOOM AT KINGS CROSS
What might have happened if a young Irani had set up a café in a Godown (warehouse) behind Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, C. 1928?” This is the question that the Dishoom team asked themselves as a starting point for their latest, and arguably most impressive, venture.
Over the past few years King’s Cross has undergone a radical transformation and is still in the process of becoming what the city intends. Dishoom was approached by Argent – the company in charge of the area’s regeneration – along with a group of other potential residents to pitch for the impressive plot; the Western Transit Shed which used to stable the horses that pulled the canal boats. Over a long process the restaurant battled for their place, and finally won the opportunity to take their unique, and so far successful, concept to the next level. King’s Cross Dishoom is not just a restaurant but a very special new shared space in one of the world’s busiest cities.
The first Dishoom opened in Covent Garden a few years ago, on the one hand seeking to challenge our expectations of Indian fare and on the other to champion the fading institution of Bombay’s Irani Cafe’s. Originally pioneered by Persian immigrants coming to India in the early 19th century, these cafes became extremely popular. In a country were social status was, and still is, keenly felt the Irani Cafe’s were a place where these social hierarchies could be flattened and those from lower income backgrounds had their first experience of eating out. But as India and its inhabitants have sought to become more modern, the tradition of Irani Cafes has faded and there are now no more than around 25 left in the country.
Talking to Kavi and Shamil Thakrar, the cousins behind Dishoom, they want to transpose not only the look and feel of these Irani Cafes but also the essence of inclusion that they pioneered. Despite the much grander setting in Kings Cross, customers are still able to enjoy endless cups of Chai for the small sum of £2.50, and the menu in general provides options for both extravagant and everyday dining. In fact the larger setting means there are more varied spaces within the restaurant in general. Staff aren’t trying to push you out the door, making this a great place for everything from business meetings to lazy brunch. It feels like a comfortable microcosm, easily transporting guests from the cold British streets into the warmth of Bombay.
Though of course incorporating the DNA of its previous venues, for fairly obvious reasons the latest site takes particular inspiration from train stations. They looked at the connections between London and Mumbai and particularly the close parallels between the Victoria Terminus and St. Pancras, both of which are built in the same high-Gothic style. The cousins travelled to Mumbai various times over the past year to source much of the furniture (around 100 pieces), images and decoration and to look into historical archives. They are unashamedly geeky about their source material, a fact which no doubt fuels the unbelievable attention to detail at Dishoom. Everywhere you look are pieces of interest and the staff is well-versed in case customers wish to know more about their surroundings. Benches on the ground floor are based on seats used to watch billiards at the Ripon Club in Mumbai; surrounding the family table are images taken by India’s first female photojournalist, arranged chronologically to tell the story of the independence movement; there is even an authentic sugar cane press. It’s a very difficult thing to capture the feeling of a time and place while avoiding pastiche and many places in London are able to emulate the look of a certain era or country but the sentiment is hollow. In the case os Dishoom, the team’s passion and pure delight in their work is what manages to make it authentic.
Downstairs you will find the Permit Room, so called for the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which restricted the sale of alcohol to those with a medical permit. Here you can enjoy head bartender Carl Brown’s (winner of a Young British Foodie award this year) carefully crafted cocktail menu, the stars of which have to be those served in their own little bottles, or ‘by the peg’ – these are bottle or cask-aged Old-Fashioned style drinks. Choosing either a Chota peg (100ml) or a Burra peg (200ml) customers serve themselves and the taste of the drink mellows as the hand-chipped ice melts in the drink. We recommend the Tanchoi Fix, given a bit more edge by a dash of Szechuan pepper. If these don’t appeal there is an extensive list of cocktails to choose from including lists of Sours, Juleps, Smashes, Martinis and much more. Beer drinkers can enjoy Dishoom’s own IPA, made especially for them by London Fields Brewery. A comprehensive wine list and multiple options for those who don’t want alcohol complete the list of libations.
Food options are in keeping with Dishoom’s previous venues; a mix of Irani Cafe classics like Keema pau or chicken biryani and dishes from other parts of Bombay. The Godown’s chef special is the Nalli Nihari, a potent lamb stew known for its fortifying properties. The dish is served with sesame-onion-seed naan and the optional addition of bheja, or lamb’s brain. Though many might feel squeamish at the thought, we urge you to try it. Mixed into the dish the brains melt in your mouth and do indeed add a certain amount of depth to the already heartily delicious dish. Make sure you leave room for dessert, the guji chocolate mousse is particularly decadent.
But ultimately Dishoom is about much more than delicious food. The team have elevated their restaurant concept by focusing on heritage and memory, capturing the past and translating it for a modern city setting. It is a transportive labour of love.
Dishoom King’s Cross, 5 Stable Street, London N1C 4AB. Find out more on their website: dishoom.com/kings-cross