Dishoom in Covent Garden: “After a decade of service, this Bombay-style cafe still lives up to the hype”
If you haven’t discovered Dishoom yet, I’m almost impressed. This Indian restaurant, inspired by the Irani cafés of Bombay, has earnt a special place in the hearts of Londoners, offering an enticing escape from the bustle of the streets and gradually expanding its embrace across the capital (as well as the country). The central branches acquired queues as a permanent feature long ago, and as we arrive at the original curry house in Covent Garden, it’s clear to see that Covid has made no dent in their loyal fanbase. But why do people line up in their droves despite being surrounded by alternative food options? Well, because it’s worth the wait.
While this St Martin’s Lane spot is where it all started – the small chain has since set up sister venues in Carnaby, Kings Cross, Kensington and Shoreditch as well as Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh – the oldest joint is now looking fresh-faced thanks to a makeover marking its 10th anniversary. The new design pays homage to the magic of cinema, inspired by Bomaby’s evolution from Parsi theatre to silent movies and eventually groundbreaking talkies. Beautiful blown glass lights, ornate wooden dividers and black and white photos pay tribute to this glamourous bygone era, while a terrace offers a breath of interval air.
The most striking feature in the room is the backlit bar, its blue glow drawing the eye like a screen, providing the perfect backdrop for a pre-meal drink. However, we order our cocktails straight to the table, sticking with a pair of recommended classics, the East India Gimlet, citric and sassy, and a more softly spoken Viceroy’s Old Fashioned. Equally tempting are a series of Covent Garden specials such as the smokey Jasmin’s Fancy and the sparkling Ruby Royale. Alas, we can’t try them all, but it’s all the more reason to return.
The food menu seems even better than in clouded, pre-pandemic memories. The selection starts with “small plates” (this sizing appears to be based on a big appetite, which is perfect for us). We opt for the Pau Bhagi – a couple of shiny, soft brioche buns accompanied by a fragrant bowl of mashed vegetables, which combine to make a stunner of a sandwich – before tucking into a portion of Prawn Kaoliwada, the crisp morsels amped up by fresh coriander chutney.
Given that even the starter-style dishes are the size of mains, it’s unsurprising that the feast that follows is almost big enough to fill you up without picking up a fork. We order two of the signature curries, the impossibly rich, slow-cooked House Black Daal, a personal favourite, and the trademark Chicken Ruby, comprising tender pieces of meat beneath a velvet blanket of tomato sauce. Alongside these we sample two dishes which are new to us. The first is a Paneer Pineapple Tikka that reinvents a classic cocktail-party combo, the charred cheese finding perfect harmony with the sweet fruit. The second is the Covent Garden special: Yila Foi’s Very Best Masala Fish. Two fillets of seabream are marinated in ginger-garlic, black pepper, lime juice, carom seeds and reed chilli and griddled in a banana leaf until the flesh falls apart. It’s a delightful dish that is well paired with creamy coconut chaas. All this is mopped up with a handkerchief-thin Roomali Roti and a buttery cheese naan. To cool off, we recommend either a bowl of raita or even better, a smooth mango lassi topped with crunchy fennel seeds.
“I’m going to explode,” says the man in front of us as he exits the restaurant. We know the feeling. But somehow with food like this the only thing that can stop you is the physical limitation of your waistband. The team at Dishoom no signs of letting up, and after a decade of service, this Bombay- style café still lives up to the hype.
Photos: Azhul Mohamed
To book a table at Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martin’s Lane London WC2H 9FB, call 020 7420 9320 or visit their website here.