May, June & Nov 2021: Balham Social - Insta-nt hit
In January 2022 this blog celebrates its 10 year anniversary. That's a long time and a lot of curry. However, there was a brief spell around 2016 where I neglected to write up reviews for a number of new restaurants I'd visited, including several in the South West and indeed Balham. And so it is that I've been equally lazy with reviewing Balham Social. As a new addition to Balham after lockdown, and the first meal I had out after, there really is no excuse. So I won't make one. However, since then I've visited twice more, meaning I have tasted pretty much half the menu and am far more equipped to review it now. In fact, this may well be our most comprehensive review so far.
For the record this review is based on the following three visits:
11 November with my cousin Mike
The latter two visits were regulation, but the first was tinged with a post-lockdown, new opening excitement. We booked well in advance to eat outside in the unseasonably cold May weather - it was the stuff pandemic dreams were made of. After an initial over-booking mix-up that was assuaged by some complimentary beers we got a roadside table with legs nearly in the adjacent Cycle Superhighway 7. After more grumbling (I'd already agreed to move my booking earlier in the day), and more free beers, we finally got a table by a heater for the start of our meal. What followed was a great meal and, based on two further visits, you can assume I was happy to return so read on to find out why.
Balham Social arose like a phoenix out of the ashes of the great Covid-19 pandemic restaurant closure. Opening a new restaurant at that time may have seemed bold, but they clearly knew what they were doing - tapping into a new generation of eateries that break from the traditional British curry house. This new style is reflected in a small plates-style menu complete with cocktails and an interior fit for the Instagram generation. Complete with all the glitz of pastel colours, mirrorred walls, ornate glass lampshades, and a floral forest on the ceiling this is the Kardashian of the south west London curry scene. It won't be to everyone's taste, but certainly feels different. Even the name is a little edgy. The pièce de résistance though is a pair of swings that form the chairs around one showpiece table; there is certainly no question the interior designer was treating this place as a playground. Whilst not exactly my cup of tea it certainly sets Balham Social apart, not just geographically, from it's Tooting rivals. Found on the south side of the Balham railway bridge you could easily miss Balham Social, but there's no doubt you'll remember a visit when you do find it.
Starters and sides
Dahi Sev Puri
Hara Bhara Kebab
Garlic and Chilli Prawns
Malai Chicken Tikka
Having sampled nearly all the small plates here I can safely say they're excellent. The range of options is most welcome with a wide variety of vegetarian, seafood and meat choices.
Where do I start? The social bhel, sev puri, chana chaat, allo tikki and samosa chaat seem a good place as any and generally fall into the same category of traditional Indian snacks. The social bhel is their take on bhel puri and lives up to billing while the sev puri will be increasingly familiar to many due to their near ubiquity in modern Indian diners. Hollow crispy shells filled with an assortment of yoghurt and chutney flavours that are like mini savoury shots, these are a nice opener, particularly for any groups. Similarly accompanied by a blend of creamy yoghurt, sour tamarind, spicy chilli, cooling mint and crunchy onion and sev were the two chaat and aloo tikki dishes. All variations on a theme but with different chickpea, potato or samosa centres these are also delicious starters and also ideal for sharing.
The two prawn options each offered something different. The succulent Chettinad prawns came served with a nice savoy cabbage and mustard seed edge while the garlic and chilli prawns were really delicious with a thick glazing sauce filled with - you guessed it - garlic and chilli. Less exciting were the kadai wings (not my choice) served on a rocket and onion garnish, but the malai chicken tikka was perfectly cooked with a depth of heat and a grilled flavour oozing slowly out of it.
The third chicken dish, the chicken kempu, looked deceivingly like simple fried chicken bits or chicken 65 (for those familiar), but was a cut above with an amazingly light, but firey coating. The chicken was complemented with pickled samphire - a nice touch but not all were completely cooked and some had a slightly twiggy texture. Better was the paneer tikka, grilled to soft and smokey perfection for a melt-in-the-mouth experience akin to the best found at Booma or Hyderabadi Zaiqa.
Finally the hara bhara kebab and the naan. The former, four vegetarian kebab croquettes made from spinach, potatoes and green peas, wasn't too notable, but the naans were beautifully delicate and sweet, somehow retaining their heat and flavour even after a while.
All told, the quality and range of starters and sides here is top draw and not to be missed. Scoring highly, it's 9/10.
Pan Seared Sea Bass
Bhindi Toss Okra
Social Chicken Curry
You could be forgiven for skipping mains here and sticking with a selection of small plates, but of course we had to oblige. Again, the choice is commendable and a break from the endless lists of curry derivatives found elsewhere. Most eye-catching was the pan seared sea bass, a beautiful piece of fish with a crisp skin, amidst a creamy bowlful of peppery curry sauce and broccoli stems. So good, it was difficult not to pick up and drink the bowl of leftover sauce which proved a lovely dip for the naans instead.
Also impressive was the laal maas, a bold and spicy Rajasthani lamb curry similar to a madras, with superbly tender meat within its tomato-ey depths. The signature, social chicken curry was more prosaic, but a safer bet for those with a lower spice tolerance.
In addition to the curries we tried the lamb nihari and two vegetarian mains. The nihari, a slow-cooked lamb shank, fell off the bone on cue and the accompanying rice caused Pete to exclaim 'you know it's good when even the rice is doing bits!'. The bhindi toss okra was also memorable - a blended fry of onion and perfectly cooked lady finger, whilst the tarka daal was also solid, despite being in the runnier style that I prefer less.
Another good showing, it's 8/10 for Curry.
As mentioned, our first visit was fraught with confusion as our hosts tried to deal with the difficult circumstances of being open but only for outside dining. For this we could forgive the inconvenience of waiting and being moved about. I say we, but Spellins did his best to be rude in his typical, inimitable way. Fortunately, our host Naveem(?) was not intimidated and did all he could to make up for our troubles. Free beers, complimentary chicken tikka, and a personal apology from the chef all but banished our earlier dissatisfaction.
Service in subsequent visits has also been a bit of a mélange. Trainee waiters and new managers suggest the handing over of responsibilities from the bosses present in the early days to their subordinates, with mixed results.
Not usually one to complain about the service, I did raise an eyebrow at the pink hoodies the staff were wearing on my third visit and Mike was not impressed by the rehashed club classics filling the airwaves. Both are a reflection of the slightly more youthful feel Balham Social is going for, but not necessarily to the taste of the longer in the tooth.
More satisfactory is the cocktail menu, particularly the old fashioned served complete with bell jar filled with smoke. Another one for the Tik Tokkers and Instagram reelers, but this time one even I could get on board with.
Value for money
As with any small plates menu, costs can mount up and in isolation the prices are a touch higher than further down the road in Tooting. However, the overall quality of the food, the stylish surrounds, and the choice on offer makes the overall experience here good value for money.
The most expensive seafood dishes get up to £15 but curries can be found for a reasonable £8 and sizeable small plates for £6. Being licensed also means costs for alcohol, but the beers and cocktails on offer are decent. Probably best to come as a group to maximise economies of scale, but otherwise Balham Social won't leave you any more out of pocket than any other local restaurant.
In summary, this is a very welcome addition to the Balham food scene. Whilst neighbouring Indian Room ticks all the boxes for a traditional British curry house, other local joints like Gurkhas and Thali and Pickles fail to excite. Balham Social not only stands apart from these, but also offers something not yet available in the busy Tooting scene.
As my three visits attest to, the food is highly recommended and the overall dining experience is likely to impress those less enthused by the hustle and bustle of more-canteen style diners further south.
I can't recommend Balham Social enough, and have been eulogizing about it since my first trip back in May. So make sure you pay a visit and try it for yourself.
Click here to read our review of Indian Room, Balham
Address: 2, Station Parade, Balham High Rd, London SW12 9AZ
Alcohol Policy: Licensed
Summary: High quality Indian small plates in a SW setting for the Instagram generation